A private consortium’s plans to build a dam in Argentina’s Corrientes Province and flood 20,000 acres (8,000 has) as part of a huge commercial rice-farming project have stirred growing opposition here.
Critics fear the project will contribute to an expansion of intensive, chemical-based agriculture in Corrientes that eventually could encroach on the Iberá Natural Reserve, a spectacular 5,000-square-mile (13,000-sq-km) network of wetlands that accounts for 15% of Corrientes Province’s land area. The reserve, a portion of which is included on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, lies 30 miles (50 kms) upstream of the dam site.
Fueling more immediate concern are the project’s expected local impacts, which would include inundation of an area prized for its grassland, forest and native fauna. Opponents are calling on Corrientes to reject the environmental-impact statement filed by the three–company consortium sponsoring the work.
“The environmental-impact study shouldn’t even be considered,” says Aníbal Parera, a former national parks director who lives in the province. “To be sure, environmental impacts of dams always have been the subject of controversy. But it’s one thing for the state to build a dam, say, for electricity, and another to allow it done for private benefit.”
Governor sees benefits
Project supporters, led by Corrientes Governor Arturo Colombi, view the plans of consortium members Copra, Pilagá and Tupantuva as a step toward badly needed development in the province, one of Argentina’s poorest.
At the province’s Government House, site of the governor’s offices, Colombi in May lauded the project. He said Argentina must “not close itself as a society to this type of undertaking, which is on the same level as industrial development occurring elsewhere in the world.”
During the event, the rice consortium filed its 2,000-page environmental-impact statement with the Corrientes Institute of Water and Environment, the province’s lead environmental agency. The institute has not said when it will issue a decision on the project.
The blueprint calls for a 50-foot- (15-meter-) high dam on the Ayuí Grande, a water course in the Uruguay River watershed. The consortium says it plans to invest US$55 million to build the dam and the rice plantation, which would be Argentina’s largest, producing up to 120,000 metric tons of rice annually.
According to the environmental-impact statement, 966 acres (391 has) of forest would be inundated in the area, which is recognized as important bird habitat. “This dam will mean the disappearance of some 50 kilometers (30 miles) of waterside forest, [as well as] grasslands that serve as habitat for two of the four animal species Corrientes has declared natural monuments—the little river wolf [Lontra longicaudis] and the swamp deer [Blastoceros dichotomus],” says biologist Guillermo Cardozo of the Iberá Reserve Foundation.
The foundation, a nonprofit based in the Corrientes city of Mercedes, has led opposition to the rice project. Among those who signed a recent open letter against the plantation were environmental groups, scientists, small-farm operators and Ramona Galarza and Antonio Tarragó Ros—two of the best-known performers of the region’s popular chamamé folk music.
Says the August letter: “It would be desirable if the private companies of the [rice] sector, with help from the state and technical-assistance agencies, designed productive projects suited to nature in Corrientes instead of modifying [nature] to satisfy their ambitions.”
Minister weighs in
Such criticism appears to have struck a chord with some in the national government. Responding this month to a letter of concern from members of the lower house of the National Congress, Argentine Environment Minister Romina Picolotti wrote that she has called on Colombi to discuss the matter with Corrientes environmental officials. Wrote Picolotti: “This secretariat looks with serious concern at the realization of this type of mega-project, which is likely to generate deep negative impacts on [ecosystems] of incalculable value.”
Leaders of the rice consortium counter that the project will create 1,440 direct and indirect jobs, generate local demand for products and services and yield funding for environmental education and habitat conservation in the region.
The sponsors pledge they will establish careful controls on the use of agrochemicals—a key concern of opponents—to prevent contamination of local water courses.
They also point to the major boost the new operation would give to rice production in Corrientes. The country’s top rice-growing province, Corrientes has over 173,000 acres (70,000 has) in rice cultivation and produces about 500,000 metric tons of rice annually.
“I see Corrientes as the national rice capital, not only for the domestic market but also for export,” says Héctor Aranda, president of Copra, one of the three rice consortium members. “Corrientes has the very special natural conditions [needed] for rice, and the province should take advantage of that to progress.”
- Daniel Gutman