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Infrastructure plans imperil Latin America’s forests: Analysis

  • A recent analysis in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by social scientists, along with representatives of NGOs and funding organizations, warns of the danger to forests, communities and biodiversity as a result of planned infrastructure.
  • The team writes that the planning process needs to be focused on projects that bring the most benefits to people and the environment.
  • The authors advocate an approach that includes input from often-marginalized groups like Indigenous communities and looks to science to inform planning for large-scale projects.

A wave of planned “mega” infrastructure projects across the tropics of Latin America threatens the region’s forests and the biodiversity and carbon they contain, a group of scientists warned Aug. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As the COVID-19 pandemic decimates communities, particularly those of Indigenous groups across the tropics, and pushes economies to the brink of collapse, governments and development banks continue to look to massive investments in roads, railways and dams as a salve to stem the lasting economic damage, the authors of the analysis report. The consortium of leading industrial and developing countries known as the G-20 expects global infrastructure spending to be nearly $80 trillion by 2040.

The researchers, who represent a cross section of the social sciences, NGOs, and funding organizations, say that, contrary to such trends, the time for overhauling our approach to infrastructure development is now.

“Taking advantage of this space requires ‘big’ thinking that reimagines the meaning of development, as well as ‘detail’ thinking to reevaluate how, when, and where infrastructure projects are pursued,” the team writes.

Deforestation for soy along a road in the Bolivian Chaco. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Deforestation for soy along a road in the Bolivian Chaco. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Infrastructure projects can endanger the services that human life depends on, altering waterways and providing inroads for settlement and further destruction of the forest. A 2018 PNAS study led by Anthony Bebbington, the first author on the current paper and a professor of environment and society at Clark University in Massachusetts, found that the scale of infrastructure’s deleterious impacts on forests is often shrugged off, even though they have grown to rival those of agriculture.

As the trees disappear, so does the plant and animal life they support. They’re no longer there to sponge carbon from the atmosphere, potentially accelerating the effects of climate change. And forest communities lose a vital anchor of their lives and livelihoods.

What’s more, the promised benefits of large-scale projects for people in Indigenous and rural communities rarely materialize. Instead, the intent often focuses on reaping the economic bounties available in far-flung areas. Indeed, resource extraction, both large and small, often goes hand in hand with new roads, ports and power plants, and the results show up in the region’s forests. As Bebbington’s 2018 research notes, geospatial analyses link small-scale gold mining to deforestation in places like Peru’s Madre de Dios region.

The authors write that a more thorough incorporation of “sustainability science” principles in three specific areas will improve the planning and implementation of infrastructure projects.

First, they argue that projects should be focused on what brings the most benefits for humans and the connectivity of ecosystems.

“There is clearly a place for infrastructure within development understood as a process that enhances the rights and well-being of humans and of nature and that builds socio-ecological resilience,” the team writes.

But they point out that the current focus leans on “brick and mortar projects and the opening up of ‘empty’ spaces and landscapes to settlement.” The analysis notes that it’s often basic improvements like health services that would do the most good. They say that this type of infrastructure is particularly relevant under current circumstances, as the pandemic has revealed that such infrastructure in Amazonian cities is particularly lacking.

The Tambopata River in the heart of Madre de Dios. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
The Tambopata River in the heart of Madre de Dios. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The team also argues that the process for deciding on infrastructure projects has to change to embrace “territorial planning.” That approach involves setting aside “no-go” zones for Indigenous territories that are off-limits to infrastructure development, according to the analysis. Decision-making also needs to address “the grossly inadequate participation of affected communities, especially women, in infrastructure decisions to date,” the authors write. In Brazil, for example, the paving of a longstanding road through the Amazon is currently the subject of an inclusive, participatory planning process to minimize deforestation.

Lastly, the team contends that science should inform the planning of infrastructure projects. That would entail a more vigorous debate about the value of these projects, the team writes, as well as looking at how the consequences of such project are distributed throughout society.

The researchers acknowledge that such reforms amount to a seismic shift in the way projects happen, but say they also believe these changes are possible.

“Despite the challenges of today’s adverse political contexts, we argue that spaces for such innovation exist,” the authors say.

Banner image of mosaic deforestation near the Transoceanic Highway in Peru by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Bebbington, A., Chicchon, A., Cuba, N., Greenspan, E., Hecht, S., Bebbington, D. H., … Sauls, L. (2020). Opinion: Priorities for governing large-scale infrastructure in the tropics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 202015636. doi:10.1073/pnas.2015636117

Bebbington, A. J., Humphreys Bebbington, D., Sauls, L. A., Rogan, J., Agrawal, S., Gamboa, C., … Verdum, R. (2018). Resource extraction and infrastructure threaten forest cover and community rights. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(52), 13164-13173. doi:10.1073/pnas.1812505115

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