Bolivian Amazon at a crossroads: oil, gold and paved roads

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Lush swamp forest one of several forest fomations in the Pando, one of the areas of highest primate diversity in the World

I first went to the Pando in the Bolivian Amazon in 1988 as a young undergraduate. Returning in 2013 as a middle-aged botanist it was a pleasant surprise to find that although the capital Cobija had grown a lot much of the forest remained and that sustainable Brazil nut harvesting remained the major source of income for rural communities. It also remained one of the forests with the highest diversity of primates in the World. A single locality having up to thirteen species of monkey! That all looks about to change though as a triple whammy of semi-legal gold-mining, oil exploration and road building took off in 2015 and which by 2018 will have completely transformed the infrastructure, economy and likely the social fabric of one of the least deforested parts of the Amazon.

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Road building between Puerto Rico and El Sena is well underway, a two-lane dirt track being transformed into a four-lane paved highway by a Costa Rican company

Asphalt roads are clearly of benefit to Amazonian communities, providing improved access to healthcare, education and markets and assist with the seasonal Brazil nut harvest. Roads also, however push back the frontiers of the forest and facilitate currently unsustainable agriculture, such as slash-and-burn, cattle-ranching or intensive soya / oil-palm production. Finding a balance between the opportunities and risks posed by asphalt roads is very difficult and rarely achieved. Oil extraction and transportation will also have an impact, changing the economy of the Pando and possibly replacing natural forest with its Brazil Nut and rubber trees as a major souce of employment and incomes. It also of course brings with it the risks of any large mining operations.

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The port town of El Sena, now neighbour to several gold dredging barges (to the right of the image) and associated ‘industries’

The rapid growth of semi-legal artesanal gold mining in the Pando could have a far greater impact. The mercury used to separate gold from the river sediment has profound health risks for those mining but also for the whole ecosystem downstream, and for decades to come. Artesanal gold mining also attracts people desperate for money, from all over South America, together with many other strands of the black economy leading to social and political instability.

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