Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America
South American river-linking scheme, part of IIRSA
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Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) is a bold effort by the governments of South America to construct a new infrastructure network for the continent, including roads, waterways, ports, and energy and communications interconnections. Project proponents say that regional development can best be achieved by overcoming South America’s geographic barriers – the Amazon rainforest, Pantanal wetlands, Andes mountains, and Chaco savannas. Many of the projects seek to provide road and river outlets to ocean ports, with the goal of providing incentives to increase exports of primary materials – soybeans and other grains, timber, and minerals.
The South American governments are currently proceeding with the implementation of 31 "priority" projects, with a total cost of $4.3 billion. In all, 335 projects have been identified as part of IIRSA, with an overall budget of $37.4 billion. The initiative has received technical and financial support from the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), the Inter–American Development Bank (IDB), Fonplata, UNDP, and others.
Among IIRSA’s most controversial initiatives is the plan to interlink South America’s major river systems, establishing an inland waterway of over 7,500 miles in length via the Orinoco, Amazon, and La Plata (Paraguay–Paraná), in effect creating a river "highway" between the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic. Critics say the environmental and social impacts of interlinking these river basins will be disastrous.
IIRSA’s single largest project is the Madeira–Mamoré–Beni–Madre de Dios hydroelectric and hidrovia (channelization) complex. Project proponents say that through construction of a series of four large dams, at a total cost of more than $11 billion, more than 11,000 MW of electricity could be generated, and a 2,600 mile–long industrial waterway could increase industrial agriculture, permitting the expansion of soybean cultivation on more than 46,000 square miles in the Bolivian Amazon and savanna and the Brazilian rainforest.
The IIRSA plans also include controversial bi–national dam projects such as Guajará–Mirim (Bolivia–Brazil, part of the Madeira–Mamoré complex), Garabi (Argentina–Brazil), and Corpus Christi (Argentina–Paraguay), as well as 18 new dams in the Ecuadorian Amazon which would affect Shuar and Achuar indigenous territories. Trans–border power lines will link new power plants in remote areas with cities and industrial centers.
No attempt has been made to assess the cumulative impacts of this massive scheme. As a result of IIRSA, illegal logging along new roads and waterways will also impact extensive areas of the Amazon, affecting indigenous and other traditional communities. While the infrastructure projects have been well–defined in their scope, the communities that lie in harm’s way have not yet been informed about the planned projects, nor have they been asked what they think of these plans.
For the first time, NGOs from diverse countries met to discuss impacts and strategies regarding IIRSA projects.