for National Geographic News
Plans to build the world's largest natural gas pipeline through 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) of South American wilderness are prompting warnings of environmental calamity.
Known as Gasoducto del Sur, or Southern Gas Pipeline, the proposed 21-billion-dollar (U.S.) structure would connect Venezuela's rich natural gas fields to Argentine markets.
But to do this the pipeline would have to cross through several ecologically vulnerable regions, including Brazil's Amazon rain forest (map of South America).
Such a project would threaten both the environment and local cultures, activist groups contend.
"This plan is a gigantic threat to fishing and farming communities, from the Gulf of Paria [between northeastern Venezuela and the island of Trinidad] all the way to the Great Savannah, which is part of the Canaima National Park," said Maria Eugenia Bustamante, co-director of AMIGRANSA, a Venezuelan environmental group.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who won reelection on December 3, has touted the pipeline as a way to stave off regional gas shortages, integrate the continent's energy networks, and sidestep economic dependence on the United States.
Chavez recently recognized the plan's environmental threats, but says that regional governments should still move forward.
"It is a necessity," he said during a visit to Bolivia on December 9. "If we don't do it, it will be worse, because by 2020 there will be a frightening energy crisis in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay."
Many political analysts believe that Chavez, a former military officer, hopes to use his country's oil and gas wealth to build a political bulwark against U.S. influences in the region.
(Related news: "'Not for Sale': S. America Natural Resources Going National" [October 31, 2006].)
The pipeline, experts say, is less an energy strategy than a bid by Chavez to oust U.S. investors and make neighboring countries dependent on Venezuelan energy supplies.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES