Drainage Plan Will Devastate S. American Rivers, Groups Say

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
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."

Piecemealing the Hidrovia

Now the Hidrovia project has resurfaced in a new guise. "The reality is that much of the river's territories are owned privately," Rivas says. "The new concern is whether powerful commercial enterprises will join forces and begin piecemealing the project together."

Argentina and Bolivia are selectively dredging the Rio Paraguay. The Paraguayan government continues to express interest in the project. In Brazil, rumors circulate about closed-door meetings between large-scale soybean farms and cattle ranch owners looking to dredge and straighten river sections.

For Hidrovia to move forward, the project must convince that the economic gains outweigh the environmental concerns.

The people of the Pantanal have mixed emotions.

"The whole thing will only benefit big business," says Antonio Piaz, a fishing boat captain in Conception, Paraguay. "It'll ruin the fishing business by changing the river conditions and adding pollution from freighters."

Some 150,000 indigenous peoples live in the river regions. "We don't have any jobs or money to buy medicine. Maybe the new waterway will create more jobs in the region," says Celso Zavala, a chief of the Enxet tribe in Pt. Colon, Paraguay.

Zavala, while sensitive to the environmental concerns, wants more opportunity for his tribe and realizes that money often equals better health.

Until Brazil signs on, a full-scale Hidrovia project will not become a reality. But the economic realities of the region make some environmentalists fear that round two in the campaign against Hidrovia is just around the next bend.

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