BHP Team

“To what extent has the Modern Revolution been a positive or a negative force?” is the driving question for Unit 9. The Interoceanic Highway provides an excellent opportunity to examine both the good and bad aspects of interconnection today. As we learn more about its impact, this road leads to important questions about how to balance growth and conservation.

In 2000, leaders from twelve South American countries met and agreed that it was a priority to complete the Interoceanic Highway, which would connect the east and west coasts of South America. Like the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, the Interoceanic Highway would enable goods and people to move easily between Atlantic and Pacific ports. This would be particularly true for Brazil, where the new highway would offer the ability to bypass the Panama Canal, which would save millions in shipping costs each year. As a result, Brazil provided most of the $2.8 billion for the project.

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The Interoceanic Highway opened in 2012. Even before construction began, many voiced concern about the risks of exposing a largely undisturbed section of the Amazon. Many unanticipated problems arose as well. One such issue was illegal mining in the Madre de Dios region. With the new road and high gold prices, large numbers of new miners have come to the area. They strip the riverbanks and hillsides looking for gold ore. To get pure gold from these nuggets, the miners mix the ore with mercury, and then burn off the mercury from the resulting mixture. The mercury that falls into the river is toxic and has led to a public health crisis in the region. At the same time, the once sleepy towns of the area are now crowded. The rapid growth of many of these towns has led to issues with crime and poverty. As the government has struggled to keep up with these issues, conflicts with miners and their families have resulted.

An older indigenous couple shop at Plaza Vea, the first large grocery and department store in Juliaca, Peru. With the completion of the Interoceanic Highway, newer and larger businesses are beginning to move into communities where previously only small business owners were the norm. ©Roberto (Bear) Guerra/Global Oneness Project.

The Interoceanic Highway also created a new route for migrants. In 2010, a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti. It destroyed the country’s infrastructure and left many without work. Word began to spread that Brazil was a haven for migrants, and soon Haitians began trying to make their way there.. The Interoceanic Highway created a new pathway, one that many thought might be easier than traveling through airports or the seaports of eastern Brazil.

The Interoceanic Highway exposed villages and families that had been isolated in the Amazon for generations to the modern world. For some, this brings opportunity. For others, this means the loss of a way of life. Modern supermarkets and gas stations in once sleepy towns are a sharp contrast from even 20 years ago. Many in these once isolated areas have been promised that with the road will come tourists, which will allow new businesses focused on eco-tourism to flourish. Some small towns have been preserved as destinations for cultural tourists, who can visit them to see what life was like before the highway was completed. Neither all good, nor all bad. The Interoceanic Highway begs the question, to what extent has the Modern Revolution been a positive or a negative force?

Explore further with students in the BHP course activity Impacts of Interconnection, adapted from the Global Oneness Project’s lesson plan Highways and Change.

Cover image: A view of the Interoceanic Highway as the road ascends into the Andes Mountains from Peru’s Pacific Coast near San Juan de Marcona. ©Roberto (Bear) Guerra/Global Oneness Project.

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