By Graham Watkins*
A month ago I was bumping along a dusty road in the Beni (Bolivia) from San Borja to San Ignacio de Moxos. Someone in the car said that this road had been named as the “worst road in the world.” That reminded me of a 36 hours trip on the Georgetown-Lethem road (Guyana). We only had to travel 60 kilometers in an old British Army Bedford truck, but the trip included a broken femur, eight hours in axle deep mud, and a 10 km walk in the middle of the night with singing nightjars.
These kinds of roads connect people through remote areas. The people who live along these roads suffer the negative consequences –hurtling minibuses, cultural and lifestyle change, reduced security, land use by outsiders, stream pollution, commercial fishing and hunting, and even floods when the roads block natural water flows.
The challenge in building these roads is how to ensure that the road provides a service to all people rather than being a service for some and a burden for others. Here are three suggestions as to how to better address this challenge.
1. Involve affected people in the design, construction, and operation of the road.
Most road projects include “stakeholder engagement” and “consultation” plans – but these plans vary substantially in their quality and effectiveness. Presenting pamphlets in the national language to indigenous people will not be as useful as holding regular discussions in local languages; being open and transparent through the Internet is not likely to be effective if the communities don’t have electricity; a single meeting with local representatives does not meet the need to keep people informed and involved. There are substantial benefits to designing roads taking advantage of the understanding provided by local people.
2. Help local people enjoy the benefits from the road.
The involvement of local people will help clarify land tenure, support land management, improve forestry practices, and control hunting to help the “road serve the people” rather than the “people serve the road.” The road can facilitate sustainable enterprises and local people can also be employed in the construction and operation of the road.
3. Make sure that the road is integrated with other activities.
Integrated planning is complicated and difficult but can help avoid future conflicts and support sustainability. This kind of planning looks at how the road may affect other uses of the areas near the road. It does not make sense to build a road in an area where there are plans for a reservoir. Similarly, a road should have enough culverts to allow for local flooding. Equally, a road through a protected area must integrate with the objectives of that area and ensure connectivity for wildlife. Integrated planning also requires taking into account the challenges of natural disasters and climate change.
I began this by talking about impassable roads through some of South America’s pristine areas. These areas remain pristine precisely because the roads were so difficult! However, the people who live in these areas depend on the road as a lifeline and these roads are critical to ensuring competitive access to markets for products. For South America to continue developing and compete globally, it will need to invest hugely in infrastructure; some of these investments will be in areas that, to date, have been isolated and unaffected by development. The infrastructure of the future needs to be built with a long-term view, incorporate the local economy, avoid and minimize harm to local people and environments, improve energy efficiency, and protect local cultures.
At minimum, new projects need to involve local people in design and operation, ensure benefits flow to everyone and not just a select few and be planned in a way that integrates with other plans. If this happens, there is a hope that the “worst roads in the world” will become the “best roads in the world” – roads that maintain and enhance existing values while also contributing to national development.
*Graham is a Guyanese born British biologist who has spent his adult life working in tropical South America, mainly in Guyana and Ecuador. He was the Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Galapagos from 2005 to 2009 and prior to this, during 2003 and 2004, he was the Director General of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development in Guyana. Graham’s professional life includes more than 20 years of experience in biodiversity research, collaborative wildlife and fisheries management, and sustainable enterprise development in aquaculture, fisheries and tourism. Graham is Lead Environmental Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank where he coordinates the safeguard unit cluster responsible for biodiversity and natural resources.