The environmental cost of increased infrastructure integration in South America was the topic of debate at the First Latin American Congress of National Parks and Other Protected Areas this week in Bariloche, Argentina. Scientists from around the world met to discuss the effects of the proposed Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), the new vehicle for improving physical connections between nations of South America.
Tim Killeen, a senior scientist at Conservation International, presented a paper at the meeting entitled "A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness: Development and Conservation in the Context of IIRSA." According to Killeen, "Failure to foresee the full impact of IIRSA investments, particularly in the context of climate change and global markets, could lead to a perfect storm of environmental destruction. At stake are the greatest tropical wilderness area on the planet and the multiple benefits it provides."
His concerns were highlighted this week when Presidents Uribe and Chavez, of Colombia and Venezuela respectively, invited Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to witness the opening of the new Ballenas-Maracaibo oil pipeline between their two countries. The invitation included the possibility of negotiating an extension of the pipeline south into Ecuador.
While not inherently bad news, the proposed pipeline to Ecuador would require at least 12,00 km (800 miles) of pipeline to be constructed over mountains and sensitive rain forests in an area of high seismic activity creating an elevated risk of oil spills. On top of environmental issues, there is the added danger of Marxist insurrection targeting the pipeline as part of its guerrilla campaign.
Other projects planned by the Union are the construction of an inter-oceanic highway that would connect Brazil and Peru and a trans-continental oil pipeline that would connect Venezuela with the nations of the southern cone.
Both projects would necessarily cross the Amazon and open up new settlements in the interior causing increased deforestation and the loss of animal habitat in areas where this is already a problem. Deforestation is principally caused by the clearing of land for sugar cane, livestock, and soy production.
Damage to human communities is another area of potential risk discussed at the conference. The Amazon is home to an unknown number of indigenous groups who have never had contact with the world outside the rainforest. Historically, contact with these groups causes death from new diseases and a degradation of their culture and land.
The issues raised by scientists at the conference are not new to politicians and reflect ongoing national debates occurring in these countries. However, conferences like this help maintain the public's awareness of relevant issues and keep politicians informed of potential costs and benefits of proposed projects.
Photo of oil pipeline in Tiguino, Ecuador - Taken by Kyle Glusenkamp