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LATIN AMERICA: Nine Roads Through the Virgin Wilderness

Marcela Valente

BARILOCHE, Argentina, Oct 3 2007 (IPS) - In the name of development and integration, roads, bridges, dams, gas pipelines, ports and other infrastructure works are expanding in South America. But many of the projects are trampling roughshod over protected areas that preserve unique ecosystems and vulnerable native cultures.

"Historically, colonisation had the greatest impact on the fringes of Latin America, but now we are seeing a second wave that is aimed at the heart of the continent," the Argentine coordinator of a symposium that analysed the influence of mega-projects on protected areas and critical ecosystems, Jorge Cappato, told IPS.

The symposium was part of the Second Latin American Congress on National Parks and other Protected Areas, which has drawn more than 2,000 academics, environmentalists and government delegates to the ski resort town of Bariloche, 1,500 kilometres southwest of Buenos Aires, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.

At two well-attended workshops, congress participants presented studies on the impact of the infrastructure projects, most of which form part of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), a programme launched at a summit of South American presidents in Brasilia in 2000.

IIRSA’s aim is to advance the physical integration of the region by means of nearly 400 transport, energy and telecommunications projects in 12 South American countries, at a cost of over 38 billion dollars. Some of the works are under construction, while others are still in the planning stage.

Ernesto Raez Luna, of Conservation International Peru, said the highway that stretches from the border with Brazil to Peru’s Pacific coast crosses areas of high biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest, and affects eight protected areas.


"Sixty-two percent of the Tambopata National Reserve was deforested to make way for this project," he said.

For his part, Alberto Barandiarán, of the Peruvian non-governmental organisation Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR), said that 68 percent of Peru’s Amazon region is zoned for oil and gas exploration and extraction. "Twenty of these demarcated blocs overlap with protected areas, and 12 of them have been illegally granted in concession," he said.

Leonardo Colombo of Bolivia raised the issue of the economic, social and environmental impacts of a highway crossing the Madidi National Park, the most biodiverse area in the country. He said the project not only has high environmental costs, but is also economically non-viable.

"But we’re not dealing only with IIRSA now," said symposium coordinator Cappato.

"Other national and regional initiatives, such as Brazil’s accelerated growth programme, contain projects which are skimming the surface of environmental standards issues so as to ensure the go-ahead for works that will supposedly contribute to development or integration," he said.

According to Cappato, the head of Argentina’s Fundación Proteger, development and integration are necessary "as long as they are in harmony with the environment, and improve the quality of life of local communities." Sometimes, however, family agriculture and other aspects of local economies are destroyed, he said.

Timothy Killeen, a U.S. biologist living in Bolivia who works for Conservation International’s Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS), presented his research report "A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness: Development and Conservation in the Context of the IIRSA", at one of the workshops.

Killeen told IPS that his report "avoids making value judgments" about IIRSA, and describes the farming methods used by campesinos (small farmers) and large-scale agricultural and livestock producers in the Amazon region, many of which are entirely rational.

"Environmentalists tend to demonise these practices, when we really ought to strive to understand what’s going on," he said.

"There’s a myth among environmentalists that agriculture and stock raising in the Amazon are unsustainable over time, but that isn’t the case. Technology allows farmers to invest for a return over 20 or 30 years. Deforestation there is producing wealth, and if we want to promote conservation, we have to know about the real situation," he said.

The Amazon region comprises 6.6 million square kilometres, most of which is in Brazil, but the region also extends into Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname. Forty-five percent of the total area is protected as reserves or indigenous territories.

Killeen’s work describes IIRSA as "visionary, and an eminently practical initiative that proposes to physically integrate the continent." However, it warns that many IIRSA projects will impinge on "ecosystems and cultures that are extremely vulnerable to change."

His report also points out that environmental impact studies conducted by the multilateral organisations that are financing the projects are incomplete, as they only take individual projects into account, rather than studying the collective impact of all the projects jointly.

"IIRSA must incorporate measures to avoid or mitigate the most dangerous of these impacts," it says.

Of the 10 corridors planned across the Amazon region, nine cross the highly biodiverse Amazon wilderness area, the world’s largest intact tropical forest, which provides global environmental services such as carbon sequestration, water resources and climate regulation.

Some of the areas affected by IIRSA projects have "an extraordinarily large number of species found nowhere else on the planet," A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness says.

"At stake is the greatest tropical wilderness area on the planet, which provides multiple strategic benefits for local and regional communities, as well as the entire world," it adds.

"Unfortunately, IIRSA has been designed without adequate consideration of its potential environmental and social impacts. It should incorporate measures to ensure that the region’s renewable natural resources are conserved and its traditional communities strengthened," the report says.

Among his proposals, Killeen advocates programmes that reward people who do not deforest land, instead of those who do. According to his estimates, governments could subsidise longer logging cycles, or benefit from the new market in carbon credits.

"The largest – and as yet unexploited – economic asset in the Amazon is its carbon stocks, which we estimate to be worth 2.8 trillion dollars if monetised in today’s markets," according to the report.

If Amazonian countries agree to reduce their present rate of deforestation by five percent a year for 30 years, they would achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that could be converted into credits and used to pay for the health and education needs of thousands of municipalities in the region, the report says.

 
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