Amidst great controversy, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and (MBG) recently agreed to support a gas pipeline project proposed by Enron and Shell Eastern Bolivia.
The San Miguel-Cuiabá pipeline, a joint venture of US-based Enron International and Shell Bolivia, will run 630 km from Ipiás, Bolivia, north-east to Cuiabá, Brazil, to deliver natural gas to western Brazil. The project will severely impact indigenous people and threaten the Chiquitano forest — the largest dry tropical forest left on Earth.
The project sponsors also want to build a 480-megawatt power plant in the city of Cuiabá, in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, as part of the US$570 million project. That facility will be the first gas-fired power plant in Brazil.
US-based WWF, WCS, MBG as well as Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza and the Museo Noel Koempff Mercado in Bolivia have agreed to administer a US$20 million conservation program funded by the project sponsors. They have calculated that the money will be enough to mitigate any impacts from the overall project.
Local organisations, especially the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development, reject this analysis and believe that the net impact of the pipeline will be far greater than any benefits from the conservation program.
Ironically, WWF initially drew attention to the problems created by the pipeline proposal in a voluminous response to the Enron-Shell consortium's environmental impact assessment (EIA) and supplementary environmental analysis (SEA). However, as part of the US$20 million agreement, WWF and the other groups accepted most of the project sponsors' proposed routing with a few additional safeguards proposed by the US government agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which is helping to finance the project.
The three groups were confronted by environmental and human rights organisations from the United States and Latin America who questioned them about the change in their position in light of the offer of money.
A public meeting was meeting was held on July 12 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, attended by local people, the vice-minister for the environment and representatives of the five organisations that signed the accord endorsing the pipeline. The charge of environmental blackmail was raised there directly.
"We insist that the local populations have the right to be sufficiently informed and consulted about this type of project, which generates great environmental and social impacts to the areas that they inhabit and very little benefits for the country, the region, and the communities.
"The signing of agreements such as that which occupies us, serves to grant a green stamp to a socially and environmentally questionable project, in exchange for financing that no-one benefits more from than organisations that have no authority in the area, don't live in it, haven't conserved it and aren't responsible for its administration", said an anonymous source at the public meeting.
To add to the controversy, OPIC granted the project US$200 million worth of loan guarantees. Environmentalists argue that this decision undercuts the Clinton administration's efforts to persuade other industrialised nations to adhere to environmental standards through the work of their export credit agencies.
Abridged from Drillbits & Tailings, published by project underground, <http://www.moles.org>.