Dr. Ricardo Godoy (Brandeis University), Dr. Ori Heffetz (Cornell University), and Dr. Victoria Reyes-Garcia (Brandeis University) will undertake research on the impacts of road construction on indigenous peoples in low-income nations. Road construction advocates argue that new roads facilitate market access, promote economic development, and improve health and well-being. Detractors contend that new roads have many negative ecological and social consequences. To help resolve this debate, the researchers will use a natural experiment created by the imminent construction of a road through a national park inhabited by three different native Amazonian groups in Bolivia.

The project will take place over a period of three years in villages inhabited by Tsimanee, Yuracaré, and Moxeños peoples, in Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure. The study will commence in 2010 before the road is built, with the collection of baseline social and ecological data. In 2011 and 2012, after construction has been completed, annual follow-up surveys will be carried out to determine the road's immediate impacts. Measures of well-being will include measures of (a) village income and status inequality, (b) intra-household income disparities, (c) individual cash income, (d) social capital, and (e) psychological adjustment. Measures of natural resource use will include changes in the extraction of natural resources for sale and for consumption.

To leverage the research opportunity afforded by this natural experiment, the researchers will invite other researchers to request that additional data be collected on particular topics of interest for other research questions. Thus while this project focuses on immediate and short-term effects of road building, it also will create a significant data repository for other researchers to assess medium and long-term effects. In addition, the research program supports the training of three doctoral students.

The construction of roads through native Amazonian territories has polarized defenders and critics of road building in particular, and development more generally, into two camps. A single study on such a complex topic cannot resolve the debate, but by providing before-and-after data, this project will provide an empirical basis for an eventual resolution.

Project Report

The original purpose of this study was to use a natural experimental approach to measure the impacts of road construction on personal and community indicators of well-being among several native Amazonian societies of Bolivia. The government of Bolivia had decided to construct a road from the highlands of Cochabamba to the lowlands of the department of Beni; the road would cut through a National Park which was also the territory of Mojeno, Yuracare, and Tsimane' communities. The basic idea was to measure many indicators of well-being (e.g., income, asset wealth, human capital) in village directly exposed to the projected road and in a set of control villages far from the projected road. The experiment was unusual because it allowed researcher to control for endogeneity biases plaguing observational studies of the impact of roads among indigenous peoples. Researchers did a baseline survey in 2012 with 630 households and 2980 people in 26 villages. The initial idea had been to return to the same localities and households for re-interviews after the construction of the road. Owing to social protests about the environmental damage and human-rights violations that the road might cause, the road was never built. After the first survey (2012) researchers asked NSF if they could use the remaining funds for a second baseline study (as is often done in natural and real experiments). With NSF approval, researchers conducted the second survey in 2013. The second survey included 698 households and 3342 people. As part of the study researchers analyzed satellite imagery of land cover changes for the period 1986-2011. Researchers asked for a no-cost extension because rains delayed the execution of the second baseline survey. During the second half of 2015 researchers were able to finish cleaning and entering the data and preparing reports and maps to return to the villages that participated in the study. These were tokens of gratitude for the help they had offered. The main preliminary findings are as follow: Contrary to expectations ~80% of the population wanted the road built and, despite national protest, among local inhabitants the share of those wishing for the construction of the road increased from 2012 to 2013. This suggests that the government has broad grass-root backing for the road - despite opposition from conservation organizations. Monetary income is high by Bolivian standards, amounting to ~US$7/day/person, above the poverty threshold of the Bolivian government and the World Bank of US$1/day/person. Less than 2% of household have secure land title, suggesting that if the road is built indigenous people will have weak legal defense to protect their lands. There is much variation within and across communities in asset wealth, suggesting that if the road was ever built, it might accentuate economic inequalities already present. Analysis of satellite imagery suggests a significant decline in old-growth forest during 1986-2011 even without the construction of the road. Taken together these findings are important because they suggest that if a road was build the impact would fall on a heterogenous indigenous landscape, with considerable pre-existing variation in income levels, community income inequality, and rates of forest clearance. To give back to the communities for the help they gave researchers, investigators gave each community a large map of their village based on satellite imagery, and a summary report of the main survey findings.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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Brandeis University
United States
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