The bully from Brazil

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky – Foreign Policy, 07/20/2012

ISIBORO SÉCURE NATIONAL PARK AND INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Bolivia — Delmi Morales Nosa never imagined she’d need her family’s bow and arrow for anything other than hunting. But when construction started last yearon a highway set to bisect her homeland, Bolivia’s second-largest national park (known here as Tipnis), she reconsidered. “The road will ruin our way of life, and we will defend ourselves by any means necessary,” said the indigenous Yuracaré mother of two, as she shoved wood into her outdoor adobe oven. Having survived centuries of incursion by the Spanish, rubber traders, and loggers, the park’s residents say the road — which environmental impact studies predict could contaminate the Isiboro and Sécure rivers and push 11 endangered species toward extinction — represents the gravest threat yet. Surveying the remote wilderness around her, Morales Nosa said Tipnis residents are preparing their traditional weapons: “We will not let the bulldozers in here,” she said.

But what Morales Nosa doesn’t realize is that stopping the road might require somewhat more formidable weapons. Bolivian President Evo Morales touts the project as vital to the country’s future. “Thankfully, [the highway’s detractors] are only a few, while the great majority of Bolivians support this project because they know that highways bring development,” he said a year ago. Although this may be true, the controversial 152-mile stretch of pavement-to-be is also vital for something much bigger: a continentwide infrastructure network championed by neighboring Brazil, the region’s dominant power and economic engine.

Dreams of an integrated South America date back to the days of Simón Bolívar, the continent’s 19th-century independence hero. But geography has always been a hindrance. The planet’s longest mountain range, the Andes, practically slices the continent in two, complicating east-west roadways. Two-thirds of the landmass is tropical, with soft terrain that makes constructing durable roads costly or virtually impossible. The Amazon and its numerous tributaries should have alleviated the impasse problem (moving goods by water can be 30 times less expensive than by land), but these rivers have portions too narrow or shallow for large cargo ships, and their muddy, constantly shifting banks make terrible ports. Stymied by insufficient means to reach its resources, South America needed a bold solution if it was ever going to find its way out of the backwaters of underdevelopment.

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