In a week that has starkly set out contrasting development options facing the government over the future of Amazonia, the government reconfirmed the go-ahead for the controversial Hidrovia project to dredge canals for deep water vessels in Peru’s four main Amazon tributaries. The Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) has had the US$97 million project on its books since 2014. It is financed by China.

At the same time, the Ministry of Environment (MinAm) announced at COP 25 in Madrid its contribution to climate change mitigation via a project funded by Japan’s international cooperation arm, JICA, to protect the Peruvian Amazon’s extensive peat deposits. These capture vast quantities of carbon (only surpassed by Indonesia and Congo) in wetlands that also sustain large natural extensions of aguaje, a palm-bearing fruit rich in vitamin A which provides incomes for thousands of riverine families.

Some MinAm experts see aguaje as the indigenous answer to African palm oil, and researchers fear that changes to the river system induced by dredging could endanger the peatlands as well as the aguaje that grows on it.

Also ranged against the Hidrovia project are the indigenous peoples that have occupied the banks of these Amazonian rivers for thousands of years. Their ancestral and practical expertise on the hydrology of the Amazon is rarely taken into account, but they are firmly against any disturbance. To them the waterways of the Amazon floodplain are in constant movement, creating oxbow lakes rich in fishing resources and fertilising their seasonal riverside crops with the nutrient rich run-off from the Andes.  Any disturbance to the river system, they insist, would have serious consequences on the environment and their livelihoods.

The relatively recent incursion into these areas of planters with interests in palm oil is indicative of the commercial interests on a massive scale from which the indigenous peoples have already suffered the consequences. The Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, for example, lost 5,000 hectares of forest in 2015 to Plantaciones de Pucallpa, a subsidiary of the much-criticised Melka group.

The difficulty facing the government is how to balance short-term commercial interests such as palm oil with longer-term conservation of the environment and the accompanying benefits of ecosystem services.  So far, public opinion is not convinced that MTC has set out a compelling or sustainable commercial case for the dredging operation. China has invested US$133 billion in Latin American infrastructure between 2007 and 2019 and Peru has been a major beneficiary. If China has indicated what it wants in return the government has yet to announce it.