Photo Essay

La Carretera: Life and Change Along Peru's Interoceanic Highway

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“Highways, of course, alter everything. They change patterns of human settlement, hasten the destruction of natural habitat, transmit disease, set the stage for clashes of cultures.”

- Ted Conover, The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World

In 2012, after decades of planning and years of construction, Peru's 1,600 mile-long Interoceanic Highway was finally completed. This feat of engineering crosses spectacular landscapes from the Pacific Coast over the Andes Mountains, through the Amazon Basin to the Brazilian border. Funded primarily by China and Brazil to expedite trade between the two nations, it's an apt symbol of the dual nature of development in today's globalized world. The highway brings opportunities and growth to remote communities and simultaneously enables activities which are breeding conflict. Yet, some of the planet's most biodiverse ecosystems and traditional cultures are under threat.

In some areas, the impacts of this road are far-reaching. The new highway has opened up vulnerable habitats to exploitation—namely in Peru's southern Amazon Basin, where once remote parts of the jungle are now easily accessed by those participating in illegal mining, logging, and poaching. Indigenous cultures are witnessing increasing rates of out-migration and encroachment of their land and resources. The Interoceanic Highway is accelerating it all.

I first traveled along the new highway in 2010 when it was still under construction. I was on an assignment, photographing illegal gold mining in Peru's Madre de Dios province. It was clear then that much of the activity I witnessed was connected to the new route; where the construction was complete, mining camps were spreading like wildfire into the jungle. If the impacts here were already so obvious, what would they be like elsewhere along the road?

With the new highway as my starting point, I began documenting this region on the cusp of profound change. In this ongoing project, I am trying to create an intimate portrait of human life in communities along the Interoceanic Highway at this critical point in time, a photographic record of the region as it undergoes a dramatic transformation in the coming years. In many ways, it's well on its way.

I'm seeking answers for what I feel are some of the most pressing questions of our time. How can we continue to pursue "development" at the sacrifice of our most biodiverse and sensitive natural habitats and at the sacrifice of the rights and survival of many of the world's poor, vulnerable, and indigenous communities? Who really benefits from “progress”? As we've come to know it, is progress an unending pursuit to attain more? What will it take to shift from a mindset of exploitation to one of sustainability?

La Carretera is a story about life and change along the new highway. I hope this work can contribute to a greater discussion about development in today's globalized world and challenge the notion that “progress" is always best, whatever the cost.

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