Peru puts its hopes in the Amazon as breadbasket and route east
Fernando Belaunde Terry, Peru's President, is a visionary. He wants simultaneously to develop the Amazon River, which has its source in Peru, and to preserve the river environment.
An architect by vocation, Belaunde also is a champion of one of the world's most ambitious road construction projects: an Amazon highway from Peru's capital , Lima, across South America to Rio de Janeiro. Some sections of such a highway are now being traveled - although Peru itself is far behind in developing its share of the project.
Belaunde, however, tells anyone who will listen that one answer to the country's economic problems is development of Peru's share of the Amazon Basin in the largely unexplored eastern third of the nation.
The President has been talking about this for 20 years. When he was first president, back in the mid-1960s, he talked of ''integrating all of Peru'' by cutting a highway through the eastern lowlands. A military coup in 1968 put his plans on hold.
But now that he is again the country's elected president, he is at it again - although he is perhaps less convinced that such development can take place in the near future.
Over the longer term, however, Peruvians are hoping that oil fields in the Amazon will bring some wealth to the country. They also look to the fertile region as a potential agricultural bonanza. Government farming projects have proved highly successful over the past four years. Planners hope the region will eventually make the country self-sufficient in food.
But Peru's economic problems have grown worse in the years since Belaunde's first term as president. And there is little hope that the eastern region will be opened to more than the occasional hardy pioneer for a while.
President Belaunde showed that he has some of the pioneering spirit himself when he took a sentimental journey through the region recently.
Aboard the Peruvian river frigate Amazonas, he visited a number of river towns and got a fresh look at Amazon geography. It may not have been a trek through the almost inpenetrable Amazon rain forest, but it gave ''FBT,'' as the President is called, an opportunity to get back to an area that, he says, ''lies there waiting for discovery and exploration.''
Such trips, which Belaunde has been making since the 1950s, may not have done much to develop the basin, but they have helped to bring attention to the Amazon. The President has earned a reputation in South America as a leader in opening up the area.
The river basin is largely in Brazil - some 2 million square miles. But it also stretches into Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador , Peru, and Bolivia.
The source of Amazon River is high in the Andes in Peru's Maranon River. The river flows past the port of Iquitos before entering Brazil.
Peruvian geographers claim that Peru's eastern lowlands are the most pristine rain forest in the Western Hemisphere, while man has scarred Brazil's Amazon region.
President Belaunde has long insisted on the need to preserve the Amazon's fragile ecology. If built to his specifications, the Amazon highway would go a long way toward keeping ''mankind's clutter from spoiling the area,'' he says.
But the President is no longer confident the highway will be built in his lifetime. So he seems to be turning his attention to promotion of rivers as the commercial arteries of the region. And that was, in part, his message on the recent trip into the area.
Iquitos, as the jumping-off point for exploring much of the region, is now a modern town. Belaunde inaugurated a water plant while there and noted that 70 percent of the town now has safe drinking water. By 1985, he said, all of Iquitos will have such water.
Work on one version of a trans-Amazon highway is somewhat advanced, according to Gonzalo Villavicencio Aguilar, president of a development corporation for the Peruvian province of Madre de Dios.
That road is a far cry from what President Belaunde had in mind in the '60s when he would buttonhole visitors and show them his plaster model for opening up eastern Peru.
But a great deal has taken place in the Amazon basin. One achievement is the linking of Venezuela's Orinoco River and the Amazon.