Can South America China-ify Its Economy Without Destroying The Amazon?

A new, under-the-radar infrastructure plan is currently cutting through huge swaths of the Amazon to help reorient the continent toward trade with China. And an organization called the South America Project is on watchdog duty to make sure it happens responsibly.

Can South America China-ify Its Economy Without Destroying The Amazon?
The South America Project

It’s the largest infrastructure project you’ve never heard of: An $83 billion, decades-long effort by a dozen South American nations to tilt the continent’s economic axis from North-South to East-West (and from the United States toward China). At stake is not just the economy of the continent, but the future of the Amazon, as many of the roads intersect biodiversity hotspots, including Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park and its 846 million barrels of untapped oil.


The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) has managed to keep a low profile because it’s really 10 projects in one, a series of locally financed corridors carved through the Amazon and Andes aimed at integrating neighbors’ economies and opening the continent’s hinterlands to drilling, mining, and industrial agriculture.

Three-quarters of Amazonian deforestation occurs within a 30-mile strip along its highways, which makes the IIRSA’s plan especially dangerous. With a third of IIRSA’s projects already under construction–including a trans-oceanic highway that will shave three weeks off shipping soybeans to China–the challenge is to mitigate its potentially ruinous environmental consequences. But considering the decentralized nature of the meta-mega-project, where does one begin?

This map shows all of IIRSA’s projects. Click on it to zoom.

That’s the self-appointed task of The South America Project, a network of Latin American architects and academics who hope to prevent the spread of gated company towns and slash-and-burn sprawl in IIRSA’s wake. The SAP kicked off last month with a symposium at Harvard organized by founders Felipe Correa, an assistant professor of urban design at the university, and Ecuadorean architect Ana Maria Durán Calisto.

“Throughout its history, South America has had a resource extraction economy,” says Correa. “If you go back to the first Jesuit outposts, they represent a form of company town.” Fast-forward to the 17th-century silver mines at Potosí, the commodity-based booms and busts of Argentina and Paraguay in the 1940s and ’50s, and Brazil’s oil and soybean boom today. “The question is: What stays in South America, and how do you direct the capital for these projects toward social investments that go beyond pure resource extraction?” says Correa.

Correa points to the global flower trade, which has colonized vast tracts of Colombia and Ecuador while contributing little to local economies, as a prime example of what not to do. But he has kinder words for the former company town of Judibana, Venezuela, which was designed in the 1950s for the Creole Petroleum Corporation by New York architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. What was originally a suburban enclave for oil execs has over time morphed into a rich city in its own right. Will the same fate befall places like Iquitos, Peru–a frontier town lying on the headwaters of the Amazon, due to receive a new port and logistics complex once the dredging of the river is finished–or is there an opportunity for intervention?

“The role of the architect as somebody who can actually conceive of alternative scenarios is critical,” says Correa. To that end, the SAP will spend the next two years hosting symposia across South America, filming documentaries, commissioning as many as 20 urban projects piggybacking off IIRSA, and insinuating itself into the bureaucracies driving it forward. “One thing that’s clear from the conference is that the scope of their ambitions is unprecedented,” he adds, “but if we can re-imagine it as something beyond a infrastructural monoculture, we might have a very different and better outcome than what you have right now.”

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world.