South America: From Granary to Megaprojects for the World

South America has gone from the world’s granary to the site of innumerable international infrastructure, energy and mining megaprojects. It is now facing a new dilemma: bolstering the economy with the promise of reducing inequality, in exchange for social and environmental costs that are taking their toll.

The old developmentalist model is back. South America has grown, and with that growth has come rising demand for energy, bridges, roads and minerals – just as demand has grown in other emerging economies that today see this region as the new frontier in terms of supplies of strategic raw materials.

The mushrooming of megaprojects can be seen throughout the region – ports, roads, freeways, waterways, mining projects, agribusiness and steelworks.

In Brazil’s Amazon region, the highest-profile and most controversial megaproject is also in Pará: the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which will flood more than 500 square km of jungle and displace over 16,000 people. The dam, on the Xingú river, will have an installed capacity of 11,233 MW and is considered essential by the government to supply Brazil’s energy needs.

The expansion of the Vila do Conde port in the Pará city of Barcarena will improve the transport of aluminium and its raw materials, as well as the export of grains from central Brazil. But it will also displace several riverbank neighbourhoods.

Similar resistance has emerged against two major works in Chile. The HidroAysén project in the Patagonia wilderness in southern Chile involves the construction of five large hydropower dams in the most biodiverse area in the country. The 2,000-km transmission line required to carry electricity to the mining industry in the north will cross eight of the country’s 15 regions. But it will not supply any of them with energy. Work on the project has been suspended by court rulings.

Further north, the Pascua Lama gold and silver mine, owned by Canada’s Barrick Gold corporation, straddles the border between Chile and Argentina in the Andes. Numerous lawsuits over water pollution and the destruction of two glaciers led to a legal decision in April to temporarily halt construction.

In the Amazon region of Beni in Bolivia, indigenous communities are waiting for information on the impacts of the construction of the Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric plant, with an installed capacity of 990 MW and a cost of two billion dollars, which will export electricity to Brazil. Environmentalists warn that the flooding of some 1,000 square km of land will cause environmental imbalances, besides displacing local communities.

In Colombia, the construction of a set of tunnels at the Alto de La Línea Andes mountain pass is generating another kind of controversy. The tunnels are essential to creating an east-west road connection, from Venezuela through Bogotá and on to Buenaventura, Colombia’s only Pacific ocean port. The route is the backbone of Colombia’s international trade, and provides a key outlet for Venezuela to the Pacific.

Forest engineer Paulo Barreto of Brazil’s Imazon institute said the question is “what is the real cost of these works?”: the environmental costs, such as the aggravation of climate change; socioeconomic costs, like the concentration of rural land ownership; and social problems in newly urbanised areas.

Source: Fabiana Frayssinet | IPS News