By Morten Rønning
The Hidrovia project involves the expansion of the Paraguay and Parana rivers with up to 50 metres width and 4 metres depth - and stretched out. This is done to make vessels of up to 50. 000 tons able to access Caceres in Brazil from ports in Uruguay and Argentina, Nueva Palmira and Buenos Aires respectively. Second to the Amazons, the Parana-Paraguay river is the largest in all of South America.
The development also involves a large dam near Puerto Caballo. The connecting of the two rivers will be improved, in order for the vessels to reach greater areas in Argentinean, Brazilian and Uruguayan inland, as well as Bolivia and Paraguay, which have no coastlines. The development covers 3.400 kilometres of the two rivers, and is estimated to cost approximately 1.3 billion American dollars. The project is supported by, among others, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and American authorities, in addition to the local authorities.
– We cannot approve nor disprove of the environmental nor the social-economical sides to this development. This is not our job, says Tore Johnsen, director of the Norplan's environmental division, to NorWatch.
More than 300 groups world-wide are working against the Hidrovia development, among others native groups in the affected areas, who have named the project «Hell's highway». The natives feel they have been ignored by the authorities of the five countries, and claim that the development threatens their existential rights.
In a letter the 5th of September 1995, the umbrella-organisation Rios Vivos, representing more than 300 groups, presents clear demands to the developers. Access to information for the affected parties is a main demand, as is information meetings and public participation.
– It is our job to ensure that the local population is heard, in addition to the measures taken by the respective countries, says Johnsen.
The development will start June of 1996, after a long period of planning. The authorities have been pressured by the resistance to execute an environmental impact assessment. This is financed by IDB and the UN Development Program, UNDP. A full assessment for the entire project will not be ready when the work begins.
The first phase of the development is mostly along the stretch between Caceres and Corumba on the Paraguay river in Brazil. The work will include dredging, draining and construction of dikes. In this area, the river flows through the largest areas of marshy land in the World; Pantanal. The developers claim that the work will not start until next year, but the dredging of the Parana river has already begun, and a new harbour has been built in Concepcion, Paraguay. According to the developers, this is not part of the Hidrovia project.
However, Marko Erlich, who is an environmental researcher with IDB, admits to the American magazine New Scientist that it is not easy to explain how work on one side of the river bed has nothing to do with work on the other side of the river.
Unique wetland areas
According to those opposed to the project, the largest area of wetlands in the World, Pantanal in the Brazilian state Mato Grosso and northern parts of Paraguay, is threatened by the Hidrovia development. The area stretches over 200 000 square kilometres, and 3 to 8 million cattle grazes the area.
In Pantanal exists 650 bird species, 20% of which are water dependent, and 250 fish spices. There is also tapir, giant otter, marsh deer, bush dog, caiman, neotropical river otter, giant anteater, maned wolf and jaguar in the Pantanal area.
Pantanal functions like a sponge; soaking in water during the rainy season and releasing it during dryer periods. According to professor Victor Ponce of the University in San Diego, California, the increased speed of the water-flow will cause less water to flow into Pantanal. This will lead to a reduction in the number of spices in the area.
In the southern parts of Pantanal, the Chamocco Indians live. Today, these people can be reached only by plane or small boats. They are under heavy pressure from the big society, for instance loggers and farmers. Ramon Cabrera, who is in charge of the Hidrovia project in Paraguay, claims that this part of the country is under developed, and that the project will «increase the level of development as more ships pass through», according to the New Scientist, June of 1995.
Norplan is responsible for public participation during the development process, i.e. inhabitants and industry that is affected by the development. The company has one man in the area. He alone is to cover the vast area, and expects the job completed in the period from Easter to New Year. Norplan's client is IDB, to which the company reports. Norplan will present a final report in the beginning of 1997. The budget is less than one million NOK. (Less than 150.000 USD)
– This money is not enough to ensure public participation in the project, but we can have a catalytic function in the process, says Tore Johnsen.
Norplan has developed a working program to inform the local inhabitants, and will arrange information seminars for them.
The money that is set aside by IDB for this project originally springs from Norway. It was part of the amount of money that NORAD had granted to the IDB fond for consultancy services. In total, the Norwegian grants to IDB amounts up to as much as one million American dollars. The money shall mostly be spent in sectors where Norway has internationally competitive technology. 70% of the fund is reserved for Norwegian consultants.
IDB manages the fond, but NORAD has to approve the final contract between the bank and the consultant.
– We do in no way legitimise the project by our participation. But as the process has already started, there is an obvious demand for the work we do, says Tore Johnsen.
«Nothing in this project is to the benefit of the natives. If the rivers and the wetlands are affected, our drinking water, our brooks and our wells will be affected as well. As such, our lives will be affected and our existence threatened.»
From the conclusion of the first meeting of 16 native groups from the Paraguay reservoir, October 1995
The experiences from Europe, especially the Rhine, and Mississippi in the USA, suggest hazardous consequences from this kind of changes to the course of the river. The floods we have seen over the last years, both in Europe and in the USA, can to a great extent be referred back to such developments. In spite of the American authorities trying to mend the damages at home, like the dry-out of the wetland Everglades in Florida, they are supporting similar projects abroad.
Officials of the Clinton administration have warned against the project, both in terms of economy and the risk of floods.
As if the Hidrovia project is not big enough, it may be seen in connection with other water-ways in South America. As such, it will in the future be possible to reach most areas of South American inland by ship - both from the north, and from the south, via Hidrovia. This development, where these untouched areas are opened up for exploitation of gypsum, iron, timber and other raw materials, is something Norplan and NORAD are involved in.
Norplan AS in South America
Norplan is responsible for the communication between the local population and the developers of the Hidrovia project in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. The contract is financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, with close to one million NOK (less than 150.000 USD) originating from NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation.)
Norwatch Newsletter 5/96