REPORT #635 April 2003

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Friday, April 25, 2003

Rivers threatened by development

World Rivers Review. Apr 25, 2003

Transforming the region's rivers into industrial "highways" will harm the environment.

From the Lacandon rainforest of Mexico and Guatemala to the Amazon and La Plata rivers in Brazil and Argentina, governments and multinational companies plan to exploit the hydroelectric potential of the region's rivers and carve water "highways" through their basins.

There are plans for hundreds of dams in the region, including more than 400 in Brazil, 70 in Mexico's Chiapas state, 100 in Costa Rica, 13 in Nicaragua and 10 in Chile.

River channeling projects threaten to convert the region's rivers into industrial supply lines. The projects would require the blasting, dredging and straightening of many thousands of miles of natural riverbeds across Latin America to accommodate large ships all year round.

Virtually all of the proposed projects threaten indigenous communities and could have irreversible effects on the world's largest wetlands, the Brazilian Pantanal, and other valuable ecosystems in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. The projects include an ambitious scheme to connect the Orinoco, Amazon and La Plata river basins for the benefit of agribusiness and timber industries, and a "multi-purpose" channeling and hydro scheme for Colombia's Guamues River.

"Rivers are being destroyed because of a lack of awareness and respect for their value in maintaining ecosystems and contributing to the lives of riverine populations - that combined with a healthy dose of plain greed," said the International Rivers Network's Glenn Switkes. "The result is expensive, environmentally damaging boondoggles that enrich an elite while displacing thousands of people, driving many to absolute poverty," he said.

Latin America has enormous hydropower potential and untapped raw materials, which local governments and international financial institutions aim to exploit. In an effort to make the region more attractive to multinationals two plans have been dreamt up by local governments and industrial leaders. They are the Infrastructural Regional Initiative for South America (IIRSA) and the Plan Puebla-Panama (LP, Aug. 6, 2001).

Both are financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the World Bank, the Central American Development Bank, the Andean Development Corporation, the United Nations Development Program, and export credit agencies of developed countries, all of which, say observers, will receive substantial economic benefits from their involvement.

The IIRSA proposal involves transferring energy from less industrialized countries, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, to more energy-intensive economies like Brazil and Peru.

"IIRSA's projects involve no consultation and minimal information released to the public, such as how the regional environmental and social standards will be maintained," said Switkes.

Plan Puebla-Panama concerns a private sector-funded expansion of the electrical grid in Mexico and Central America. "The structure of the markets should allow private investment, particularly in generation, which allows energy competition and reduction of energy tariffs for the benefit of all the inhabitants in the region," states the Inter-American Development Bank.

However, according to Gustavo Castro, of the Center of Economic and Political Research for Community Action in Mexico, "the objective of Plan Puebla-Panama is to create one electricity law for the entire region: one administrator, one agency, and one integrated grid system to supply the United States with energy from our countries. This plan has been drawn up to respond to the demands of the transnational companies, not to meet the demands of the region," he said.

Projects such as the Boca del Cerro Dam on Mexico's Usumacinta River have encouraged anti-US feeling in the region. Indigenous communities on both sides of the river have organized regional committees and conducted studies of the foreseeable impact of the dam, which threatens to flood a large number of Mayan archaeological sites.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, which is the largest wetland reserve in Central America, could be affected by various Plan Puebla-Panama projects. The 13-square mile reserve is home to 3,000 plant species, the endangered jaguar and the scarlet macaw.

Regional economic initiatives, such as the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), seek to protect trade and foreign investment from regulation by liberalizing public services and complement the IIRSA and Plan Puebla-Panama initiatives.

The region's environmental movement is struggling to make its voice heard before development schemes are approved. Civil society groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have created national citizens' committees to oppose Plan Puebla-Panama. Activists protested at IADB and World Bank offices in cities throughout the Americas. In Mexico, 150 Chiapas communities came together to block the Panamerican highway in protest at the 70 dams proposed for that region.

While new projects are planned, communities affected by past dams continue to seek restitution. Plans to raise the water levels of Mexico's Miguel Aleman and Cerro de Oro dams have outraged previously resettled communities that have yet to be adequately compensated for their losses. Some communities, still owed the 170,000 hectares of land they were promised when the Cerro de Oro dam was built, may again face displacement.

The former Maya Ach communities in the Ro Negro area of Guatemala, who were affected by the construction of the Chixoy Dam, are in the process of preparing a legal case and conducting a socioeconomic study of the damages and losses. The case, which will cite the IADB and the World Bank as well as construction companies, could be precedent-setting for other dam-affected communities.

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