Strategic Cooperation / Policy Development

The Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) submitted 2007-02-20 (water management)

NEW publication:
The Return of the Giants: the Politics of Large-Scale Infrastructure; Ecological Impacts and Social Exclusion, an Analysis of the experiences of South Asia and South America (pdf-en pp 20)

Spanish version:
El Doble Rostro de la Integración: Infrastructura a Gran Escala; Impactos Ambientales y Exclusión Social, un Análisis de los Casos del Sur de Asia y América del Sur (pdf-ca pp 20)


Infrastructure development in the name of regional economic integration poses one of the greatest challenges to environmental sustainability and social justice today. The initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) is a striking example of this new trend. IIRSA proposes a series of large-scale, explicitly high-risk (and debt-heavy) mega-projects that would result in extensive alterations to landscapes and livelihoods in the region. In this development framework, mountains, forests, and wetlands are seen as barriers to economic development whereas rivers are merely seen as highways for transport thus accommodating the extracting of natural resources.

Infrastructure can be a tool for a variety of purposes, it is not an end in itself. If infrastructure is to be used as a tool for development, then it is logical to ask the question: whose development? If it is for the development of a nation, a region and its people, the infrastructure must be used strategically to serve the needs of the population.

What is IIRSA

Coordinated by all 12 South American governments, with technical and financial support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Andean Finance Corporation (CAF), and the Financial Fund for the Development of the River Plate Basin (FONPLATA), the IIRSA initiative consists of:

  • 10 axes or "hubs" of economic integration crisscrossing the continent and requiring significant investments in transportation, energy, and telecommunications; and
  • 7 sectoral processes of integration designed to harmonize regulatory frameworks between countries. IIRSA governments have already identified 31 priority projects and hundreds of other infrastructure improvement projects for potential financing, with an aggregate cost in the tens of billions of US dollars. At such an enormous cost, these projects may contribute to the region's already unsustainable public debt.

Impact of IIRSA Given its magnitude, and the scale of its potential impacts, many environmental organizations refer to IIRSA itself as a 'giga-project'. The combination of investments in highway construction, widespread dredging, and dam building, proposed under IIRSA, and significant private sector investments in resource extraction and large-scale agricultural production (e.g. soybeans) will have both direct and indirect effects on biodiversity conservation, small farms and agricultural labor. Historically, such projects have led to the displacement of rural and indigenous peoples, massive migration, and deforestation.

Rationale behind IIRSA

The architects of IIRSA assert that the development of transport, energy and telecommunications will contribute to overcoming ‘biogeographical obstacles’ and thus strengthen markets and promote new economic opportunities.

They also claim that industry, governments, ecosystems, and people will all benefit equally from the development of regional infrastructure. This is based on the assumption that "open regionalism," a combination of trade liberalization, regional insertion in global markets, and massive infrastructure, will automatically lead to sustainable development. However, even the IDB's president Enrique Iglesias admits that the driving force behind new financing for large infrastructure projects is not the Bolivarian dream of regional integration, but "excess liquidity." (source BIC USA) The easy solution to the global fiancé capital's problem of 'too much money with too little to spend it on', are big loans to large, expensive, infrastructure projects. Thus, while IIRSA's development discourse is integrationist, its logic is largely financial.

Breathing new life into old projects

Many of the projects proposed under IIRSA are in fact old, unfinished national infrastructure projects that are being integrated into the regional framework in the hopes of breathing new life into them. The environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts of these projects on such areas as the Andes piedmont, the Amazon Basin, Brazil's Savannah and Pantanal wetland area, and the Paraguay and Paraná rivers will be significant, and in many cases, irreversible.

Why negative impacts?

IIRSA appears poised to repeat the same mistakes as already implemented projects such as: the Camisea Natural Gas Project, the Bolivia-Brazil Pipeline and the Yacyretá Hydroelectric Dam. Experience shows that negative impacts from large infrastructure projects occur because of:
  • Inadequate environmental, social, and cultural standards (and at times the lack of standards altogether) to address the complex dimensions of infrastructure development;
  • Lack of government and/or multilateral development bank (MDB) commitment to fulfill these standards;
  • Lack of government and/or MDB capacity to meet standards; and
  • Absence of independent accountability processes to provide means for appropriate redress when standards are not met.
Significant shortcomings in IIRSA include:
  • Limited access by civil society and local governments to information about proposed projects and policy reforms;
  • Lack of transparency;
  • Weak environmental and social standards and therefore inadequate impact mitigation programs;
  • Limited institutional accountability;
  • Lack of open and transparent participation of civil society in development decisions;
  • Inadequate monitoring programs, and an absence of demonstrable linkages to poverty reduction.
A summary of feared impacts:
  • Destruction of sensitive and valuable ecological resources such as the Amazon, Paraguay Paraná system through deforestation, settlement, contamination;
  • Threat to indigenous communities;
  • Construction of mega infrastructure such as highways and dams built primarily to supply the export driven demand of private sector, rather than based on local communication and sustainable development needs;
  • No adequate structure through which local populations can seek redress in the case of being negatively affected by projects;
  • Lack of parallel funds and plans for social investment alongside mega infrastructure to ensure that the local populations could benefit from proposed economic development (reword this)
  • Increase in poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and destruction of local culture, (as has been a visible consequence of large scale infrastructure interventions in the past, e.g. Yacyreta);
  • A consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few;
  • Increased economic activity alone has been shown not to have a commensurate effect on poverty reduction;
  • That because of cross national and even supra national character of IIRSA planning and funding, it will be harder to hold relevant institutions accountable for their actions.
What is needed and ways forward

Latin American organizations point out that in several situations there is existing but degraded infrastructure (e.g. railways and existing waterways)that could be improved or modernized, which requires much less investment and would be less destructive impact.

While several multilateral institutions have been involved in the devising of the IIRSA concept, the populations, civil society organizations, and local governments have been largely left out of the process.

The sheer magnitude of IIRSA poses a serious challenge to conservation and sustainable development. Preventing devastating impacts to the South American region will require sustained, informed, and effective citizen involvement in IIRSA, particularly in regards to project and policy assessment, and for setting, monitoring, and enforcing social and environmental safeguards.
  • Local populations should be directly involved in further planning and design of IIRSA;
  • Strategic Environmental Impact Assessments should be conducted, looking at alternatives to the proposed plans. They should also include cumulative or down stream potential impacts of the projects;
  • The individual and cumulative impacts of the infrastructure initiatives proposed within IIRSA must be explicitly declared, investigated and public debated BEFORE the IDB or any other national or international organ/institution? decides to participate;
  • If IIRSA is genuinely rooted in a concept of ‘integration’ that idea should include the rights of the populations in the region to actively debate and contribute to the development of that concept;
  • The ‘other integration’ envisualized by civil society groups in the region should be debated and discussed increasingly amongst them). There is a need for integration, improved communication and infrastructure, but one that is of a human scale, that respects the natural environments on which it is built and that responds to the needs and priorities of communities;
For more information please contact Maaike Hendriks: mh(at), Pieter Jansen pj(at), Magali Llatas: ml(at)