RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Environmentalists were caught off guard when South American leaders announced plans to build a massive natural gas pipeline through the Amazon rain forest.
Proponents say the $20 billion project, still in early planning stages, will help satisfy the growing regional demand for gas and help make South America less dependent on outside sources.
But environmentalists say it could damage part of the Amazon — the world's largest wilderness — by polluting waterways, destroying trees and creating roads that could draw ranchers and loggers.
"There are some aspects of the project that are, let's say, worrisome," said Roberto Smeraldi of the Friends of the Earth-Brazil.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the pipeline is a central part of his efforts to reduce dependence on the United States and its pressure for free market policies known as the Washington Consensus.
It's "the beginning of the South American consensus," Chavez has said. "This pipeline is vital for us."
5,000 miles long
At a meeting in Brazil's capital in mid-January, the presidents of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil promised to prepare in-depth studies for the 5,000-mile-long pipeline, stretching from Venezuela to Argentina, by mid-year.
Smeraldi said the short timetable seemed unworkable.
"A government like Brazil's can't do similar studies for projects covering 500 kilometers (310 miles) after 10 years of discussion, and now they are going to manage in-depth studies for a 10,000-kilometer project in six months?" he said.
Smeraldi said he believed the pipeline theoretically could be built with minimal impact to the environment, but the cost would be prohibitive.
Chavez has said he wants the continent's state-owned oil companies to build and oversee the pipeline, and leaders have agreed to meet in Argentina in March to review plans being prepared by their oil companies.
He said Venezuela and Bolivia "have gas for 200 years" and can supply fuel to Brazil and Argentina, where there is increasing demand for power generation, cooking gas and cars.
Double the predicted cost?
The Venezuelan leader estimated the pipeline would cost $20-25 billion, but Smeraldi said strict adherence to Brazil's tough environmental laws would double the cost.
Glenn Switkes, of the International Rivers Network, said if the pipeline were ever built it would inevitably foul the environment.
"There are a lot of issues involved: direct construction, the question of drainage, all the roads that need to be built," Switkes said.
Roads are particularly devastating to the Amazon rain forest. They allow ranchers, loggers and miners to flood into areas that previously were inaccessible.
Road damage cited
Environmentalists estimate that each road cut into the rain forest causes destruction of the forest for 30 miles on each side of the road within a few years.
"They always say they're going to fly in the pipes and not build roads, but they never do that," Switkes said. "Then they say that the pipeline will go around important ecological areas, but they never do that either because it gets too expensive."
Analysts also questioned the economic wisdom of the plan, especially after Brazil's government-run oil company announced it would invest $18 billion to develop the country's natural gas fields.
"Both Brazil and Argentina have gas fields large enough to cover their own domestic demands. I don't see why they would like to undertake this hugely costly project, with money they don't have, not to mention environment costs," said Norman Gall, executive director of the Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economy.
The plan also seems to conflict with other pipeline projects proposed for the region.
"If the government goes ahead with this pipeline (from Venezuela) it will have no money to for any other type of investment," Smeraldi said.
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