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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

When it is finally completed, a road called the Interoceanic Highway will stretch across South America through Brazil and Peru, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The last portion is being finished now in Peru. With a project as huge as this come promise and peril.

SIEGEL: Over the next four days, we're going to travel across the Interoceanic Highway, from high in the Andes to one of the most biodiverse places in the world: the Amazon Rainforest. We begin in the mountains of Peru. While the Peruvian government is touting the highway as a sign of progress, it is causing a great deal of controversy.

Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: You could almost miss the signpost for one of the largest infrastructure projects in Peru's history.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In front of me is a sign in green. It says: Welcome to the Interoceanic Highway South. Next to it, it gives the distance to Sao Paulo; 4,601 kilometers away. The road that is being built here will finally link through a network of already completed highways, Brazil's Atlantic coast to Peru's Pacific ports. Just next to the sign is a brand new store.

Ms. JUSTINA YUPANQUI: (Speaking Spanish)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside, Justina Yupanqui rings up a bottle of soda pop. She just opened up her shop here a week ago, selling drinks and snacks to passing drivers. The Interoceanic is not finished yet, but the beginning part of the road has been paved.

Ms. YUPANQUI: (Speaking Spanish)

Unidentified Woman #1: She's saying that the road has brought prosperity for this community because most of the people in this community work on the road and get money from the road. And that has allowed - her husband works on the road and that has allowed her to open this shop with the money and the proceeds gained from working on the road.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Justina lives in the tiny community of Munapata, population: 250, elevation: 10,000 feet. There isn't much work here in the highlands and she says that for her, the road has only brought good things. We say goodbye, as a few new customers walk in.

Ms. YUPANQUI: (Speaking Spanish)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Spanish)

Mr. BRUCE BABBITT (Former Secretary, Interior Department): See, there's the construction camp.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Conservationists, though, are worried about the eventual impact of the Interoceanic. We've joined a group of them on a fact-finding trip to see how the road might affect the region. Among them is Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton.

(Soundbite of car horn)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Standing on the highway, as trucks and cars make their way on the new asphalt, he says that construction of this road is being pushed and partly financed by Brazil, the regional economic superpower.

Mr. BABBITT: To finally reach a dream of three centuries, which is, there will be a - if not a Brazilian flag - at least a Brazilian economy on the shores of the Pacific.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Interoceanic is part of a massive infrastructure deal between Brazil and Peru. Brazil hopes that the road will allow easier access to resource-hungry China. Displacing the United States, China is now Brazil's biggest trading partner.

Along with this road and two others that are now being paved linking the two countries, Peru has agreed to build and Brazil pay for five massive dams. They will be used almost exclusively to satisfy Brazil's growing energy needs.

The concern, says Babbitt, is how these projects will impact the Peruvian Amazon, which the Interoceanic will cut through when it's finished.

Mr. BABBITT: It's the greatest source of untrammeled biodiversity and wilderness and extraordinary geological and cultural and reality on this whole planet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's happened to the Brazilian Amazon is a cautionary tale. Brazil built its Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970s. The goal was to integrate the remote and poor Amazon region with the rest of the country. An unintentional consequence: It opened up large tracts of pristine jungle to exploitation by farmers, ranchers and loggers, leading to almost unchecked deforestation. Babbitt and other environmentalists worry that the same might happen in Peru.

Mr. BABBITT: You get a sense of the size of this operation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We move on down the highway. The road here traverses the dramatic scenery of the Andes; snow-capped peaks, deep ravines powdered with clouds. Most of the work in this area is already done. But as the road winds along, the dazzling scale of the engineering project still underway becomes visible. There are a string of massive camps, housing thousands of workers lining the road.

(Soundbite of construction)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Crews with jackhammers are preparing the ground for paving. The road work never stopped. This is a 24-hour operation that is literally carving the road into the brutal rock face of the Andes.

(Soundbite of construction)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The company that's overseeing all of this is Odebrecht, an enormous Brazilian firm similar in scope to America's Halliburton.

Bruce Babbitt.

Mr. BABBITT: They are, in a sense, a partner of the Brazilian government. And at least in this area, I would say they're the lead partner in the geopolitical vision of Brazil's march to the Pacific. They're really the spearhead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Paulino Ccapcha works for Odebrecht, overseeing one of the work crews. He tells us he's worked on many road projects and from what he's seen, wherever roads go, prosperity for the communities who live along it follows.

Mr. PAULINO CCAPCHA: (Through Translator) It's important to have this road for the development of our country and this region. It's an important route that will open up trade between Brazil and Peru.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That remains to be seen. The economic benefit of trucking, say, soy beans all the way to a Peruvian Pacific port are far from obvious. And some along the road here are worried about the less than positive changes that the Interoceanic has already brought.

(Soundbite of rainfall)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the town of Quincemil, it rains all the time. Wags say the town was named after the 15,000 millimeters of precipitation it purportedly received one year. For most of its isolated existence, there wasn't much else that went on here, stuck as it is on the lower slopes of the Andes on the edge of the Amazon.

In her beer warehouse, Rocio Ramirez sits in a plastic chair watching the water sluice down the dirt road. Her slight, 23-year-old frame is encased in shorts and an oversized white T-shirt. She says things are changing here.

Ms. ROCIO RAMIREZ: (Through translator) The price of everything has gone up because there are lots of new men living nearby and working on the road. I'm very worried. All these unknown people have arrived and there's been violence, men who are drunk, prostitution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says her business has been good with all the new nightclubs that have opened. But…

Ms. RAMIREZ: (Through translator) It's good for business, but I don't like what's happening here. We've seen a lot of young girls who've gotten pregnant, and we hear there are a lot of sexual diseases being passed around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across the street, biologist Pedro Sentero has his offices. He's worried about what this influx will mean to the nature in this area. On the one hand, he says, the road might promote ecotourism. It will be easier for people to get here from Cuzco, home to Latin America's most popular tourist site: Machu Picchu.

But he says, over the past few years, there's been an influx of Peruvians from the highlands who are migrating to the more fertile lowlands. They cut down trees and clear land for farming, or work in the gold mines. He fears the road will only speed up that process.

Mr. PEDRO SENTERO (Biologist): (Through translator) The problem is that Peru has some very good laws on the protection of flora and fauna, but the issue is that those laws are not enforced. The government is in charge of making sure those laws are observed, but it does nothing, practically speaking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bruce Babbitt says he got involved with this remote corner of the world because what happens here is vital.

Mr. BABBITT: If we destroy the biological heritage of the Andes and the Amazon Basin, we're impoverishing Peruvians, Brazilians and Americans and, indeed, the entire world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The road out of Quincemil is barely a dirt track. The improvements have not begun here yet. Suddenly, a river swollen by rain cuts across our way forward. All right, we're going to try and cross the river.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking Spanish) All right, we seem to be doing pretty well. We're in the middle now. And we are through. Woo.

(Soundbite of applause)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: It was easy.

(Soundbite of music)

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