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New Transoceanic Highway Through the Amazon

By Paige, Nicaragua, June 2011

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In the works for almost 40 years, the Transoceanica will soon be completed, winding 5,500km (3,400mi), like a paved river, from the Brazilian Atlantic to the Peruvian Pacific. With a single bridge left to complete, this long-anticipated highway will shrink trips that once took days down to hours.

The project wasn’t designed with tourism in mind; the goal was to connect three Pacific Peruvian ports—San Juan de Marcona, Matarani, and Ilo—to Rio de Janeiro and Santos, Brazil, via the Andes and Amazon. The Transoceanica will also provide trucking links the gold-mining region around Puerto Maldonado and dams being built on the the Madeira River.

As scenic as the route is, the Transoceanica was designed to increase trade between Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and China.  Investors say that it will “facilitate transport of Brazilian goods to the Pacific coast (and Asian markets) as well as the transport of Asian products to the Atlantic coast (and US, European and Brazilian markets)”.

Much of what will soon be called the Transoceanica was already paved prior to construction, particularly along each nation’s well-developed coast. A dirt track passable primarily during dry season, however, was the sole road between them. This steep and scenic stretch across the Amazon and Andes has cost millions to develop since the project began in earnest in 2005. Already, however, the Transoceanica has helped improve the Peruvian road system, while providing access to other seriously scenic spots that were once off limits to regular cars.

It is an engineering marvel. The Transoceanica skips above the well watered Amazon Basin thanks to 22 new bridges; a span across Madre de Dios River at Puerto Maldonado, Peru, is 722 meters (almost half a mile) across. The highest part of the freeway crosses the Andean continental divide just an hour from Cuzco and Machu Picchu. The pass tops 4,850 meters (15,908 feet), where the almost constant mists render the road dangerous most of the year.

Both nations are struggling with the battle between development and conservation. While scientists stress the importance of maintaining the Amazon’s ecological integrity, Brazil is also the fastest-growing economy in the hemisphere. It must extract increasing amounts of resources and electricity to continue apace.

Thus, tourism offers the opportunity for local communities intent on preserving the rainforest a chance to justify their decision using profits. For instance, Acre State, Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon, has pledged to leave 45% of its land pristine, with only hiking trails crisscrossing the jungle. That’s fine for now, but as appetites for biofuels, soy, lumber, and beef grow, using this land profitably will become more of a temptation. Ecotourists may make all the difference.

Photo courtesy of South American Pictures

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