Hidrovia navigation scheme moves ahead without consulta previa

25 May 2019

Having recently adopted a tough line on inadequate technical studies for the Amazon region’s most controversial current mega-infrastructure project the national environmental standards authority (Senace), appears to have reversed its stance. On 21 May it announced that it had allowed 135 days for government bodies to assess the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) tabled by Cohidro, a consortium led by China’s Sinohydro.

No mention was made of the right to prior consultation (consulta previa) for the peoples and communities in the area affected by the project. 

The day before the Senace announcement, AIDESEP (which represents indigenous peoples in the Amazon) had urged rejection of the project to dredge the Amazon and its major tributaries. It pointed to the unassessed but potentially wide-reaching impacts on seasonal water levels and to the disturbance of fisheries at the expense of indigenous communities living along the riverbanks.

The cost of the project is put at US$95 million but could rise significantly given the lack of hard technical data on where to dredge and to what effect. Such technical and social unknowns notwithstanding, Sinohydro’s legacy of troubled projects in Africa gives little grounds for optimism.

A recent opinion piece by DAR (Desarrollo Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) concluded that even if this scheme to dredge the Peruvian Amazon and three tributaries (the rivers Huallaga, Marañón and Ucayali) were to go ahead, it would be no more viable than the Inter-Oceanic Highway project that preceded it in southern Peru. 

The grand vision of such mega infrastructure schemes is to forge a direct route via the Pacific for Brazilian exports to China. But contrary to expectations raised by its feasibility study, the road transport across the Andes to Matarani has proved twice as costly for Brazilian exporters than shipping goods from ports on the Atlantic. A secondary benefit was to furnish Peru with a direct route to the Brazilian market. But eight years after completion, the road accounts for only 2% of Peru’s exports to its neighbour.

DAR believes that the Hidrovía feasibility study is equally flawed. It argues that the 8% of Brazil’s soya exports that would supposedly use the new river route would face 50% higher costs than current arrangements that use the River Madeira. The implication is clear: Brazilian plantation owners will continue sending their soya downstream and the benefits to Peru in terms of exports to Brazil will be minimal.

But the danger to communities may be even greater than those anticipated in the technical studies. The barges that use the Madeira require channels dredged to a depth of 3.5 metres, while those anticipated for the Hidrovía scheme are limited to 2.4 metres. Even 2.4 metres would disturb seasonal fish movements, indigenous organisations contend.

So, notwithstanding Senace’s critique of the Hidrovía last March, the indigenous peoples’ campaign to stop the project appears to have had little impact on official policy, first unveiled by the Ministry of Transport and Communications in August 2012.

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