A perilous road ahead?

Filmmaker Eilidh Munro documented the building of a controversial road through the Peruvian jungle and found a community divided. She talks to David Burrows about giving a voice to indigenous communities

Manú National Park in Peru is a wildlife filmmaker’s dream. Sprawling across 1.5m hectares through a massive altitudinal gradient, the World Heritage Site is home to what Unesco calls an “unrivalled variety of plant and animal species”, including spider monkeys, emperor tamarins, ocelots, pumas and the elusive jaguar. “I saw one,” says Eilidh Munro. “It was the best moment of my life.” The encounter lasted “just two seconds” and she didn’t capture it. She has no regrets, though: “In the rainforest you have to work hard for your rewards, but sometimes you are given a gift and it doesn’t have to be on camera.”

Munro, 29, is no stranger to hard graft. A self-taught photographer and filmmaker, she spent evenings and weekends over a number of years building up a portfolio while working for an advertising agency. “I was obsessed,” she tells me over a cup of mint tea in her home city of Edinburgh. She picked the brains of other filmmakers and commissioning editors, learned how to edit material and spent weeks on expeditions, trying to find the perfect shot or footage: “You can’t ask an animal to do what they just did all over again.” This month sees the first screening of her biggest project to date. 

The focus of Voices on the Road is not the reserve’s animals, though – it is the people who live in Manú. What we learn is that life can be hellish, even in a natural paradise. “These people have never been asked what life is like in the middle of the rainforest,” says Munro. “No clean water. No sewerage. No way of leaving in a health emergency. No access to markets to sell their products. I wouldn’t care about the ecosystem if I lived there and had kids.”

She is remarkably candid, and passionate without being preachy. Indeed, watch the film as it does the festival circuit, and you see that it is the communities and their people telling the story. “The generosity people showed us, their time and their honesty were amazing,” she explains. “It’s a privilege to know about anyone’s life.”

Paved with promises 

The 23-minute production – the result of 10 months’ work by Munro and the journalist Bethan John, as well as biologist Shirley Jennifer Serrano Rojas – is not just about life in this rainforest, but the promise of a better one. This ‘better life’ is thanks to a road that would carve through Manú National Park and the neighbouring Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, linking some of the communities isolated from the ‘outside world’. Work started in 2015, but Peru’s environment ministry and NGOs put a stop to it. Since then, regional governors have been pumping propaganda at the local producers: wealth will be created once they can sell their maize, bananas and other produce to new markets; there will be shoes and better education for their children; and there will be internet. 

Those without access to the road have bought into the project, desperate for the promised gold at the end of it. Work on clearance actually continued illegally for a while – by hand, using machetes. “That’s an insane amount of work,” says Munro. “Some people really want this.” It wasn’t hard to convince them, though: “You can gain someone’s trust pretty quickly if they’ve been ignored for so long.”

Munro and John set out to tell this story: how the road was giving some people hope, but the benefits were being over-hyped and the damage under-played. It took months of planning and approaches to the leaders of each of the four communities affected by the development, but in November 2018 they arrived in Peru for a 40-day expedition. They only had a week in each community – Diamante, Isla de los Valles, Shintuya and Shipetiari – to get the interviews and footage. However, they didn’t go in ‘all cameras flashing’, deciding to interview the community leaders first. “We didn’t film for the first few days in each community because, whether you’re filming animals or humans, you want to be discreet,” says Munro. This approach, together with the team’s proficiency in Spanish, put the communities at ease and led to some brilliant results, with the narrative guided by the locals.

“People said we were there a long time, but it was only a week in each place,” Munro says. Still, it was intense. “You’re in a different zone when you are filming in that environment. It’s 40 days: three of us together, interviewing in Spanish all day long, eating together, sleeping in the same room side-by-side.” This lifestyle is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but Munro clearly revels in it – even when there are no toilets, no running water and no electricity. “You get tired when it’s dark so you go to bed, and when it gets light you wake up to an amazing orchestra of wildlife. I love that part of the job.”

Munro’s passion is clear – all those evenings and weekends have created opportunities for her, but she isn’t sure yet how to make a living from her work. Indeed, she is often at pains not to romanticise either her work or her relationship with those communities more than 6,000 miles away: “We were two single white women from the West; we are representative of what stopped the road. So we went into this wondering if anyone was going to speak to us.”

"This better life is thanks to a road linking some of the communities ostracised from the 'outside world' "

Divided responses

Fortunately, they did, and the film captures how people are feeling: some pine for the promise of profit from the road; others are clearly petrified by the havoc it could wreak. In Diamante, which the road has not yet reached, there is hope for the promised “economic movement”, as the community leader has put it. Head an hour upriver to Shipetiari, however, and access to the road for the past three years hasn’t delivered the commercial farming opportunities people were promised. Those in Shintuya, who have had access to the road for years, are also struggling – they’re not commercial farmers, and margins are often squeezed by middlemen. Alcohol abuse is also rife.

It is predicted that, by the time is is complete, the road will have caused 40,000 hectares of deforestation – the size of Edinburgh and Glasgow combined. This is down to the so-called ‘fishbone effect’, in which one major road leads to multiple subsidiary ones as people arrive and the land-grabbing begins. Then the loggers move in. For those already in these communities, logging is often the only way to make money, but it wouldn’t be their first choice, given how dangerous it can be. Legal logging also involves paperwork being filled out in a city 12 hours away – an impossibly expensive exercise. As Munro says, the government isn’t making it easy. 

The road might not only accelerate logging – it could also entice cocaine smugglers and gold or gas prospectors. If, as is now being mooted, it goes beyond Diamante to the Interoceanic Highway, Manú would sit at the heart of the country’s illegal gold mining operations. What has been approved so far, thanks to a change in local government and the environment ministry, is a ‘footpath’ to connect the communities. However, what’s being cleared is 11m wide and 30km long – a road in anybody’s book. 

November 15, 2018 saw bulldozers decorated with balloons in the middle of the jungle while Latin pop music blared from speakers and drinks were handed around. Munro sees little to celebrate. This project of hers – which “grew arms and legs and became bigger than we ever dreamed of – shows that the people living in this “natural gem” don’t just need a path; they need a plan and empowerment. “The hope people have for change is in the hands of those who don’t have their best interests at heart,” she says. “It could all go to shit.” 

She is clearly upset at the thought, so I change the subject. What’s next for Eilidh Munro, filmmaker? She says she’s working on another project that could take her back to Manú, as well as some ideas closer to home in Scotland. However, she also needs to figure out how to make a living from her filmmaking; the expedition for Voices on the Road was funded through the SES 2018 Neville Shulman Explorer Award for Expedition Filmmaking, while IUCN Netherlands matchfunded a crowdfunder to provide the money for post-production. That isn’t a long-term strategy, she admits: “I’m just starting on the journey to make a career out of filmmaking.” There is little doubt she has a gift for it. 

For screenings of Voices on the Road, see voicesontheroadfilm.com

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

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