A road was recently built to connect the village of Santa Barbara, in central Peru, to the outside world. Previously Santa Barbara was accessible only by a two-day walk on a winding mule path. The new road is broader, loose and muddy. It cuts through what had been an intact, montane forest. The road builders cut large sections from hillside and dumped them into adjacent river valleys, leaving bare, rutted slopes, which will rapidly erode and cut trenches back through the new road. Much of the surrounding forest was burned.
We drove up the road as far as we could before we were blocked by a landslide, and then we slowly walked and drove back down. My companions searched for, and found, interesting plants among the piles of broken limbs.
The only people that we saw on the road were two men with four mules, carrying buckets of honey from their farm in Santa Barbara to market in Lanturachi. They used the new road only along sections where the old mule path was buried from the new road’s construction.
The new road to Santa Barbara is emblematic of Peru’s struggle for sustainable development. The area is within the buffer zone for a hyper-diverse national park, and it is part of a larger UNESCO biosphere reserve. Both designations mean that activities here should be more focused on conservation and sustainability than elsewhere. These words fit nicely with Peru’s recent commitment to make its forestry and agriculture carbon neutral by 2021, and its hosting of the COP20 climate change conference next month in Lima. But lofty national priorities frequently clash with other activities – such as governments approving resource extraction projects without the consent of local inhabitants, police killing environmental activists, or municipalities supporting new roads of dubious utility.