Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Norandino Gas Pipeline – a Time Bomb

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 14 2001 (IPS) - When fires were caused by leaks in a gas pipeline running through a remote jungle in northwestern Argentina this month, the consortium was alerted by the same indigenous woman who crashed a shareholders meeting in Brussels in 1998 to protest the construction of the pipeline.

Forest fires occurred at three spots in the province of Salta, in the Yungas jungle, through which the Norandino pipeline was laid in by a consortium made up of a Belgian and an Argentine company, to supply northern Chile with energy.

Heavy rains caused the San Andres river to overflow, and the water swept away rocks and trees which presumably broke the pipeline in several places. Because it is wet season, and the pipeline’s valves automatically shut down when fires broke out at the spot leakages occurred, little damage was caused to the surrounding jungle.

“Local residents saw a blaze one night, and informed the hospitals and fire department. The next day, a town councillor walked down the mountain to the bank of the San Andres river to ask us to inform the company,” Serafina Sánchez, in charge of the community radio in the Salta district of Orán, told IPS.

Sánchez is the president of the organisation Tincu Nacu, which means “meeting place” in the Colla indigenous tongue. She runs the radio in the group’s offices, and administers the money the local community was given by the companies that laid in the pipeline in exchange for the community’s “permission” to cut through the Yungas jungle.

The jungle, whose name means “abundance” in the Colla language, covers around three million hectares in northwestern Argentina and southern Bolivia. In Argentina it encompasses the provinces of Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca and Tucuman.

“The Yungas ecosystem boasts the greatest biological diversity in the country, second only to the jungle of the northeastern province of Misiones,” said Emiliano Ezcurra with the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

There is also a “biological corridor” in Yungas, a critical conservation area that was penetrated by the pipeline.

The project drew heavy opposition in 1998, from Greenpeace as well as local members of the Colla community, represented by Tincu Nacu, and more specifically by Sánchez.

The community, which for years has claimed property rights over the area in question, is made up of around 350 families who live in the Salta highlands.

Environmentalists demanded that the pipeline avoid the biological corridor or that the project be suspended. But the consortium made up of the Argentine steelworks Techint and the Belgian firm Tractebel was keen on shortening the distance involved by cutting through Yungas in order to save costs.

Greenpeace and the local environmental group Fundación Vida Silvestre protested that Yungas was home to one of the only two surviving families of jaguars, of which there are only around 200 left. The area is also inhabited by pumas and ocelots, as well as a great variety of monkeys, birds, amphibians and insects.

The Fundacion says 60 percent of Argentina’s bird species are concentrated in the Yungas jungle. And according to a 1993 study by Germany’s development aid ministry, “a greater variety of ants can be found in a single tree in Yungas than in an entire country in Europe.”

Environmentalists and the local indigenous community also warned of the changes the ecosystem could suffer due to the laying in of the pipeline, which required extensive cutting of trees.

“When you cut down the jungle, the soil becomes very fragile, and is vulnerable to landslides caused by rainfall and the overflowing of the San Andres river,” Oscar Soria, with Greenpeace Argentina, told IPS. He added that when it rains, the pipeline, which was buried three metres below the surface, becomes visible at some points.

Nine months ago, Tincu Nacu filmed stretches of the pipeline that had surfaced after water carried away the earth covering it, said Sánchez. With this month’s heavy rains, the river overflowed and began to sweep away stones and trees, which apparently banged into the pipeline.

“We always said this was not the right place for the pipeline,” said the indigenous leader. “The flow of the river is very strong, and we know that floods and landslides have occurred for centuries. That’s why we tried to get the pipeline re-routed, even if it meant sacrificing part of the jungle.”

The consortium tried to keep the incident quiet, but Greenpeace, which was alerted by Tincu Nacu, spread the news of the fires. “We had warned them that their environmental impact programme did not provide emergency measures that would be effective in such a remote area,” said Soria.

Factories in Mejillones and Tocopilla, in the mining area of northern Chile, have been left without gas by the fires. Norandino engineers said repairs might take a while due to the difficulty of reaching the area where the pipeline was broken, which is located in a ravine 30 metres deep.

The fact that the fires broke out in a gully kept them from spreading. Nevertheless, local residents are scared. “It’s like living next to a timebomb,” said Sánchez, who remarked that people living just 500 metres from one of the spots where the fires occurred have a hard time sleeping at night.

In 1998, Greenpeace provided the funds to buy two shares in the Belgian company Tractebel in the name of the president of Tincu Nacu, who showed up at the company’s assembly of shareholders in Brussels with an interpreter and filed a complaint about the environmental impact of the project.

Sánchez told the company’s shareholders that Techint had offered them 350,000 dollars to cease their opposition to the pipeline. In the end, the local community accepted the money.

“When we saw that they were going ahead with the pipeline anyway, with or without our support, we decided to sign an agreement in which the community gave permission for the pipeline to cut across our lands, in exchange for the money,” said Sánchez. “We also signed a clause for extraordinary payments if any damages occurred.”

The money has not yet been used to improve the community’s quality of life. “We put it in a certificate of deposit because we haven’t yet decided how to use it, nor do we have much experience in handling such a large quantity of money,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the pipeline, which was completed in 1999, has become a major headache for local residents. Sánchez feels deceived. “They told us they were working with state-of-the-art technology and with all possible safety measures, but just look: it rained a little harder than usual, and the jungle nearly caught on fire.”

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