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IIRSA: Incomplete integration
Andrés Mego
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Initiative puts ecosystems and indigenous peoples at risk.

In a report titled “The New Drive for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America” in 2000, the Inter-American Development Bank claims that “tremendous natural barriers, such as the Andes mountain range, the Amazon jungle and the Orinoco River basin” are the principle problems in making the physical integration of the continent possible, which would strengthen regional trade.

Also in the year 2000, at the First South American Presidential Summit held in Brazil under the country’s then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), the fragmentation of physical infrastructure was also identified as one of the principal obstacles for competitive regional trade. As a solution, the summit participants agreed to develop a strategy that would aim to inter-connect national infrastructures.

This was the basis for the Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), a continental strategy to promote the development of infrastructure projects in the areas of energy, transportation and communications.

Later, at the Third South American Presidential Summit in December 2004 in Cusco, Peru, IIRSA was confirmed as an important component in developing strategies for political integration and regional economy.

The presidents from all 12 South American countries approved the Implementation Agenda based on Consensus including 31 large-scale investment projects to be carried out from 2005 to 2010 for an estimated cost of US$6.4 billion.

Though IIRSA, implemented in 2005, responds also to communities’ legitimate desire to improve communication ways and could stimulate poverty reduction, the perception of nature as a “barrier” is one of civil society’s principal criticisms toward the initiative.

“Within IIRSA, the Amazon is being seen as a great possibility to unite countries that always saw the jungle as an obstacle,” said Elisangela Soldatelli Paim, project coordinator of Friends of the Earth-Brazil. “However, the initiative’s logic is based merely on physical and commercial integration, aiming at the exploitation of the continent’s natural wealth.”

Potential impacts
In his study “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness,” US biologist Timothy J. Killeen argued that “a visionary initiative such as IIRSA should be visionary in all of its dimensions, and should incorporate measures to ensure that the region’s renewable natural resources are conserved and its traditional communities strengthened.”

IIRSA has been designed without adequate consideration of its potential environmental and social impacts, which makes it a latent threat to aboriginal ecosystems and cultures. Considering that the majority of large-scale projects are being carried out in nature zones such as the Amazon, which are extremely vulnerable to change, the initiative’s environmental component should be a priority.

One of the mega-projects defined in IIRSA’s Implementation Agenda is the Inter-Oceanic Highway between Peru and Brazil, which already began asphalting in Peru in 2005 at a cost of more than $1 billion and will facilitate access between Brazilian states Acre and Rondônia and Pacific ports.

The most problematic aspects of this mega-project will be in the Amazonian department Madre de Dios in Peru, where there is already significant social and environmental liability as a result of informal mining and excessive logging. Although Madre de Dios is one of the departments with the most protected areas in Peru, government presence is weak.

An expert in environmental issues, Marc J. Dourojeanni, the author of “Case Study on the Interoceanic Highway in the Southern Peruvian Amazon,” warns that deforestation, forest degradation and invasion of protected and indigenous areas will worsen after asphalting. However, according to Dourojeanni, “the principle objection to the work is not in direct reference to it but a lack of public mechanisms that allow expected impacts to be avoided and to promote sustainable development.”

Perhaps IIRSA’s most polemic project is the one to be executed on Brazilian territory: the hydroelectric power stations of the Madeira River. This enormous energy project already has environmental licenses from the government and bidding for the construction concession will open on May 12, drawing ire from environmentalists.

The Madeira River is the principle tributary to the Amazon, thus any possible impacts would be far-reaching. On the other hand, since the project is located near Bolivia, President Evo Morales’ government has protested about possible flooding that could cross the border.

Among other impacts, according to Killeen, the new highways will stimulate a massive migration of people to the Amazon region, competing with the local populations for resources. In places where the state presence is weak, such as Peru and Bolivia, this migration will increase unsustainable and illegal activities like informal mining, logging and the use of land for extensive agriculture (LP, Dec. 12, 2007).

A key recommendation in Killeen’s analysis is that the environmental studies of IIRSA must be comprehensive and not specific to each project: “The studies should keep in mind the secondary and accumulative impacts resulting from the multiple projects, including those financed by other agencies and the private sector.”

Brazilian sub-hegemony?
IIRSA’s antecedents can be found in plans that Brazil has put into practice since 1990 when the federal government summoned states and municipalities to adhere to development plans called Multi-Year Plans in order to integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian productive space and consolidate the political and economic hegemony that Brazil has in South America.

This initiative, known as “Brazil advances” and subsequently as “Brazil for everyone,” was based (just as IIRSA) on integration and development zones identified in order to incorporate new areas in the country to global trade.

The initiative strengthened the relationship between economy and improvements in infrastructure and stressed the need to connect Brazilian Amazon states (Acre, Amazonas and Rondônia), far from Atlantic ports, with the Pacific through its neighbors Bolivia and Peru.

In fact, in the implementation of major IIRSA projects, the participation of the public National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) — associated with the development, industry and foreign relations ministries — is fundamental for Brazilian companies operating in neighboring countries.
Important contracts for IIRSA projects have been awarded to consortia headed by big Brazilian construction companies, principally Odebrecht, since they have access to the credit given by BNDES according to its policy of promoting exportation of Brazilian goods and services.

At the same time, another factor pushing Brazil to launch IIRSA, as signaled by Peruvian economist Gustavo Guerra García, is “the Brazilian government’s need to counteract the negative effects of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] concerning the exportation of Brazilian manufactured products.”

“The development model assumed by the Brazilian government for South America is the same one that is ongoing in Brazil,” claimed Jean-Pierre Leroy, member of the Brazilian Network for Environmental Justice. “Is it possible to talk about sub-hegemony? It’s undeniable that Brazil, divided by its interests and willingness to integrate, will position itself so that its leadership in the integration process is guaranteed.”


IIRSA: Integration and Development Zones
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