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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hidrovia: Waterway of Desires

Air Date: Week of

Two thousand miles of river wind through the interior of South America connecting one of the world's largest remaining wetlands to the sea. The political leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia have agreed to design a way for more commerce to flourish along the rocky shoals of the Parana and Paraguay rivers against the wishes of a coalition of 300 indigenous and environmental groups who want to preserve their ways of life. Producer Bob Carty talks with presidents and chiefs, as well as river captains and biologists, who all have a stake in the future of the 'hidrovia' -- which means 'waterway' in both Spanish and Portuguese.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Mississippi overflowed its banks in 1993, it left an estimated $12 billion worth of damage behind. Many experts said it was the consequence of changing the river's course and flow for the benefit of commerce. In the Florida Everglades as well, a unique ecosystem has been endangered by the diversion of water from its broad floodplain. Now, many fear that South America may be poised to learn the same set of sad lessons. The governments of 5 countries are planning to build a seaway from Buenos Aires 3,000 kilometers up 2 major rivers, the Parana and the Paraguay, into the heart of Brazil. But the waterway could endanger the biggest freshwater wetlands in the world, the Pantanal. The Pantanal is about half the size of California, and is the last place on earth, aside from Florida's Everglades, that has the richly diverse ecosystem that can only be found in super-wide floodplains. We sent Bob Carty to find out more about the growing conflict between the waterway and the wetlands.

(A native flute player; lapping water; a man speaks in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: The river for us is our mother. Our life. Because without its water, we will die. The river is sacred for us.

(The flute and the man continue)

TRANSLATOR: This project of the waterway to deepen the river and make the river straight, God will be very sad with the people who are doing this. God creates everything right, and when man steps in everything he does is wrong.

(The flute continues)

SEVERRO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: My name is Severro. I am a Guato chief. I live on the Paraguay river in the Pantanal.

(Water laps; birds call)

CARTY: The Pantanal is an endless Everglades. Brown waters bubbling through a maze of channels, alligators slithering down the banks, jabaru, storks and macaws flitting from tree to tree. And more mosquitoes per square inch, it seems, than anywhere else on Earth. For Jeinaldo Lorival, a biologist who works in the Pantanal, this is one of the planet's ecological treasures.

LORIVAL: It's a kind of -- how can I say? -- a kind of paradise. This is the highest wildlife nesting in the Americas. I was walking at night with a cap lamp lighting all the places and counting animals. I found a large pond with some caymans around. I put the lights there and I saw two pair of eyes over there, and I thought that was a crab eating fox. I took notes, and then I found a couple of pumas, cougars, around the bay, trying to prey the animals that were inside of the water. And I said holy cow, they pay me to see that! It's amazing, really amazing; it's fantastic.

(Bird calls continue)

CARTY: But the Pantanal wetlands are not so fantastic to others.

(More birdcalls, followed by motorized sounds)

CARTY: In the middle of the wetlands a conveyor belt feeds a stream of iron ore into a barge. Watching the work from the deck of a 4,000-horsepower tugboat is the captain.

BATEMAN: My name is Rick Bateman. I am a captain and pilot for ACBL Barge Lines in the United States of America. And we're just getting started here now, we'll be hauling mineral and maybe soybean to start.

CARTY: Rick Bateman usually runs barges up and down the Mississippi. His company sent him here because there's a growing amount of cargo to move. This part of South America boasts some of the world's largest iron ore and manganese deposits. Huge soybean plantations and immense cattle ranches. But getting products to market is no easy task. To the west are the Andes Mountains; to the north the Amazon rainforest; and to the south, it's 2,000 miles down the Paraguay and Parana Rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. That's where Captain Bateman is headed, on a trial run, to see how good these rivers are as tugboat highways.

BATEMAN: The draft from this barge is 11 feet but we will never load it to 11 feet. Actually, we cannot even load to 9 foot; there's not enough river for a 9-foot draft right now. The river is not well marked; a few buoys, many shoals, some of them rock shoals.

CARTY: And how long will it take to haul this downriver?

BATEMAN: [Laughs] Forever. They're telling me it will take me 2 weeks just to get to Asuncion, which should be, you know, if I were on my own river would be a 4-day trip. The river lacks development.

CARTY: But development is on its way. Five governments in this region -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, plus 2 landlocked nations -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- are committed to building an inland seaway, or Hidrovia: the Portuguese and Spanish word for "waterway." One of the project's biggest boosters is Juan Carlos Wasmosy, the president of Paraguay.

WASMOSY: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We have virgin land, very cheap labor, and the cheapest electricity in the world. But as a landlocked country, we have the problem of transportation and the high cost of freight. So we need what I would call a transportation backbone, which is the Hidrovia. We must also help Bolivia get an outlet to the sea. This project is of vital importance so that our products are competitive.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: President Wasmosy wants to make the Parana and Paraguay Rivers navigable for at least 80% of the year. That could take a decade and cost $1 to $3 billion. And that has Reinaldo Lorival, the biologist who counts animals at nighttime in the Pantanal, very worried. Mr. Lorival is the Pantanal representative for Conservation International, one of a handful of international groups concerned about the ecological impact of the waterway. He explains that the project would dredge, dike, and straighten 2,000 miles of meandering river. It would also require the removal of several rock outcroppings in the river. But those rock outcroppings act as natural dams, keeping the water in the Pantanal wetlands. Blowing them up would uncork this swampy Great Lake of fresh water. And Jenaldo Lorival says that could be disastrous.

LORIVAL: The water will flow more quickly. The water usually takes 6 months from the beginning of the Pantanal to the south. If you canalize the river, the water can go in 2 months. It will drain more quickly the water from the floodplain. So the water level will be lower and lower and lower. You are not going to have the flood in the system. The birds depend on the floods, the fish depend on the flood. You're going to have less water to refuel the river during the dry season. So the system will be changed totally.

CARTY: Reinaldo Lorival worries that what happened in the Florida Everglades could happen here. A large part of the Pantanal would dry up, forever changing the area's vegetation, its wildlife, even its climate. And that's not all.

(Music plays)

CARTY: When the Paraguay River flows south, it leaves the wetlands, and 600 miles downstream it winds around Ascunsion, the capital city of Paraguay. Here, radios blare in the muddy streets of a slum on the floodplain below the city. These people could be some of the most affected by the building of the hidrovia, a project some of them call "hell's highway." Raul Gauto is an environmentalist with the Moises Bertoni Foundation here in Ascunsion. He points out that the Pantanal acts as a giant sponge that absorbs the water of the rainy season and lets it out slowly the rest of the year. But the waterway could destroy that sponge, and while that would take away the flooding the wetlands need, it would deliver those high waters here. Raul Gauto.

GAUTO: The runoff is going to be so fast that we're going to have more floods downstream. And this is something that we have seen it already, like in the Mississippi. It was changed, it was "managed," as we so arrogantly say. The losses could be a lot greater if we change the hydrology of the river that much, considering that millions of people live along the waterways. That may be real costly.

(Water flows)

CARTY: Critics like Raul Gauto say that governments aren't listening to their concerns, perhaps because they are backed by big construction companies. Companies with the most to gain from a billion dollar project. In fact, Paraguay's president Wasmosy is currently caught up in a controversy over whether his construction company improperly made millions of dollars on a giant hydroelectric project. President Wasmosy, however, insists that the economic benefits of the waterway outweigh the ecological worries.

WASMOSY: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I think this project will be extremely profitable. And if I had enough money I'd build it myself and charge tolls, run it as a concession. We are zealous guardians of our own ecology. Other continents have totally exploited without mercy what nature has given them, and now they want us to restrict our development. I am confident we can take care of the ecological concerns, and I don't think that they should put up more obstacles to our underdevelopment.

(Native music)

CARTY: As much as President Wasmosy scorches ecological critics from abroad, he and other government leaders face growing opposition at home. This is a gathering of 6 native groups in the Brazilian Pantanal. They are part of a coalition of 300 organizations, most of them local, that are raising objections to the waterway project. Natives and community groups have been told by the waterway's proponents that they shouldn't worry. Severro, the Guato Indian chief, says no one has asked him for his opinion.

SEVERRO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I am completely against this project. It will be the destruction of our people. You see, we were invaded 500 years ago. They came with good manners, giving us little things to please us like candies, tobacco. They were pleasing us but also cheating us. So today we do not believe what they say. If they straighten the river the water will no longer come to us. The land will dry up. The fish will be gone, the animals, everything.

CARTY: This growing opposition to the waterway has already had an impact. The governments that want to build the hidrovia -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia -- now sound like they're backtracking on the original grandiose plan to radically change the river. Jesus Gonzalez is the executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovia. And these days, in interviews with the press, he tries to come across as green as possible. This isn't a mega-project, he says. It won't cost $1 to $3 billion. Maybe only $700 million, and mostly from private investors. The project will improve the river, not change it. Jesus Gonzalez says the suspicions held by environmentalists are understandable, but they are wrong.

GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There's a lot of disinformation, and many people think we're doing this in a European way, making canals everywhere. But we're just studying how to make the river more navigable, and with just a little trimming of the rock outcroppings -- just a little trimming.

CARTY: And the project will not increase the outflow of water from the Pantanal.

GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: No, no. There are no big construction works that would do that. We're avoiding that.

CANEVARI: They are trying to look much more moderate now, with the Hidrovia. They wanted to look as if they are really concerned with the environment. But I'm not sure if this is completely honest.

CARTY: Pablo Canevari is a biologist who works in Buenos Aires for Wetlands for the Americas. And he fears he's being conned.

Some politicians say they are scaling back the waterway project because of environmental concerns, but the governments involved have just approved the design for the first phase, the phase that's supposed to have the least impact. And for ecologists, it's worse than expected. The $80 million first phase will remove 8 rock outcroppings, straighten curves, and dredge as much as $4 million truckloads of material from the riverbed. The Pantanal will be affected. But opponents are having a hard time getting specific information about phase 2, the larger project. No one has a clear idea of what's being proposed. Biologist Pablo Canevari calls it a shell game.

CANEVARI: You don't know if what they are saying is really honest or if they are trying to look at, if they are concerned with the environment. But some things are going behind that you are not aware of; maybe they are starting to build part of the Hidrovia. And you are not aware. Argentina's dredging the Parana River [can't get word; sounds like "Santa Fe"] to the south, and they said that they are going to dredge it all the way to Ascunsion. In Paraguay they said that they want to build a dam. This is part of the Hidrovia or no? They are not going to build Hidrovia in one big step but they are doing it slowly. That's very possible.

CARTY: It's also very possible that the Hidrovia is just part of the picture. There's talk about other projects for the Pantanal: a gas pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil that would go right through the wetlands. The building of iron foundries on the Paraguay River. And earlier studies suggested that the hidrovia would only be economically viable if soya bean production in the area doubles. For ecologists like Pablo Canevari, this means an entirely different development model for the Pantanal. One thing leads to another.

CANEVARI: It's building a road, is what's happening in the Amazon when they built the Trans-Amazonica. You first build a road and then people start coming and they open more roads going to the sides of the major road, and what will follow is chaos. So people will disperse all over the place, will start building small houses, clearing the patches of forest to put crops. And so you cannot control what is going to happen after you build this road. Well, the waterway will function as that.

CARTY: And that's why some environmentalists are against any kind of waterway project. Others, however, believe the Hidrovia might be acceptable, if it avoided high-impact construction and, for example, used shallow-draft barges instead of ocean-going ships. Critics of the waterway scheme insist they are not against development. They point out that eco-tourism could employ twice as many people as the waterway without hurting the wetlands. Reinaldo Lorival believes there are other options.

LORIVAL: You have also alternatives in terms of transport. You have the railway that is already built. You have to improve that railway system, and it's not being done by nobody. You have choices, economic choices of alternative transportation. Also, you can use the river like it is. The wrong idea is that you have to change the river to the boats; no, you have to change the boats to the river.

(Mechanical sounds)

CARTY: On his tugboat in the Paraguay River, Rick Bateman watches the iron ore being loaded into his barges. Captain Bateman wants to help his company make money on this river, but he's also seen the good and the bad of so-called river improvements on the Mississippi.

BATEMAN: If it were up to me I would try to do as little as possible. A ship channel, a 3,000-kilometer ship channel is ridiculous. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions for the Pantanal. I've been up this river twice now. It's beautiful, reminds me of my own Florida. I saw a sunset; the sky down here seems to have softer colors for some reason; there were a few clouds. It was the kind of sky that looked like you could just jump right up into, and it went from violet to pink to a soft blue. And I just sat and watched it till it was out of sight.

(Mechanical sounds continue)

CARTY: Environmentalists and native groups are continuing to press governments to scale back their plans for building the waterway. An $11 million environmental impact assessment is expected soon, and opponents hope it will strengthen their arguments for protecting the Pantanal. But the mega-project dreams and ambitions of some politicians and governments here cannot be underestimated. Environmentalists and native peoples have an uphill battle to save the largest freshwater wetlands in the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the Paraguay River in the Pantanal wetlands near Corumba, Brazil.



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