A project team
goes deep into the rainforest
to pave the way for
Latin America's future.
by Samuel Greengard // photos courtesy of Odebrecht Peru
Even in today's infrastructure-mad
project environment, this is a big one. When complete, the 1,617-mile (2,602-kilometer) Inter-Oceanic Highway will stretch across an entire continent—passing through the heart of the Amazon jungle and the high mountain passes of the Andes to link the Atlantic ports of Brazil with the Peruvian port cities of Ilo, Matarani and San Juan de Marcona.
The project's primary intent was to open up once-inaccessible areas to tourist development and industrial production and facilitate the cost-effective transportation of goods from areas previously unreachable by land to Latin American seaports.
“It will have a significant impact on the Peruvian economy,” says Jorge Barata, director of Odebrecht Peru. The Lima-based construction giant led the consortium ConIrsa, which oversaw work along a major section of the highway.
Critics labeled the US$1.3 billion project impossible, pointing to a long list of nearly unfathomable risks, including wildly varied terrain, loads of high-powered stakeholders and serious environmental concerns.
That didn't stop the project, though.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The 1,617-mile (2,602-kilometer) Inter-Oceanic Highway will stretch across an entire continent.
UP, UP AND AWAY: One section of the bridge in Peru soars almost 16,000 feet (4,800 meters) above sea level.
Building the highway meant moving thousands of pieces of heavy equipment—some weighing as much as 40 tons—across rivers, through thick foliage, and over narrow or previously non-existent routes. In some cases, crews had to reinforce bridges and drain low-lying areas to move equipment.
And that was the simple part.
Along the route, the terrain rises from near sea level in Brazil to almost 16,000 feet (4,800 meters) in Peru, where temperatures can drop below -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius). That meant the project team had to figure out ways to lay pavement in areas prone to icing, as well as over bogs and earthquake faults. Construction teams spent months identifying tools and techniques for building the highway to the necessary specifications and standards.
The number of governments involved in the US$1.3 billion project
Heavy rains and extreme cold forced teams to get creative and led to the creation of a translucent, tube-like “tent” structure designed to protect workers and the road along sections under construction. Essentially, teams set up the temporary nylon structure and then moved it as work progressed along a particular stretch of highway. Even though it added a step, the structure helped keep work on schedule even under harsh conditions, says Mr. Barata.
For tackling icy conditions, the team relied on a tractor fitted with natural gas burners. Nicknamed “the dragon,” it warmed up surfaces chilled by early morning temperatures—extending paving time by hours.
The project required the cooperation and coordination of 12 governments and more than half a dozen major construction firms.
ConIrsa alone had more than 7,200 people at 10 campsites in Peru. To manage the work, three project chiefs—and 20 project managers—oversaw daily operations.
On a separate stretch of highway, the InterSur consortium—consisting of three major Brazilian construction firms and over 30 smaller firms—had more than 2,000 workers tackling another 190 miles (306 kilometers) of the roadway.
To get the job done, InterSur had to mobilize a massive supply of professional and logistical support in remote areas, says spokeswoman Minttzi Bueno Schaus.
The consortium committed itself to hiring local workers because they were accustomed to the altitude, but many of them lacked the necessary skills. So the firm had to provide training and coaching for workers—and then hope that they stayed with the project.
Although the Inter-Oceanic Highway has enjoyed widespread government and industry support, it hasn't dodged controversy. Marc J. Dourojeanni, an independent consultant in Lima, argues the highway will do irreparable harm to “the last patch of relatively virgin forests of the Amazon.”
“There will be extreme consequences resulting from unsustainable logging, farming, cattle ranching and gold mining,” says Mr. Dourojeanni, who has studied the project.
Arguing that governments have paid little more than lip service to the environmental and social concerns of the project, he contends the roughly US$10 million set aside to mitigate the impact of the highway is woefully short of what's actually needed.
Meanwhile, the Peruvian and Brazilian governments say the environmental impact is outweighed by the economic opportunities the highway will create.
Nine years after its inception, the Inter-Oceanic Highway is about to become a reality. Later this year, the first vehicles will hit the road. For the first 21 years, it will be privately managed and operated by the consortiums and then revert to the Brazilian and Peruvian governments.
And despite the controversies, stakeholders are optimistic about the project's outcome. “It will forever change the nature of travel and business in the region,” says Mr. Barata.
IT'S COLD OUT THERE: The project team had to figure out ways to lay pavement in areas prone to icing.
PM NETWORK JULY 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG