Scientific flaws in Amazonian mega river navigation project

5 March 2019

An interdisciplinary study by Lima’s University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) concludes that Hidrovía Amazónica, a state concession for construction of a 2,687 km channel linking the main ports of the Peruvian Amazon, poses a significant threat to a range of habitats and ecosystems. It involves the widening and deepening, where needed, of the Amazon River and its tributaries, the Ucayali, Marañón and Huallaga.

This ambitious project is ultimately intended to open up a new corridor towards Brazil, to improve transport of goods and connect with the markets of the South Pacific and Asia. The plan is for a consortium consisting of CASA Peru and Sinohydro of China to start operations in 2020.

However, the project has inspired controversy since at least 2015 when its sponsor, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, was forced to delay commissioning for lack of prior consultation of the populations immediately affected, mainly indigenous peoples.

In December last year, three representative organisations rejected subsequent consultations, withdrew from the coordinating body and demanded a halt to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which requires citizen participation (Hidrovía Amazónica: Exigen detener el proceso de elaboración del EIA). The Ministry of Environment’s EIA certification body SENACE has confirmed the extensive limitations of the EIA process. See here page 19.

Such is the perceived threat of Amazon megaprojects that the national indigenous organisation AIDESEP used its address to COP 24 in Poland to signal the harm to the indigenous economy presented by such projects in their territories. Even so, the NGO DAR (Rights, Environment, Natural Resources) comments “our governments continue to promote infrastructure initiatives that do not taken into account good practice recommended by experts, allowing themselves to be guided by the myth that infrastructure alone spontaneously generates development”.

The UTEC study warns that the consortium’s plans fail to take into account the impact that the project will have on flooding, erosion, water velocity, and sedimentation, concluding that “before modifying a river, it has to be studied”.

The Hidrovía project complements other large infrastructure contracts such as the Inter-Oceanic Highway (the subject of enquiry into massive corruption) and a project to build a rail link connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

At the week’s end, the indigenous organisations AIDESEP and ORPIO published a supplement in La República, researched by DAR, that severely questioned the economic case for the Hidrovía project in the Amazon. 

According to these organisations, the 2012 feasibility study for this Public Private Initiative (PPI) costing US$160 million had grossly overestimated its economic benefits by as much as 680%. Notwithstanding, the Ministry of Transport and Communications had still approved the project. Forecasts of soya being brought from Brazil were seen as being greatly exaggerated as were the movement of phosphates from Bayovar.

DAR concluded that, as with the completed Inter-Oceanic Highway megaproject (at the centre of Odebrecht corruption charges), the Hidrovía Amazónica focused more on the construction rather than actual usage of the project. Its report concluded that, over the life of the 20-year concession, improvements to the existing river transport infrastructure would meet trading needs more cost-effectively without the Hidrovía’s damaging social and environmental impacts.

 

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