Opinion: Priorities for governing large-scale infrastructure in the tropics

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Jul 27, 2020
Anthony Bebbington, Avecita Chicchon, Nicholas Cuba, Emily Greenspan, Susanna Hecht, Denise Humphreys Bebbington, Susan Kandel, Tracey Osborne, Rebecca Ray, John Rogan, and Laura Sauls



The G-20 predict that, at current rates, investment in new infrastructure will amount to $78.8 trillion by 2040 (1). As large as this number appears, the G-20 argue that this leaves an “infrastructure gap” of almost $15 trillion over the same period, hampering possibilities for economic growth. National, intergovernmental, and international bodies have prioritized investment in large-scale infrastructure as a central development strategy (2). The Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, the South American Council for Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN, formerly the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure of South America, IIRSA: Figure 1), and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank illustrate this commitment.

Access to infrastructure can enhance human well-being—indeed, an egregious lack of sanitation and health infrastructure contributed greatly to the explosion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Amazonian cities such as Iquitos, Manaus, and Belem. But the large-scale, “mega”-infrastructure approach to development has enabled projects that have had adverse socio-ecological effects, run over budget, and facilitated corruption made possible by the immense sums of money involved, opaque contracting practices, and land speculation. The “infrastructure as development” model has not always had felicitous outcomes in temperate climates either: Consider, for instance, impacts on forest loss, salmon runs, soil salinization, and land subsidence in the United States.

Transferred to humid tropical forest environments in times of accelerating climate change, these approaches to development appear questionable: They are largely irreversible in the medium term; they risk aggravating forest loss, freshwater/river fragmentation, anthropogenic climate change, and biodiversity loss; they fuel land conflicts and unproductive land speculation; and they trigger chaotic rural and urban migrations, cause social displacement, and impact vulnerable and culturally diverse populations. Such approaches have delivered infrastructure that is not resilient to climate change. Indeed, this infrastructure’s lifespan will be shortened by climate change and ecological instability, making its financial justification more questionable than ever. Our own experiences suggest that these risks are especially acute in South America (Figure 1), where the survival of tropical forests and forest peoples, many of whom play vital roles in forest preservation and regional economies, must be central to local climate resilience and to any viable global strategy to avoid calamitous climate change.

Given these flawed approaches, we advocate for a new agenda of infrastructure governance based on the foundational principles of sustainability science, and that involves: 1) a rethinking of development that assesses infrastructure primarily in terms of its contribution to the flourishing of humans and environments and to ecosystem connectivity and services; 2) a territorially based approach to planning with profound commitment to the participation of affected populations and the value of diverse forms of knowledge; 3) a linking of science and public action that deepens the quality of public debate, addresses the equity implications of infrastructure, and promotes the rights of humans and of nature. Despite the challenges of today’s adverse political contexts, we argue that spaces for such innovation exist.

Read the full article in Proceedings of the National Academies of the United States of America.

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