BRASILIA, Brazil -- An independent panel of experts has concluded that the current designs and evaluations for the Hidrovia Paraguay-Parana navigation project -- one of the largest proposed infrastructure projects in South America -- are fundamentally flawed. The panel found official studies to be wholly inadequate and do not satisfactorily answer questions regarding the project's environmental and social risks, such as damage to the Pantanal wetlands and exacerbation of conditions for the region's millions of poor people, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
The stated purpose of the Hidrovia project is to expand navigation in the Paraguay and Parana rivers, which form the border between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguey, and Uruguay, by dredging a deeper channel, removing rocks, straightening some curves, and building new ports. The intended benefits are to expand exports of iron ore, soybeans, timber, and other commodities. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) -- whose state missions are to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development -- have provided more than $8 million to support a series of economic and engineering feasibility studies and an environmental assessment of the project. Cost estimates of the project have ranged from $100 million to more than $1 billion.
An independent panel of 11 prominent researchers and scholars from North and South America was invited by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Fundacao Centro Brasileiro de Referencia de Apoio Cultural (CEBRAC, a Brazillian non-profit) to review the official studies to determine whether the project, as designed, would achieve the five countries' stated priorities of promoting sustainable development, and to evaluate the methods, analyses, and conclusions of the studies. The panel consisted of hydrologists, ecologists, economists, and anthropologists from Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, the National Institute of Limnology in Argentina, the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development, and Catholic University in Paraguay.
"The studies we analyzed do not form an adequate basis for making decisions about expending scarce resources and bringing about irreversible changes to the environment," said Dr. Theodore Panayotou, an environmental economist with the Harvard Institute for International Development. "One of the main purposes of these official studies was to examine the social and environmental costs of the project compared to its other benefits. Unfortunately, our review revealed that the consultants did not adequately answer these questions, and in fact overestimated the project's benefits--like iron exports--and underestimated its significant costs--like loss of fisheries," explained Panayotou.
Dr. John Melack, an aquatic ecologist from the University of California-Santa Barbara, who has worked in the region for more than a decade, concluded in his review that "the official assessments of potential ecological consequences of the Hidrovia on the Pantanal are so seriously flawed that the judgments of 'low to moderate' impacts cannot be accepted as credible." The Pantanal wetlands--one of the larges remaining intact wetlands in the world and a designated Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention because of its unique biodiversity--would be "drastically affected by the proposed engineering works," said panel-member Dr. Juan Paggi of the National Institute of Limnology in Argentina. "A key element of the effects is the hydrologic impact on the region," said Dr. Eneas Salati, an hydrologist with the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development, "and these studies do not provide a complete or balanced analysis of the impacts on the wetlands, on water supply and flooding, on contamination from hazardous chemicals, or on regional and global warming trends."
"As a development strategy, the Hidrovia project can be expected to accelerate a major agrarian crisis that could destabilize the political economics of the Mercosur countries," said Dr. Thayer Scudder, and anthropologist with the California Institute of Technology who has examined large-scale water projects around the world for 40 years. In examining the Hidrovia's inefficiency, he and co-author Michael Clemens emphasize that "past experience with similar projects has shown that this type of costly project will do little to benefit the region's low-income majority and, indeed, will produce fewer benefits overall than strategies targeting these groups directly. It's trickle-down economics' all over again and the IDB, UNDP, and governments like Brazil should have learned by now that it doesn't work."
"We convened this panel to help provide to the public and decision-makers objective and credible analysis from well-respected academics." explained Deborah Moore, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Public funds are paying for these studies and potentially for the whole project--from countries that contribute to the IDB--and we believe the taxpayers' money should be environmentally, socially, and economically sensibl e. This panel concluded that current plans for the Hidrovia do not make sense."
Mauricio Galinkin, Technical Director for CEBRAC, commented that "we in Brazil have watched what has happened elsewhere--in the Mississippi River, the Everglades wetlands, and the Rhine River in Germany--and we don't think that this Hidrovia project is economically justified or worth the risk of jeopardizing the Pantanal." Dr. Henrique Rattner, an economist from the University of Saõ Paulo and panel member, said "hopefully, creating a more-informed debate will help avoid the environmental, social and economic debacles of the last few decades of large-scale river development projects."
The panel of experts recommends that additional studies be conducted to better address the cumulative and indirect impacts of the project and the expected high environmental and social costs. Transportation alternatives for the region already exist and should be better explored, such as improvements in existing roads, railroads, and possibly other existing waterways. Better consultation with the region's communities and 150,000 indigenous people to support their economic development should be promoted, such as community-based economic development should be promoted, such as community-based eco-tourism, production of high-value crops, and access to credit and basic community services, among others.
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