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Peru's new highway to the future

The Interoceanic Highway, which will connect Peru's Pacific coast to the shores of the Atlantic in Brazil, could revolutionize the region much as the transcontinental railroad did in the US in 1869.

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The road's builders, including Mr. Carollo, say the illegal mining predates the road, and that the gold price is the main catalyst for the current boom. But old-time miners say the road has brought an influx of heavy equipment, making life harder for local prospectors.

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"They never could have brought the heavy machinery in without this new highway," says Juan Mamani. "How could they have crossed that?"

Mr. Mamani gestures at a bridge of decayed concrete, set to collapse into a creek. Then the minibus we're in zips across its replacement – one of 141 new bridges for the Interoceanic Highway.

Mamani is a miner himself. His family couldn't afford to keep him in school, so he spent all his time in his father's gold camp from age six. He still has pumps and sluices, and plans to use their earnings to pay for his son's education. He says the easier access from the new road has made it possible for gangs to industrialize the area's unpermitted mines, closing off a chance for poorer Peruvians to seek a better life.

But like many of the highway's critics, Mamani acknowledges its benefits. He is rushing to Cuzco, where his wife is in the hospital and at risk of dying. Before 2006, he says, the trip could have taken 15 days, and he would have needed to fly. Today, he'll pass up out of the Amazon, through the cloud forests, and across the tundra to Cuzco in seven hours.

Who moved my cheese?

On the other branch of the highway, Macusani sits near the summit of the Andes, almost three vertical miles above the Amazon. There, the road has brought prosperity. The Macusani plateau is rich in gold and uranium, and the highway has helped attract investment for mining companies. A joint venture known as Conirsa built the road here, employing as many as 7,000 workers and training 170 women to be heavy machinery operators.

Even the traditionally dressed Quechua women selling cheese and coca leaf in the town plaza say their lives have grown easier with the pavement. Deliveries sometimes took a week when the road was dirt. Now it takes hours.

The road also offers hope for the area's agricultural exporters. Raw alpaca wool in Macusani sells for about $1 a pound, while finished alpaca yarn on the international market sells for almost 50 times that. The highway may boost wool sales for alpaca herders.

Just over the summit in the sleepy village of San Anton, sheepherders are already winning higher prices. Guido Zapaña travels to the area weekly to buy sheepskins for export. "We have to pay more now," he says, after weighing a bloody sheep hide. "More buyers come up on the new highway, and with competition for products, the prices rise."

There is also a threat. When this road connects with Brazil, locals may have to compete with cheap imports. For now, for example, the ladies in bowler hats and petticoats sell the only cheese in town, and they fear the road’s effect on their market. They have no plan for how to compete with the influx of Brazilian products.

"What are they trying to do, kill us?" asks one cheese vendor.

Increased trade

Below the pale green sheep pastures of the high Andes, the city of Juliaca is a regional capital. Three-wheeled moto-taxis and cargo bicycles throng its streets. The main language is indigenous Quechua, rather than Spanish, and people still buy most of their goods in the same kind of open-air market that existed when Christopher Columbus stumbled into South America.

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