The hidrovía amazónica, or Amazon waterway project, proposes to dredge in thirteen malos pasos, or difficult spots where it is difficult for boats to pass, and employ instruments for navigation and water level control to guarantee permanent transport in Peru’s four most important Amazonian rivers: the Marañón, Ucayali, Huallaga, and Amazon. These rivers both connect the region with principal Amazon cities and supply fish for the consumption of most of the population of the Loreto region. This project was first proposed in 2014 as part of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), and found its first investors, El Consorcio Hidrovias II (made up of Chinese and Peruvian investors) in 2017. Under the current conditions of the concession project, many promises have been made. However, how do they compare with reality, and will they really be met? What is the difference between who is supposed to benefit from the project and who really does?
Creating a modern waterway will also modernize the fleet of boats and other vessels, making river transport faster and more efficient.
In this case, the logic that creating the conditions allows everyone to participate does not apply. Modernizing the fleet—buying new boats, improving existing piers, or building new ones—costs money, and the mechanisms that allow everyone to participate in a modern waterway have not been well thought out. In fact, no economic incentive (such as subsidies or outside assistance) to modernize the current fleet has been proposed to shipowners. This means that when the waterway starts operating (assuming it will function as promised—see below), shipowners who want to modernize their fleet will depend on new corporate actors who have the necessary capital, as few count on sufficient funds of their own to modernize their vessels. In addition, the wharves in the Peruvian Amazon are in poor condition and the construction of 23 of them are included in a prior consultation agreement. Who will be responsible for building or modernizing these river terminals; will they be local or foreign construction companies?
Monitoring the dynamics of Amazonian rivers will ensure permanent river transport.
The project has identified 13 malos pasos (stretches of very shallow rivers) that will be dredged up to eight feet deep and thus ensure navigability 365 days a year. The official identification of only 13 difficult passes goes against traditional knowledge and the latest scientific studies on the dynamics of the Huallaga and Ucayali rivers, which indicate that the bad steps are extremely dynamic and change places in function of the bottom sediment flow from year to year, and even in a few months. The consortium has already begun to develop environmental assessments on these bad steps and intends to deliver the detailed Environmental Impact Study (EIA-d) to the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment’s National Service for Environmental Certification for Sustainable Investments (SENACE) in November 2018; however, the deadline for the consortium to complete the Engineering Study (EDI) is proposed for mid-2019. So, then, how are the environmental impacts supposed to be evaluated satisfactorily, if the engineering studies, which could determine the very geography of the hidrovía, will not yet be completed? Will there really be only 13 malos pasos to be dredged, according to the engineering evaluation? Finally, how will these evaluations inform the selection of environmental variables that should be studied in detail?
The project proposes the use of limnimetric stations to measure water levels, but water level is not the most important variable to understand the river’s dynamics; rather, studies show that sediment flow in the bottom of the river, a variable not currently included in the project’s proposed measurements, is also crucial.
Guarantee permanent river transport.
Without information on sediment flow, we cannot know if the dredging is truly effective in ensuring permanent fluvial transport. The difficult passes are not stable, but can appear and disappear very quickly, limiting navigability. Moreover, once dredged, they could be covered again with sediment, thus wasting effort and investment, all because of a lack of knowledge of the sediment flow at the bottom of the river. This error has already been made in other countries. In the United States, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers made important interventions in the Mississippi River, and the ecosystem is now on the verge of a hydrological catastrophe, because if the infrastructure gives way, the force of the water flow would flood many population centers. If this happens, it would be one of the biggest catastrophes in American history, according to the Atlantic. This example highlights that if the goal is to implement a waterway at the proposed scale, more studies and deeper analyses must be conducted that consider all the important variables for viability. The hidrovía amazónica project has said that the dredging would be maintained for twenty years as part of the obligations assumed by the concessionaire. If we consider that the first interventions in the Mississippi were made in 1724, that means that the United States government is still spending resources to change the river’s flow almost 300 years later. In the case of Peru, who would continue to pay for the maintenance of this waterway, and who would receive the money?
The above tackles only part of what has been promised and what might happen. The hidrovía amazónica is already ignoring local populations and affecting their lifestyles—for instance, the Kukama people, who live along the Marañón River, one of the project’s key areas. From the beginning, the consortium leadership has not been completely transparent with local populations. Prior consultation with the Kukama people began in 2015 only after a judicial mandate, and was based on the terms of reference of the EIA study and not on the project itself, since there was not yet a detailed engineering report. The timelines for the EIA and EDI processes were confused; the terms of reference for the EIA were approved and the consortium commenced activities in October 2017, without having completed the detailed engineering report that would determine project implementation and assess environmental impacts. Further, the Hidrovías II Consortium signed the concession contract in September 2017 without having completed these two studies, which would define the timeline and budget, and without having made a prior consultation with the Kukama people on the project itself. One would think that the project would take local culture more seriously, as these groups base their identify and livelihoods on the aquatic world. By intervening in these groups’ sacred spaces, the world in which we live is being unbalanced. How, then, could (and should) these impacts be better measured and mitigated?
Finally, the hidrovía amazónica’s promise to improve the region’s economy does not sufficiently account for the contribution of fisheries. and the project’s potential impacts on the more than 40,000 people who benefit from fishing in the Marañón, Huallaga, Ucayali, and Amazonas rivers. 40% of the fishing areas and 51% of Loreto’s fishing production are in the lower parts of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, where the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and its buffer zone are located. These areas and ecosystems depend on the fluvial dynamics of the rivers, especially the Ucayali. Intervening in these rivers might lead to a decrease in the diversity and abundance of fish, many of which are the most commonly consumed, such as migratory catfish. In an economy as dependent on fishing as Loreto, the potential impacts of the hidrovía amazónica on incomes and food security are enormous.
The results of the EIA-d will be socialized with the public in November 2018. In the meantime, we should consider what we can learn from the discussions of these studies, what additional questions can be asked, and above all, what our desired vision of the Amazon is. Do we want the Peruvian Amazon to become just a connection between Brazilian markets and the Pacific? Or can we ensure that this new connectivity also takes into account the local strengths of our communities and the conservation of the habitats that nourish us economically, culturally, and spiritually?
Written by Natalia Piland.