See photos of Brazil's expansion across the continent and the resulting pushback here.
ISIBORO SÉCURE NATIONAL PARK AND INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Bolivia -- Delmi Morales Nosa never imagined she'd need her family's bow and arrow for anything other than hunting. But when construction started last year on a highway set to bisect her homeland, Bolivia's second-largest national park (known here as Tipnis), she reconsidered. "The road will ruin our way of life, and we will defend ourselves by any means necessary," said the indigenous Yuracaré mother of two, as she shoved wood into her outdoor adobe oven. Having survived centuries of incursion by the Spanish, rubber traders, and loggers, the park's residents say the road -- which environmental impact studies predict could contaminate the Isiboro and Sécure rivers and push 11 endangered species toward extinction -- represents the gravest threat yet. Surveying the remote wilderness around her, Morales Nosa said Tipnis residents are preparing their traditional weapons: "We will not let the bulldozers in here," she said.
But what Morales Nosa doesn't realize is that stopping the road might require somewhat more formidable weapons. Bolivian President Evo Morales touts the project as vital to the country's future. "Thankfully, [the highway's detractors] are only a few, while the great majority of Bolivians support this project because they know that highways bring development," he said a year ago. Although this may be true, the controversial 152-mile stretch of pavement-to-be is also vital for something much bigger: a continentwide infrastructure network championed by neighboring Brazil, the region's dominant power and economic engine.
Dreams of an integrated South America date back to the days of Simón Bolívar, the continent's 19th-century independence hero. But geography has always been a hindrance. The planet's longest mountain range, the Andes, practically slices the continent in two, complicating east-west roadways. Two-thirds of the landmass is tropical, with soft terrain that makes constructing durable roads costly or virtually impossible. The Amazon and its numerous tributaries should have alleviated the impasse problem (moving goods by water can be 30 times less expensive than by land), but these rivers have portions too narrow or shallow for large cargo ships, and their muddy, constantly shifting banks make terrible ports. Stymied by insufficient means to reach its resources, South America needed a bold solution if it was ever going to find its way out of the backwaters of underdevelopment.
In 2000, one emerged. The continent's 12 governments launched the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) -- a vast infrastructure offensive to power up and interconnect the disparate continent. Brazil took the lead, offering strategic planning and financing in order to stimulate collective growth. "Integration is about bringing people together and promoting development," says Esther Bermeguy, Brazil's secretary of planning and investment. IIRSA was hailed as visionary: $69 billion was pledged for 531 "megaprojects" aimed at stimulating economic growth by expanding export corridors, improving accessibility to remote regions, and increasing energy-generation capacity. (That budget has since exploded to almost $1 trillion.) Over half the budget was to build or improve highways; another quarter went to the construction of railways, bridges, seaports, and waterways; 15 percent went toward energy projects (primarily hydroelectric dams); and the rest funded everything from coordinated air-traffic control to shared IT networks to eased border crossings. But in the 12 years since this monumental task was announced, progress has been slow: Only 12 percent of the projects are complete, while 60 percent are ongoing (in various stages of completion). But the long-deferred dream of linking a continent was finally under way. "Without this kind of planned network of physical integration," says Ariel Pares, Brazil's former IIRSA coordinator, "South America would not stand a chance in the 21st century."
The advance has been met with the predictable protest. Environmentalists decry the massive ecological cost such broad development necessitates. "Many of IIRSA's planned investments are taking place on the continent's most vulnerable ecosystems, including the world's largest intact forest -- the Amazon," says Conservation International's Timothy Killeen, author of the 2007 report "A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness." Also up in arms are indigenous groups, like Morales Nosa's Yuracaré, who say their homelands are being sacrificed for the greater integration ideal. "We suffer the consequences while others reap the benefits," said Daniel Rivera as he and 1,000 others marched 350 miles to La Paz last year in protest against the Tipnis roadway. Although IIRSA projects often include mitigation efforts -- environmental impact minimization or relocation if necessary -- indigenous protests against IIRSA from Paraguay to Ecuador indicate that there's a groundswell of dissatisfaction among those whose backyards are getting torn down.
But amid the noise of what seems to be just another round of the age-old development vs. conservation debate, South America's push for integration is actually bringing to the fore a much more nuanced discussion. "Integration itself is not bad," says Brent Millikan, an organizer with International Rivers, a California-based organization that monitors dam projects worldwide. "It's a question of what kind of integration we want." Indeed, many of IIRSA's critics are not saying no to all development, but rather are trying to raise the query: Who gets to define our development?