Drainage Plan Will Devastate S. American Rivers, Groups Say

July 31, 2003

A massive river-drainage project in five South American countries has stirred international debate about its environmental impact. The survival of the continent's second-largest river system may be at stake.

For more than a decade the Hidrovia project has proposed to dredge and canalize the Paraguay and Parana Rivers to create a 2,100-mile (3,400-kilometer) channel at least ten feet (three meters) deep throughout so that oceangoing ships could reach the interior of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Hidrovia would dredge 260 million cubic feet (7.3 million cubic meters) of silt, remove rocks, straighten the curves of rivers, and build ports.

At first, Brazil championed Hidrovia—and then, in 1999, backed away after environmental concerns were raised. The world of conservation seemed to have scored a victory. But the project recently has shown stubborn signs of revival.

Economic Benefits vs. Environmental Impact

Hidrovia's goal is to expand exports of soybeans, timber, iron ore, and other commodities from the interior. Hidrovia proponents cite the economic benefits. Opponents fear the environmental impact, especially at the waterway's end in the region of the Pantanal, or the swamp—the world's largest freshwater wetland, which encompasses part of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

"It'll be hell's highway," says Oscar Rivas, coordinator general and founder of Sobrevivencia, a Paraguayan environmental organization in Asuncion.

In the late 1990s Rivas and his team of conservationists floated down the Rio Paraguay in small boats, warning river communities about Hidrovia's potential consequences. In 2000, Rivas won a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for the campaign to foil Hidrovia.

"Numerous studies have shown that the dredging of the rivers could seriously affect the Pantanal," Rivas says. "There's a chance it will become a desert."

Every year the Pantanal ebbs and flows, creating a flooding area twice the size of Austria.

The Pantanal is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife: 650 species of birds, 260 species of fish and more than 90,000 types of plants. Capybaras, the world's largest rodents, inhabit the region, as do threatened animals like the Brazilian jaguar, great river otter and giant anteaters.

"The Pantanal is a fragile environment," says Adilio Miranda, director of a proposed new park in Brazil that includes part of the Pantanal: Parque Nacional da Serra da Bodoquena. "Large-scale projects have to be very carefully considered."

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