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The Dimensions of Infrastructure in the Amazon
On July 12, 2021, the 6th plenary of the year of Uma Concertação pela Amazônia took place. To talk about the theme “The Dimensions of Infrastructure in the Amazon”, we received as guests the governor of the state of Pará, Helder Barbalho; sociologist and professor at the University of São Paulo, Ricardo Abramovay; the CPI – Climate Policy Initiative researcher, Ana Cristina Barros; and photojournalist Paula Sampaio. The meeting was mediated by Francisco Gaetani, professor at Ebape/FGV and fellow at the Arapyaú Institute.

The challenges linked to a contemporary understanding of infrastructure and the search for a real and long-term positive impact for its main beneficiaries.

On July 12, 2021, the 6th plenary of the year of Uma Concertação pela Amazônia took place. To talk about the theme “The Dimensions of Infrastructure in the Amazon”, we received as guests the governor of the state of Pará, Helder Barbalho; sociologist and professor at the University of São Paulo, Ricardo Abramovay; the CPI – Climate Policy Initiative researcher, Ana Cristina Barros; and photojournalist Paula Sampaio. The meeting was mediated by Francisco Gaetani, professor at Ebape/FGV and fellow at the Arapyaú Institute.

Ricardo Abramovay, who has been working with the Concertação’s WG Infrastructure and Environmental Justice, began his speech by presenting how the global vision of what infrastructure is is changing. According to the professor, the definition itself is changing. Since global entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Global Commission on the Economy and Climate Change state that contemporary infrastructures are focusing on two objectives: confronting climate change and fight against inequalities. Therefore, anyone who thinks of infrastructure only as a support for economic development is looking to the past.

The world, according to Abramovay, will invest between 2015 and 2030 around 94 million dollars in infrastructure projects. However, the professor warns that depending on where the investments are made, we can improve the situation or put ourselves in conditions that are even more difficult to overcome from a social and environmental point of view. In this way, we need to focus on constructive outputs, such as, for example, infrastructure projects that are not monofunctional, serving exclusively a present demand, without paying attention to the two points mentioned above: climate change and social inequalities.

The USP professor also pointed out 4 fundamental changes in the idea of infrastructure. The first is the recognition of the importance of natural infrastructure. We need to preserve the forest because it is life, but also because it is useful. It purifies the air and water, allows the capture of energy, prevents flooding, etc. And it is this natural infrastructure, according to Abramovay, that is being attacked. To maintain it, we need a lot of science, with research institutes, universities, etc. The second change relates to the emergence of the Care Economy. A theme that in the US has been treated as a priority by President Biden and understands care for people as infrastructure – the elderly, people with physical disabilities, caregivers, education professionals.

The third change is related to immaterial infrastructures. Recognizing state organizations, cooperatives, quality seals, etc., as an important part of development. And the last one refers to the redefinition of gray infrastructures, with attention to new solutions, such as nature-based solutions (SbN), present in public policies in the European Union. For Ricardo, SbNs are essential for urban infrastructures, which need to be able to respond to the challenges of forest cities – such as waterproofing, the logic of cities as a transit point for commodities and which do not take advantage of the use of smart wood from wood in projects and construction.

“It is not about offering, in a generic way, public goods so that the private sector can expand its initiatives, but rather about shaping these initiatives towards purposes that involve the two greatest contemporary challenges: facing the climate crisis and reducing of inequalities.” – Ricardo Abramovay

The second guest to present, Ana Cristina Barros, brought a complementary vision to that of Ricardo Abramovay. According to the researcher, the assumption of the CPI is that investment in infrastructure is desirable, however, criticism of old projects – the gray ones, based on cement – is necessary. Governments, for Ana Cristina, believe that criticism represents opposition, when in fact it just means a search for the improvement of propositions. Which, for her, is already an old demand, dating back to 2009, when the G20 started discussions on the quality of projects.

According to the researcher, contrary to what happened in the past – when the main complaint of rulers was the way they were criticized – today there are several interlocutors and different ways of transmitting the message. So, she believes that it is not a reception difficulty related to the form, but to the message itself. Government officials are still resistant to a new way of thinking about infrastructure. And so, they continue to develop and invest in projects that do not account for environmental costs, that do not take into account the context of the Amazon, for example, or even that distort what they propose – excessively emphasizing benefits and underestimating risks.

Ana Cristina suggests the need to understand that in the Amazon the territories are a liability for enormous public policies. Therefore, when the construction of a hydroelectric plant is proposed, other pressing local demands arise, such as schools, sanitation and water. We cannot complain about the social demands that come to make the hydroelectric plant viable in a broader context. According to her, Chile has a good example of how to deal with these demands.

The Chilean government’s program of “Voluntary Pre-Investment Agreements” promotes the adoption of high socio-environmental standards by investment projects, through the implementation of participatory processes right at the beginning of infrastructure projects, facilitating the execution of agreements aimed at improving the project and its benefits, as well as creating long-term constructive relationships between companies, local communities and other stakeholders. The Chilean Ministry of Economy realized that if it negotiated for a year with the place where the infrastructure projects would be carried out, it would be able to make the project viable and meet the local economic and social demands without the obstacles and delays common in projects of this nature.

Ana Cristina concludes by saying that we are currently experiencing clashes with the courts, mainly due to environmental licensing. And that to avoid them we need to learn from reading the life cycle of the project – being born, maturing and being implemented – regulated by a decision-making process, which normally lacks planning, feasibility studies and transparency.

“It is this decision-making rite that we need to take hold of. To discuss with the government and the private sector during the decision-making processes, ensuring that infrastructure projects will bring what we most need and want.” – Ana Cristina Barros

The CPI researcher’s reflections were perfect to precede her speech, said Helder Barbalho, governor of Pará and third guest to present her contributions at the plenary. According to the governor, it is necessary to make an assessment that goes beyond specific issues for environmental licensing. Licensing should be the solid basis for a work, but beyond that, we need to contextualize it for the general environment of the territory. In the state of Pará there are even several cases that show us the need for an analysis of governance, social and environmental impacts. He exemplifies the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, which brought many environmental impacts, but which also has extremely worrying social impacts in the Altamira region. If back then Belo Monte was a cause for celebration, today it’s a problem. And a problem that brought little benefit to the territory itself.

At first, it focused on job creation, as a positive impact. However, doubling the territory’s population led to very serious problems. Altamira, about 3 or 4 years ago, was ranked as one of the most violent cities in Brazil and on the planet. Consequence of a lack of planning, of preparing the city, of understanding that we need to have a social and environmental perspective that dialogues together. The governor is in favor of development projects in the region, as long as they are not the result of an immediate agenda with a purely economic objective that does not consider the necessary interventions to prepare the territory, the environment and the local society.

For Helder Barbalho, it is necessary for the state and Brazil to plan. Constructing the day’s agenda and tomorrow’s portfolio in parallel. Abandoning a retrograde view that the environment is an obstacle to development. We need to think about development with compatibility, with environmental preservation, a social and economic development perspective. Not just for today, but for the future.

The last one invited to speak at the plenary, records in images and sounds the social and cultural impact of infrastructure works in the Amazon. Paula Sampaio was born in Belo Horizonte, moved to Pará as a child and later chose Belém to live and work. She is a photojournalist and since the 1990s has been developing projects and photographic essays on Amazonian themes, mainly on migrations from communities impacted by megaprojects, such as highways.

That’s why Paula feels free to talk about the infrastructure of the Amazon. A reality she has experienced since she was a child and records with the lens of her camera. The photojournalist, instead of talking, preferred to show one of her works, a video in which residents of Tucuruí – a city in Pará where the second largest hydroelectric plant in Brazil is located (behind only Belo Monte) – report the transformations and impacts they suffered after The plant was built in the 1970s.

Coincidentally, Paula was making these records at the same time that Belo Monte was being built. His images and videos leave one feeling that in the forty years that separate one work from the other, little has changed in terms of care for the social and environmental consequences that a work like this generates in the medium and long term.


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