Pucallpa, Peru – Sailing upriver in pitch dark, the Eduardo II reaches a dangerous impasse. The ship’s massive propellers thrust in reverse as it nearly runs aground. A hail of jungle brush and insects crash onto the ship’s deck as the crew anchors at the river’s edge until dawn.
“There are nights when you can’t see the sandbars in front of you. We stop when visibility is too low,” says Captain Gadiel Guedez, who freights cargo and passengers between the sweltering ports of Pucallpa and Iquitos in Peru‘s central Amazon, a 990km journey up the Ucayali River.
Despite decades of experience navigating the rivers of Peru’s Amazon from the helm of his rusty cargo ship, shallow banks often prevent him from hauling cargo day and night, year-round.
A standard three-day journey between ports can take up to a week during the Amazon’s summer months when rivers are lowest.
But a massive infrastructure operation along the Amazon River and its major tributaries will soon deepen and widen points along these rivers to improve navigability for large vessels, allowing constant sailing.
National authorities have championed the Amazon Waterway Project as a silver bullet to the Amazon’s chronic underdevelopment. But indigenous groups, fearing threats to food security, safety, and the vitality of their rivers, have met the project with deep scepticism.
“These mega-projects are not implemented for our indigenous brothers travelling by humble canoe. They are made to facilitate large companies,” says Robert Guimaraes, president of FECONAU, an indigenous group representing tribes along the Ucayali River basin, a main tributary of the Amazon River.
The waterway is part of a larger transnational infrastructure strategy to link Peru’s Pacific port of Callao, north of the capital, Lima, to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil through an integrated network of highways, river ways, and telecommunications systems.
With an investment of over $95m, the Amazon Waterway will ensure 56-metre wide and 1.8-metre deep shipping lanes for cargo vessels along Peru’s Amazon, Ucayali, Huallaga, and Maranon Rivers. Linking the major Amazonian port cities of Iquitos, Pucallpa and Yurimaguas, the project will span territory home to 424 native communities belonging to 14 ethnicities.
National authorities claim the waterway, which will be equipped with a river level measurement system, will reduce the risk of accidents, bring down the cost of travel and transport of goods and boost regional economies.
Set to commence in 2020, the project will require the dredging of sand and logs along roughly 2,500km of the river to create deeper and faster-moving channels for cargo ships transporting everything from automobiles to food supplies. The waterway is expected to be operational by 2022.
‘Our farms are at risk’
But FECONAU says villagers fear the removal of large tree trunks and rocks – where fish gather and lay eggs – will reduce variety and quantity of their main food source. They also worry a faster current will capsize their canoes and increase flooding of riverbanks, where tribes plant seasonal crops like cassava.
“Our farms are at risk. This could threaten our food. This could be fatal,” Guimares says.
Regional authorities in the Amazon province of Ucayali say low water levels during dry season cause dangerous bottlenecks in rivers, which create delays in transport and limit the region’s economic potential.
With more than 6,000km of navigable waterways in Peru’s Amazon, river transportation accounts for over 90 percent of passenger and cargo transport – including shipping of commodities like gas and timber.
“Rivers are the only highways in the Amazon. Without this waterway we’ll never be able to take advantage of nighttime transport,” says Jose Llontop, President of the Ucayali Department of Industry in Pucallpa.
These mega-projects are not implemented for our indigenous brothers travelling by humble canoe. They are made to facilitate large companies.
Situated on the muddy banks of the Ucayali River, Pucallpa is 12-hour drive from Lima along one of the only highways leading into Peru’s vast inland jungle. The city is a gateway to the Amazon, with a connection to the country’s largest Amazon port of Iquitos – reachable only by air or river – to the north.
Llontop says the waterway would be a godsend to the Ucayali region, linking it to goods produced on the coast, facilitating transport of gas and timber up the Amazon River and opening up the resource-rich province to foreign markets.
“This project will bring investment in from North America and Europe, which will benefit the entire region, including native communities,” Llontop says.
But indigenous groups representing 12 federations and hundreds of communities in the Ucayali region remain leery of the project and the state’s promises of direct economic benefit.
“Native communities don’t trust the state, with only their own economic interests in mind,” says Alejandro Chino Mori, a legal advisor for indigenous group ORAU in Ucayali province.
Bribing indigenous communities?
Mori says indigenous groups are not against development, but that they need “guarantees projects like these will not harm [their] way of life”.
Peruvian law requires the consultation of indigenous peoples on infrastructure projects that could affect their lands. After indigenous resistance to the waterway led to its suspension in 2015, the state deployed translators and technical teams to over 300 native villages to allay concerns about the project.
FECONAU says the Ministry of Transportation, which held the legally mandated public forums, presented overly technical information and ultimately bribed communities into approving the project in late 2015.
“The state very strategically offered road, lighting, and social projects in some communities to pacify them and buy their approval,” Guimaraes says.
Gregory Garcia Wong, director of Aquatic Transport, a regional transport ministry in Loreto Province, rejected the notion that native communities were bribed for their support.
“There is a lot of misinformation in native communities. Many state entities are currently at the table listening to demands of communities that might be affected by this project,” he says.
By offering community projects, the state was able to evade questions about the environmental impacts of the waterway, says Diego Saavedra, of DAR, an environmental rights advocacy group in the Amazon.
“In reality, it is the state’s obligation to provide basic services anyway. Now, two and a half years later, the technical details are still unclear and they haven’t initiated a single community project,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Garcia Wong insists projects were under way.
“State-funded projects like roads require planning. They’re not immediately put into action. Just like the waterway itself, they require studies before execution,” he says.
As natives, we have a spiritual bond with our rivers and forests. So you can't misrepresent a project that will dredge our rivers and change their natural courses.
In 2017, the state awarded the waterway concession to Chinese hydropower corporation Sinohydro, one of China’s largest state-owned companies, in cooperation with Peruvian construction firm Casa Contratistas.
The Peruvian state has ensured native communities that dredging will not begin until environmental impact studies have concluded and a citizen’s participation plan has been implemented. But indigenous groups have cited irregularities and lack of communication from Sino-Peruvian technical teams working on the waterway.
“The technical documents we’ve seen from the corporation have a lot of blank spaces in them. They don’t know the territory and they still don’t know how the rivers will respond to these changes,” Saavedra says.
Supporters of the project say concerns about catastrophic changes to the region’s rivers are overblown. The state, they stress, has identified only 13 points along these rivers where depth is too shallow for large ships.
“Dredging won’t even amount to three percent of all of the length of the waterway,” says Juan Carlos Paz, a transportation consultant who worked on the project for over a decade within Peru’s Ministry of Transport.
According to Paz, the waterway would provide access to food, clean water and education to the most economically depressed region in the country.
“This project is exactly what is needed to bring development and connectivity to these citizens,” he says.
But Guimaraes of FECONAU, who belongs to the Shipibo-Konibo tribe, stressed that rivers of the Amazon are not just a means of navigation.
“As natives, we have a spiritual bond with our rivers and forests. So you can’t misrepresent a project that will dredge our rivers and change their natural courses,” he says.
Despite the obvious benefits the Amazon Waterway would likely bring to his own livelihood, Eduardo II’s Captain Gadiel Guedez also remains sceptical of man-made changes to the Amazon’s wild and meandering rivers.
“Humans can attempt to change Mother Nature, but she does what she wants. You shouldn’t mess with nature, but respect it,” Guedez says.