With the new communities and the asphalt, deforestation also arrives. Photo: Karina Segovia.
August 21th, 2023
Development comes with blood. It is the blood of the Bolivian Amazon’s wildlife that is being spilled along the path that turns land into asphalt.
Roberto Navia Gabriel
It looks like an infinite tongue, a sharpened knife, a wall that splits the wetlands of the Bolivian Amazon’s north in two. It’s the asphalt road that makes its way like a slow tornado, waving the flag of development, with the force of machinery and the backs of men breaking the magic that only the forest, or the golden plains that turn into water pockets during the rainy season, can offer to quench thirst when the dark clouds move on.
The construction of the Rurrenabaque-Riberalta road in the Bolivian department of Beni is a project undertaken by a Chinese company, and its length of 508 kilometers gives it the title of being one of the longest stretches being built in the country.
The construction of this road has long been a promise of politicians who paraded through the centers of departmental and national power. The speeches revolved around a nearly memorized message, extolling that development must arrive on the back of asphalt, with little regard for health and environmental impact.
Wetlands, fundamental ecosystems for biodiversity, are often affected by land modification for road construction.
When the construction of the road began to take shape, it was celebrated by some sectors of the cities existing in the Bolivian Amazon’s north, such as Rurrenabaque and Riberalta. They argued that the new route would allow them to no longer feel isolated and marginalized, providing a faster and safer connection to the rest of the country and promoting the economic development of the region, bringing hope for improving the quality of life for local residents. The promise of boosting tourism, transporting goods, and enabling people’s mobility also foresees a promising future for businesses and job opportunities in the area.
For many residents of Rurrenabaque and Riberalta, the opening of this road represents the end of an era in which they felt forgotten and left behind. «Before, to get to Riberalta, we had to travel for days on dirt roads and face constant difficulties. Now, thanks to this road, we can travel faster and safer. It’s a wonderful change,» excitedly said Julio Chávez, a merchant from Riberalta, one of the bustling cities in the Bolivian Amazon’s north.
However, this project has also raised concerns among some sectors of the population and environmental defenders, who regret that the road’s construction is having a negative impact on the wetlands and the habitat of wildlife.
Wetlands, fundamental ecosystems for biodiversity, are often affected by land modification for road construction. These projects lead to changes in water flows and the degradation of important feeding and breeding areas for various species of birds, mammals, and reptiles, some of which are endangered.
Environmental engineer Heinz Arno Drawert, with his calm and firm voice, warns about the dangers of constructing elevated roads in flat and temporarily flooded areas, such as the palms in the Bolivian Amazon’s north. He knows that the road, like a powerful current, threatens to alter the course of natural hydrological processes that have shaped the region for millennia.
The resilient flora plays its role in this changing scenario. When the dry season arrives, aquatic and floating vegetation disappears completely, giving way to grasses and herbs that act as oases in the dry environment. Aware of the hardships that scorching sun and clear skies bring, these plants reinvent themselves with narrow leaves and roots, stems, or succulent leaves that act as reservoirs to store precious water.
However, Heinz explains that not all plants can defy the extreme conditions with such skill. Those less equipped to face the harsh conditions remain confined to small elevated areas, known as «monte islands» or hills, which allow them to escape prolonged flooding. It’s a delicate balance that threatens to break under the weight of human intervention.
Wildlife, on the other hand, deploys its strategies to cope with changes. Semi-aquatic animals, accustomed to moving between water and solid ground, are forced to undertake migrations in search of temporary refuges. Intrepid birds embark on massive journeys to more suitable places, while others, cunning and patient, choose to hibernate or enter a «seasonal sleep» to overcome unfavorable seasons.
The bodies of water, once connected hydraulically with the flooded plains, are now interrupted by the imposing embankment that diverts the natural flow. Ecological cycles, finely adjusted for millennia, become disjointed, and uncertainty hangs like a dark cloak over these ancestral habitats.
Drawert warns about the difficulty of predicting and mitigating the impacts that the road will bring. The complexity of hydrological processes escapes engineering projections. The value of aquatic life and the importance of the hidden «nurseries» in the flooded plains, which guard the world’s greatest diversity of freshwater fish, are not taken into account.
Under construction road in the northern Amazon of Bolivia. Photo: Lisa Corti.
«The construction of an elevated embankment for a road can drastically modify the dynamics of natural hydrological processes. It can lengthen or shorten periods of flooding, advance or delay them, and artificially connect or disconnect aquatic systems. This alteration of the habitat can have serious consequences for the ecosystems of the flooded plains, breaking cycles and ecological processes that have adjusted and adapted over thousands and thousands of years. The delicate aspect of this matter is that these impacts are very difficult to predict and mitigate because the involved hydrological processes go beyond simple engineering calculations to estimate the flows and volumes that ditches, culverts, and bridges should handle, which are the aspects typically considered during the design phase of road projects.»
The construction works lead to changes in water flows and the degradation of important feeding and breeding areas for various species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
No infrastructure project in the Bolivian department of Beni—at least to my knowledge—includes technically and seriously elaborated estimates of ecological flows that would guarantee the conservation of permanent and temporary aquatic ecosystems with the construction of large infrastructure works such as roads. These environmental safeguards simply aren’t included in the projects, and in a way, it’s like building enormous ships without enough lifeboats, similar to the case of the Titanic, which we know ended in disaster,» says the environmental engineer as the machinery advances and the workers raise the road embankment, which, like a modern titan, can drastically alter the dynamics of these ecosystems that have survived through the centuries.
Biologist Juan Carlos Catari takes us on a journey through the ecological impacts caused by the construction of roads in natural areas, revealing the alarming consequences these infrastructures have on fauna and hydrology in different regions.
From the moment a road is traced through the forest or the plains, which are also sources of wetlands, the landscape is radically transformed. The lush greenery makes way for heavy machinery, and vehicular traffic becomes a constant presence. Wildlife, once in harmony with its environment, is now confronted with an imminent threat.
The new road divides the wetlands in the northern Amazon. Photo: Karina Segovia.
Just meters from the new road between Rurrenabaque and Riberalta, a Mennonite colony in the Amazon. Photo: Lisa Corti.
The biologist explains how these changes particularly affect the fauna, which is divided into groups according to their ability to adapt to the impacts. Smaller species may tolerate the changes, while larger animals are forced to move away in search of refuge. In his research conducted in several forest refuges, he observed that major wildlife traces were found only about 400 meters from the road. At the edge of the road itself, indications were scarce, despite the presence of vans, trucks, and minibusses on that stretch.
Environmental engineer Heinz Arno Drawert warns about the dangers of building elevated roads in flat and seasonally flooded areas, such as the northern Amazonian palms of Bolivia.
The speed of vehicles also plays a crucial role in the impact on fauna. When the road is unpaved, animals have a better chance of escaping, as vehicles usually don’t reach high speeds. However, when asphalt dominates the landscape, speed increases, and wildlife faces difficulties in evading moving vehicles.
«Besides the impact on fauna, the hydrology of the area is also affected by road construction. The lack of adequate culverts can disrupt the natural flow of water, negatively affecting bodies of water located on the other side of the road. The resulting embankment can channel water towards a single discharge point, generating imbalances in the ecosystem. Fauna crossings are rarely designed to facilitate safe animal crossings,» he says with frustration. However, he highlights a successful case in San Pablo, beyond Guarayos, where a protected area installed speed reducers to slow down vehicles, allowing animals to cross the road more safely.
A concerning issue that Juan Carlos Catari mentions is the growth of human settlements around new roads. He laments that without proper control, these communities can lead to deforestation and the loss of vast areas of the jungle, as seen in the example of the Chapare, where deforestation spread throughout the entire Amazon region due to the construction of a road.
On the sides of the road between Rurrenabaque and Riberalta, there’s already a presence of a Mennonite colony producing soy, and evidence of settlers attracted by the new route and promises of progress brought by the asphalt.
The new road leaves wounds in nature. Photo: Karina Segovia.
There’s a dead capybara on the road. The freshly laid black asphalt, as dark as a moonless night, is the stage where the animal was run over by some motor vehicle that prevented it from crossing to the other side of the road. Along the sides of the route, between Rurrenabaque and Riberalta, there are a few puddles of water that used to be large natural water reservoirs, wetlands that flowed freely through the Beni pampas in Bolivia.
When the rains pass, these puddles, cut off by the road, will dry up quickly, leaving capybaras, lizards, herons, and bats without these places where they not only quench their thirst but also cool down their bodies.
Now, while there’s still water, the animals of the Amazon rainforest come out of the woods in droves, and in their search for water sources, they are being run over on a road under construction that is also a danger to drivers who need to reach or leave Rurrenabaque, Riberalta, and other towns. The construction lacks basic signage to guide both day and night travel, and the company’s dump trucks speed along, with some drivers not yielding to private vehicles.
But capybaras aren’t the only victims. In various sections, you can see dead bodies of snakes and lizards. Environmental engineer Heinz Arno Drawert explains that if a snake wants to cross quickly, it does so in 20 or 30 seconds. But many times, they remain on the road, even curling up and sleeping there, attracted by the warmth of the asphalt.
The Mennonites inaugurate the paved road to Riberalta. Photo: Lisa Corti.
A capybara, a victim on the new road to Riberalta. Photo: Lisa Corti.
Heinz, with a thick beard like a Viking’s, knows that a road is a barrier for many species, disrupting ecosystem connectivity, and roadkill is not the only impact. For example, there are monkeys that won’t cross a road because, even if it’s a dirt road, they are wary of coming down to the ground and walking. They only do so in cases of extreme necessity.
«When they come down to drink water, it takes them a long time because they look very carefully before venturing, and immediately after drinking, they return to the trees. So, for them, a road is a terrifying obstacle,» he says, emphasizing that he has also observed that other smaller animals don’t venture into open spaces due to fear of aerial predators, and a road becomes a line they can’t conquer.
Another problem is the noise from vehicles. Loud and strange sounds, Arno Drawert explains, instinctively trigger flight responses, creating a stretch of several hundred meters of «unusable» habitat along the roads.
However, roads in Bolivia are not built with consideration for animals or the jungle. Experts in the environment know that a road interrupts biodiversity mobility, dividing the continuity of the forest. Another consequence is that changes in vegetation also modify the food supply for fauna, and water courses are cut off by asphalt embankments.
The home of the lizards, in danger. Photo: Lisa Corti.
A new rural community, drawn by the asphalt. Photo: Lisa Corti.
This chronicle is part of the Special: Bolivia’s Invisible Amazon and its guardians who do not give up, carried out by Revista Nómadas, with the support of the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
DIRECTOR: Roberto Navia. PRODUCTION MANAGER: Karina Segovia. PHOTOGRAPHS: Karina Segovia, Lisa Mirella Corti. SOUND PRODUCTION AND POST-PRODUCTION: Andrés Navia. ILLUSTRATIONS AND INFOGRAPHICS: Brocha Silvestre. SOCIAL MEDIA EDITOR: Lisa Mirella Corti. WEB DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT: Richard Osinaga. COLLABORATION: Manuel Seoane, Diego Adriázola y Daniel Coimbra.
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