By Mongabay Latam, EL TIEMPO, June 9, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Ten years after the start of an important highway in Amazonia, its completion is still not a certainty.

To travel by road from Pasto, Nariño, to Mocoa, Putumayo, it’s necessary to traverse a narrow road with tight curves and no pavement. Travelling on this road, known as “the trampoline of death”, will take you three hours, and they can seem an eternity. The accidents are so common that, for example, between January and June of 2019, the road was closed for 326 hours.

The delays and the risk of travelling on this road led to the promise of building a new highway, the San Francisco-Mocoa variant. It would connect  Inviasthe high places with the lower Putumayo, filling almost all of the people in southwest Colombia with excitement. However, today it’s a white elephant in the middle of the jungle, and continuing the construction would have an enormous environmental impact.

It’s a national highway, under the control of the National Roads Institute (Invías). It has been planned for more than 15 years and it’s almost a decade since construction was begun. It’s an ambitious project that tries to join the Pacific with the Atlantic, connecting Tumaco (Nariño, Colombia) with Belém do Pará, (Brazil).

It’s a road that turned into an emblematic case for all of Latin America, especially because of the kind of undertaking that needed to be done, because it would cross the Protected Forest Reserve in the High Valley of the Mocoa River. This area is protected because it’s in the eastern piedmont of the Amazon, where the Andes join Amazonia, a unique area where the aquifer is refilled, an area that even supplies water to the capital of Putumayo, and to so many other municipalities.

Vanessa Torres, Assistant Director of the Environment and Society Association (AAS), an organization that has followed the project from its beginning, explains how the dream was to have a great highway with biological corridors and advanced technology that would be an example of green infrastructure for the whole region.

At the time, it became such an important project for Colombia and South America that the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) participated as the principal financer and agreed to lend it 53 million dollars.

In 2008, the Ministry of Environment issued the environmental permit that gave the green light to the designs, in order to get the project under way. Later on, in 2010, BID approved the loan to start building the first 45.6 kilometers, that were not yet to be paved—a first phase.

The project was divided into five sectors; two of those, representing 60 percent of the road, are those that pass through the Forest Reserve and are now in an eternal limbo.

A decade ago, when they believed that everything was ready, Invías awarded a contract for 401,000 million pesos (now more than 108 million dollars) to the Road to the South Consortium to build the variant and set aside another 28,000 million pesos (7 million dollars) for the San Francisco-Mocoa Environmental Consortium, the auditing business that would supervise the execution of the project.

Ten years later, the completion of the project continues to be uncertain. The Technical Director of Invías, Guillermo Toro, says that, in spite of the fact that there is not a date certain for its reactivation, they have found 38 new possible sources of financing. He makes clear that BID will not take part in the new stage.

A Mongabay Latam team spent two days exploring the project, from Mocoa to San Francisco, to verify what has actually been built and to see the Forest Reserve that the road would cross.

The two sections that have been put in and make up part of the capital of Putumayo have been paved for a few kilometers, thanks to the funds that the national government made available after the avalanche in Mocoa. The rest of the highway that has been put in is unpaved.

We crossed two paved bridges and the car reached a point where the forest had started to devour the project. We walked less than a kilometer, thinking that we were already in the protected area, but that hope faded when we found ourselves on a third bridge, the Campucana, which crashes into the forest reserve and seems as if it had been suspended between mountains. That is the image that welcomes the 34,600 hectares that make up the area of the reserve, and exposes, in all of its magnitude, the white elephant hidden in the jungle.

A bad start

Everything got off to a bad start. When they started to work on the project in 2011, Invías, BID, and the contractor found out that the approved designs had practically the same characteristics as the “trampoline of death”—the road that already exists and was supposed to be replaced by a safer one–.

Jesús Enríquez, who served as Director of Construction Audit for the Environmental Consortium, said that they had begun to make changes in the design. What happened was that the funds set aside for the new road started to be spent on little complementary projects to attack the problems. One was the construction of 44 retaining walls that worked as tensors to hold back the mountains and avoid slippage or landslides.

After finding the error, a technical committee of experts demanded by BID recommended amending the designs of the two sections (of 27.8 kilometers) that passed through the forest reserve.

Then, while the Road to the South Consortium was finishing the three sections that didn’t pass through the protected area, Invías prepared new designs that were turned over to the National Authority for Environmental Permits (Anla) in 2015. As of today, they have not been approved for execution. These new designs include 11 tunnels (2.8 km) and 61 bridges and viaducts (15.2 km) that are supposed to maintain the biological corridors in the forest reserve.

“I don’t know if the issue is urgency, or if it’s that BID thought the initial studies were workable,” wondered Rodrigo Botero of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Anla assured Mongabay Latam that they have not yet approved the new designs because they need more information, which they have already requested from Invías so as to “be able to have sufficient technical-environmental elements” for the decision. The comings and goings of the project have resulted in the construction of a road complete at its two ends, but nothing in the middle—the sections that go through the reserve–.

Meanwhile the contract with the Road to the South Consortium ended in 2017 and the majority of the budget allocation had been spent: 335,000 million pesos on the work (90 million dollars) and some 24,000 million pesos (6.5 million dollars) on the auditing process.

“ For BID it was a project intended to be an environmentally friendly model project, but the studies came up short. Who was the one responsible for approving them? Was it a big mistake?” asks Édgar Torres, the leader of the Citizens’ Review Group in Mocoa for the Construction of the Variant. For more than two months, Mongabay Latam tried to get BID to talk about this, but it was impossible to get an answer.

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