La Carretera: Life Along Peru's Interoceanic Highway

“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, National Geographic, June 2003

Portrait of a Quechua woman in traditional dress in Ocongate, Peru. 

After decades of planning and years of construction, Peru's portion of South America's Interoceanic Highway was finally completed in 2012. This feat of engineering crosses spectacular landscapes from the Pacific Coast over the Andes Mountains, through the Amazon Basin to the Brazilian border where it connects to Brazilian roads and ultimately reaches the Atlantic Ocean. 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 is bringing opportunity and growth, while enabling activities that set the stage for conflict and threaten some of the planet's most bio-diverse ecosystems and traditional cultures.

The highway has opened up vulnerable habitats and indigenous communities to exploitation - especially in the Amazon Basin - and its impacts could prove devastating far beyond Peru's borders. Record prices and demand for gold and other raw materials are fueling illegal mining, logging, and migration throughout the region, leaving much of Southeastern Peru in the midst of a veritable gold rush. And the Interoceánica is accelerating it all.

With the new road as a starting point, La Carretera is an ongoing photographic and multimedia document of this region on the cusp of profound change. On the one hand, we hope to create a human portrait of life in communities along the Interoceánica at this critical point in time - a photographic record of the region before it changes dramatically in the coming years. But, we're also seeking answers for some of the most pressing questions of our time: how can we continue to encourage "progress" at the sacrifice of our most bio-diverse and sensitive natural habitats, or ahead of the rights and survival of many of the world's poor, vulnerable, or indigenous communities? With the effects of climate change ever more evident and rising conflict over the control of natural resources, what will it take to shift from a mindset of exploitation to one of sustainability? How can development bring opportunities and growth without destruction?

This is in part a story about life and change along a new highway. But it's along this particular road that many of the important issues of our time converge: environmental destruction, unsustainable resource exploitation, threatened indigenous cultures and traditional ways of life, migration, conflict over control of resources, and more.

Perhaps the bigger question is: just where is this road - and others like it - really taking us all?




Project Map (beta)

This project has received funding from the Society for Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism, and the Puffin Foundation, and is a Blue Earth Alliance sponsored project. 


Photo Essays:

Orion Magazine - "The Road: A South American Highway Forever Alters a Region" (March/April 2013, text by Mitra Taj)

NPR's The Picture Show - "100 Words: On Peru's Interoceanic Highway"


Print Stories:

Virginia Quarterly Review - "Mother of God, Child of Zeus" (Fall 2010, essay by Jessica Benko)