Infrastructure Integration and Environmental Preservation in the Amazon

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 On January 16, 2008, the Brazil Institute and the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) co-sponsored a half-day seminar to assess the potential impacts of infrastructure projects planned or underway in the Amazon region.

The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA)—conceived during the 2000 Meeting of South American presidents—is meant to forge links between all South American countries by integrating three strategic economic sectors: transportation, energy, and telecommunications. The full environmental and social impacts of IIRSA investments must be weighed against the need to promote the continent's economic development and reduce poverty.

Brazil Institute Director Paulo Sotero noted that the Amazonian biome—the most expansive, continuous forest in the world—is spread out across eight different countries (excluding French Guyana), covering over 4.1 million square miles. The future of the rainforest is an issue of global significance. But with over 65 percent of the forest within Brazil's territorial domain, Brazil bears much of the responsibility for its preservation and sustainable development.

For Thomas Lovejoy, president of The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, this issue "is about a race to the finish line" between two opposing trends to Amazon development: the deforestation that is an "unintended consequence" of infrastructure and development initiatives, and conservation that strives to promote better use of resources, avoiding their depletion as well environmental destruction.

 Gustavo Fonseca serves as team leader of the Natural Resources Division of the Global Environment Facility, stressed that infrastructure schemes could not be looked at on a case-by-case basis. In projecting the long-term impacts of environmental degradation in the Amazon, there must be a way to recognize the future value of the ecosystem; natural resource depletion throughout the world increases the scarcity of commodities, making the largest tropical forest a valuable national resource with major, future monetary payoffs.

 Timothy Killeen, senior research scientist at the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International and author of the report "A Perfect Storm," which focuses not only on the challenges of environmental conservation and infrastructure integration, but also the underlying need that tropical and developing countries have to promote economic growth and social justice. He noted that in order to fully account for all of the environmental costs of potential infrastructure projects, the Initiative should adopt measures that ensure that the region's renewable natural resources are conserved and its traditional communities strengthened. "To avoid the end of the Amazon," Killeen proposed the monetization of carbon markets as a means of developing a lasting revenue source to help defray conservation costs and to provide communities that protect the ecosystem with health and education services.

 Mauro Marcondes, IIRSA coordinator at the Inter-American Development Bank, explored the "myths and reality about IIRSA." It is neither a mechanism to finance "mega-infrastructure" projects nor a process for the privatization of public assets. Rather, IIRSA is a forum for regional dialogue among 12 South American countries that is built on consensus, with each government responsible for the activities and projects undertaken through the Initiative. Marcondes laid out IIRSA's strategic vision for the "Amazon Hub," which includes sustainable and certified forest management; development of bio-industry and bio-commerce; export of new Amazonian products through sustainable practices; and the provision of environmental services, which would provide monetary compensation or social and health services provisions in exchange for forest conservation.

Carlos Nobre, director of the Center for Climate Studies and Weather Forecasting and senior scientist at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), projected that the "tipping point" of deforestation in the Amazon, or the threshold at which the composition and ecological characteristics of the Amazon would be irreversibly changed, would be the destruction of approximately 40 percent of the total forest area. To place this tipping point in perspective, he said that 17 percent of the Amazon has already been deforested; if another 23 percent of the forest is destroyed, it may ultimately lead to the "savannazation of the Amazon."

 In order to avoid this potentially catastrophic situation, Nobre and other leading experts from Brazil's National Academy of Sciences proposed a new development paradigm based on "monetizing the value of the heart of the forest." Given the absence of an economic development model based on the sustainable use of agricultural resources in the tropics, Nobre emphasized the need to "invent a new model of development." His proposal aims to create a network of five Institutes of Technology for Amazônia (ITAs) in order to advance technological education through graduate degree programs and advanced research in the specific areas of forest and aquatic products, mineral resources, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. The intent, Nobre explained, is to globalize the development capacity of the Amazon by developing high-end technology in the areas of biotechnology, biomimicry and nanosciences; utilize a wider scientific and technical base; expand the region's entrepreneurial capacity; and utilize a "full production-chain approach" along with appropriate technologies. The five ITAs are projected to cost approximately US$2 billion over ten years.

Pedro Bara, Amazon policy director of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), explained that, as a result of poor law enforcement and lack of economic prospects, the agricultural industry a perverse incentive to engage in deforestation in order to extract economic value from the Amazon. Bara recommended changing land use patterns to increase the productivity of available land and investment in the development of more sustainable products and services within the Amazon.

Marcelo Lessa, senior investment officer of the International Finance Corporation, noted that the reversal of the economic incentives behind deforestation, both legal and illegal, requires governments to implement and enforce product standardization as well as concerted public efforts to pressure producers to utilize environmentally-friendly production methods.

 Felipe Cruz, coordinator of strategies and programs in sustainable development from Construtora Noberto Odebrecht, contended that discussions of the future of the Amazon need to focus on reality, not on "ideas that don't work on the ground." Citing the "biodiversity connector" that is planned for his company's Interoceanica Sur Highway project, Cruz stated that it is possible to strike a balance between environmental protection and development needs. Principal Executive of Analysis and Sectoral Policies at the Andean Development Corporation Francisco J. Wulff argued that collective action is needed to address the problems of the Amazon, noting that the majority of industrial activity in the Amazon that contributes to deforestation is driven by global consumption demands.


  • Thomas Lovejoy

    Board Member
    Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation; Professor, George Mason University; Brazil Institute and ECSP Advisory Board Member
  • Paulo Sotero

    Director, Brazil Institute
  • Gustavo Fonseca

    Director of Programs, Global Environment Facility at the World Bank
  • Timothy Killeen

    Senior Research Scientist, Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International
  • Mauro Marcondes-Rodrigues

    IIRSA Coordinator, Inter-American Development Bank
  • Carlos Nobre

    Director, Center for Climate Studies and Weather Forecasting and Senior Scientist, National Institute for Space Research Government of Brazil
  • Pedro Bara-Neto

    Director, Amazon Project, World Wildlife Federation
  • Marcelo Lessa

    Senior Investment Officer, International Finance Corporation
  • Felipe Cruz

    Coordinator, Strategies and Programs in Sustainable Development, Construtora Norberto Odebrecht
  • Francisco J. Wulff

    Principal Executive, Analysis and Sectoral Policies, Andean Development Corporation