Interoceanic Highway: Story of Development and Biodiversity Cost

By Farah Carrasco-Rueda

Highways constitute important drivers for moving the economy of a region. The Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios, Peru, is an example of road development in the Amazonia that combines national and international interest as well as a clear focus on pursuing economic growth, a priority for developing countries. At the same time, there is a negative component associated with the construction and development of highways: the impact on the existing biodiversity of the region.

Figure 1: Tamandua tetradactyla on the highway

The highway is one of the most important infrastructure projects undertaken in the south of Peru. The Interoceanic Highway story began in the mid 1960s as part of the plan ‘‘to conquer, occupy and exploit the Amazon’’ by President Belaunde1. The idea was conceived of constructing a road to connect the Puerto Maldonado capital of Madre de Dios with the highlands. Almost a decade later, Peru and Brazil signed an agreement to construct the Interoceanic Highway to connect both countries. Between 2005 and 2010, the Interoceanic Highway paving proceeded in Madre de Dios under the Initiative of Integration and Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA).

However, other than development, highways bring multiple effects. We acknowledge that the area where the Interoceanic Highway was constructed is one of the most biodiverse regions in the country, crossing hundreds of kilometers of forest2,3. One visible effect of the highway’s impact is the wildlife road kills that I personally had the infortune to witness. While traveling on the road looking for study sites or commuting from one study site to the other, I saw several animals that were run over by cars. Some of the species I never saw when walking in the forest during the six months of my fieldwork.

Figure 2. Papaya plantation had flourish in the Interoceanic highway influence area.

Highways also have large-scale effects, accelerating land use change by opening the access to areas that were previously impossible to reach4. Large extensions of land have been cleared specifically to establish pasture and agriculture, as well as facilitating the expansion of illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios department.

Highways are instruments for reaching development, but unfortunately, they also become one of the first deforestation drivers in areas as the Peruvian Amazon. There exist many road and highway proposals by the Peruvian government as well as bordering countries for the sole purpose of economic and social benefits that are considered key for the development of the country. Nevertheless, we as society need to reconsider if highways are actually the best way to achieve the goals they are supposed to accomplish. Their possible negative effects might be countered or at least reduced with adequate planning, avoiding sensitive areas, and monitoring their negative impact.


  1. Dourojeanni, Marc, Barandiarán, Alberto & Dourojeanni, D. (2010) Amazonía Peruana en 2021. Explotación de recursos naturales e infraestructura: ¿Qué está pasando? ¿Qué es lo que significa para el futuro? 2° Edición. DAR, SPDA, Pronaturaleza, Lima, Perú.
  2. Naughton-Treves L (2004) Deforestation and carbon emissions at tropical frontiers: A case study from the Peruvian Amazon. World Development 32: 173-190.
  3. Perz SG, Qiu Y, Xia Y, Southworth J, Sun J, Marsik M, Rocha K, Passos V, Rojas D, Alarcon G, Barnes G, Baraloto C (2013) Trans-boundary infrastructure and land cover change: Highway paving and community-level deforestation in a tri-national frontier in the Amazon. Land Use Policy 34: 27-41.
  4. Southworth J, Marsik M, Qiu Y, Perz S, Cumming G, Stevens F, Rocha K, Duchelle A, Barnes G (2011) Roads as Drivers of Change: Trajectories across the Tri-National Frontier in MAP, the Southwestern Amazon. Remote Sensing 3: 1047-1066.