Ecosystems Services and IIRSA: Roads and Price Tags all over the Amazon

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The WWF – the ones with the Panda logo – have published a report on the details about “saving” the Amazon rain forest by putting a price tag on every thing, – sorry, assets is probably a better term-, that the rain forest possesses.

The report – Pita Verweij, Marieke Schouten, Pieter van Beukering, Jorge Triana, Kim van der Leeuw and Sebastiaan Hess. Keeping the Amazon forests standing: a matter of values, WWF-Netherlands 2009 – is presented here by Mongobay.

This bizarre fashion of price tagging everything starts with the realisation that the market mechanisms have failed the environment, which is a pretty good observation, but then proceeds to suggest that the very same paradigm of thinking – the economistic, capitalistic reductionist line of thinking – should simply also be applied to “the environment”, since it provides humans with valuable “ecosystems services“. If it is not tagged with a price, why care for it?

While this whole business, as it were, sounds rather disturbing (Can two wrongs make a right? Can a problem be solved from within the paradigm it was created? Einstein famously answered the latter question, of course), the report has some very good bits – it is a very comprehensive report that deserves wider attention, but the price tagging horror really does not appeal very much – at all – to colonos or any of the people we have worked with in the forest. Essentially, it sounds like a lose-lose scenario: either lose the forest or sell it to the highest bidder? And bidding is low these days of financial collapse, so one could hardly imagine worse timing for the publication of this report.

Interestingly, it has a pretty good section on IIRSA, which has been covered again and again here, but the section does not include reference to the Manta-Manaus/Manaos corridor. This goes to show just how big the “biggest infrastructure project in history” is: an otherwise detailed and comprehensive report does not need to list the Manta-Manaus corridor in order to show just how much of a horror show that IIRSA is threatening to be:

“3.2.2 Expansion of infrastructure (pp. 28-29)
The most important supranational infrastructure plan that affects the Amazon is the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), which aims to promote the development of regional transportation, energy and telecommunications infrastructure, by improving the physical connections between the twelve South American countries. In December 2004, for example, the governments of Brazil and Peru agreed to construct the Transoceanic Highway, stretching from the Atlantic coast of Brazil across the Amazon and Andes to the Peruvian Pacific coast. This highway will carve a route through some of Peru’s most diverse primary rainforests and will affect the territories of currently isolated indigenous cultures.

The three main seaports of Brazil are located on the south-eastern coastline and handle nearly 80% of Brazil’s agricultural exports. However, as soy production moves into the interior, the cost of moving the product to the markets decreases the profitability and competitiveness of soy in these regions. Since 1996, the government has therefore launched several massive multiannual programs to construct infrastructure in the interior of the country. The programmes aim to improve transportation facilities and decrease the costs of moving the agricultural output from the interior to the port facilities, mainly by means of the Amazon River and its largest tributaries. The most recently development plan is known as PAC (growth acceleration plan 2007-2010).

Examples of major projects are the Madeira-Amazon waterway, in operation since 1997, facilitating the transportation of agricultural products, of which soy is the most important, from the state of Mato Grosso upstream to the Amazon port of Itacoatiara; the BR163 Highway from the southern city of Cuiaba in the state of Mato Grosso to the Amazon port of Santarem; the BR319 Highway in western Amazonia linking Porto Velho to Manaus; and the BR158 Highway running parallel at the east of the BR163. The planned paving of the 1,500 kilometre BR163 Highway by itself will open up 10 million ha of Amazon forest to exploitation (Van Gelder, 2006). In combination, the two roads cut through 1,800 km of forests, which currently have a low population density (Cattaneo, 2002). Of all deforestation occurring in the Brazilian Amazon, 85% occurs within a radius of 30 km from official roads. Bolivia is currently implementing its National Transport Development Plan. For Colombia, a transportation plan was developed by the National Social and Economic Policy Council (CONPES), which in the Amazon includes road construction and paving, and improvement of ports and waterways.

Many of these projects will create corridors between densely populated areas and the remote Amazonian frontier (Laurence 2001), facilitating the process of colonization, which subsequently leads to deforestation and other irreversible environmental effects. According to Cattaneo (2002) a 20% reduction in transportation costs for agricultural products from the Amazon increases deforestation by approximately 15% in the short term and 40% over the long term, which equates to an annual increase of 8,000 km2 of deforested area. The reduction in transportation costs would imply a considerable increase in the return on arable lands, thereby increasing the incentive to deforest. Hydroelectric projects are known to have caused the disappearance of large tracts of rainforest and are responsible for the emission of large volumes of greenhouse gasses. The emission of methane from hydroelectric reservoirs is particularly important since it is caused by the decomposition of plant material. The Balbina dam, for example, was responsible for the loss of 2,400 km2 of forest. The total area flooded is more than 3,000 km2, while the annual emissions initially were about 30.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The Tucurui reservoir caused the flooding of 2,430 km2 forest in 1984 and emitted 51.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. Only a few large hydropower plants have been completed or are near completion in the Amazon basin. Plans exist for more than 70 new plants,
flooding a total area of 100,000 km2.

A major project is the construction of two large hydroelectric power plants including dams on the Madeira River in the State of Rondônia in the Brazilian Amazon: Santo Antonio (installed capacity of 3,150 MW) and Jirau (3,300 MW). The project would have to satisfy 8% of the national demand for electricity, while the total cost currently exceeds US$ 9 billion, excluding the transmission lines. This would open a 4,200 km industrial waterway, allowing transport of soy and timber to Atlantic ports. Soy is expected to expand in the region by about 7 million ha, and another large area in Bolivia. Dams with a low installed capacity and large, shallow reservoirs tend to have a powerful impact on climate warming.”

Then, to return to the price tagging horror – consider this table (p. 4):


It is pretty straightforwardly spelled out: the value of the cultural and spiritual aspects of the forest are unknown – that is to the ecnomistic brain, whereas for the people who live in the forest those are its greatest values. So once more we see that the people of the Amazon (or elsewhere) are subjected to the White Man’s equations. We shall leave you with the following diagram (p. 9) to further illustrate how in the heaven’s name these people arrive at the “right” price tags, with no reference to the people or the spirit of the forest, – and if you want to read more about ecosystems services we recommend Sian Sullilvan’s recent article:

diagramNo wonder it is all falling apart………..


8 thoughts on “Ecosystems Services and IIRSA: Roads and Price Tags all over the Amazon

    Zima said:
    Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 08:23 (391)

    I dont think you can or should put a price tag on the amazon. On the other hand, if some A-hole in Brazil/world-bank/us-aid…whatever… wanted to expand cattle (through some free market tenure program or something) or expand some stupid horrible crop….and noone else is doing anything about this whole cost-benefit crap…. then I am for sure going to jump on the band wagon….This is just my “two cents”…

    colono responded:
    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 12:11 (549)

    Well, yes, that it is the very problem: if the only solution offered to a problem is of the very same kind as the problem itself, should you then accept it? What would be the point?

    A bit like pissing in your pants when you are cold, – makes you feel warm for a little while, but then it gets really cold….

    Zima said:
    Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 22:55 (996)

    Surely not, I offered no solution. I go to school with people who think change means NEPA. I am a little less hopeful.

    Steve Kanavel said:
    Friday, April 17, 2009 at 21:05 (920)

    Interesting post. I agree that it’s a massive problem, the most frequently presented solutions to which are almost universally horrible.

    Here’s a recent interview with my former economics professor Michael Perelman:

    It doesn’t have to do with the Amazon, but economists like him at least give me hope for the ability of economic analysis to provide constructive input on ecological problems (ie. showing us where that kind of analysis helps, where it doesn’t, and where it’s extremely harmful).

    His book The Perverse Economy, mentioned in that interview, is a worthwhile read.

    […] can hardly get worse. Otherwise history will just keep repeating itself until the entire planet is price tagged, exploited, criss-crossed by roads, concrete riverways, burned bridges and left for desert. Yet, […]

    Cesar Zavala Toia said:
    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 00:36 (066)

    IIRSA is the bigest proyect of Pysical Integration inside the 12 economies of south america, we can after these initiative have more integracion into the factors of Social, Economy an Political and Democrazy,fighting agains Poverty, Ignorace, Narco terrorism and Ecologial damage y mean Preserving the Ecological Jungle Amazonic.

    colono responded:
    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 14:24 (641)

    @ Cesar:

    IIRSA will bring economic integration, for sure, and the price of that will be the destruction of the rain forest and many other eco-systems, due to the excessive construction of road, bridges, airports, riverways, dams, power station, oil fields and so on, all of which serve the purpose first set out by the World Bank and the IMF and their associates.

    For all the anti-World Bank and anti-IMF rhetoric coming out of the two-tongued leaders of Latin American neo-socialism it is remarkable that their first and foremost commitment is to the world’s biggest and most destructive infrastructure project in human history, namely IIRSA.

    It is incredibly ignorant to suggest that cutting up the rain forest and many other eco-systems, putting price tags on them, and prepare for the extraction of all of its resources can function as a means to preserve the rain forest and those other eco-systems.

    The statement is totally contradictory and presumably based on blind faith in industrial, progressivist development, resting on some sort of commodity fetishism. The people are blinded by gadgets and asphalt, while the leaders have a pathological desire to stay in power, and they know that they must build roads, bridges, riverways and dams to provide the middle-class voter base with the material (selfish) freedoms that they are misled by advertising to crave.

    If middle-class Ecuador doesn’t get their new car and a good road to drive it on and a supermarket filled with imported products to go to, to put it overly simplified, they will not vote for Correa. So the destruction of the rain forest is necessary for Correa to stay in power, and IIRSA is the means to that end (of the rain forest).

    Whoever supports that idea is an enemy of the planet and a murder of the Amazon.

    “There are two sides: the agents of waste and the lovers of the wild. Either for life or against it. And each of us has to choose.”

    colono responded:
    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 14:33 (648)

    PS: also @ Cesar:

    What you call progress and development – which is the Euro-American way of development – will cost the Earth and its peoples somewhere else. That is the very reason that there is poverty in Latin America: because the Euro-American economy has extracted wealth from Latin America for centuries.

    Now that the Latin American countries have joined the path of destruction other regions, and internally the indigenous people and the environment, will have to suffer for the selfish freedoms that you advocate.

    Just had a look at your blog, which appears like a free-market, industrialist cheerleader site. You are spelling the end of the Amazon and exporting your problems to elsewhere.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    By becoming like your oppressors you do not transcend oppression, you merely export it and displace it by joining the exclusive club. Someone else, somewhere else, will have to pay. For now it might be mainly indigenous people and Africans, but in the long run it will be your children, who will have no water to drink. The case in Peru is pretty clear, Within the next 5-10 years the tropical glaciers will be gone and 30-40 million people in your region will be without water – meanwhile you want to build roads and bridges in order to circulate more commodities and extract more natural resources?

    It is utter madness.

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