Infrastructure Projects in the Tropics Threaten Forests and Community Rights, Study Finds

A road cut into the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil.

A road cut into the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil. Greenpeace / John Novis

Large-scale infrastructure investments in Latin American countries threaten efforts to protect tropical forests and mitigate climate change, according to a new analysis published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The analysis warns that so-called “mega-infrastructure” projects — such as dams and highway systems — can compromise the community rights of Indigenous, Afro-descendent, and traditional populations who play an important role in ecosystem conservation.

The findings contradict the priorities of many major banks and national governments, which say large-scale infrastructure investments are critical for achieving economic growth and stability in undeveloped regions — arguments that have gained even more support as countries aim to recover from the economic damage caused by Covid-19. According to the G-20, investment in infrastructure could reach $78.8 trillion by 2040. In Latin America alone, plans exist for a wide array of new infrastructure projects, including highways, railways, ports, dams, power stations, and other infrastructure.

But the research found that these projects typically accelerate climate change and frequently exacerbate forest and biodiversity loss, threaten freshwater and river ecosystems, and fuel conflicts and social displacement, among other harmful consequences. Dams built in the Amazon, for example, have caused increased methane emissions and mercury pollution, disrupted aquatic life, and contributed to the spread of malaria, the study says. The research was led by scientists and policy experts at Clark University in Massachusetts.

To address these challenges, the researchers propose a three-pronged approach to increase resilience through better infrastructure governance. First, they suggest rethinking the current relationship between infrastructure and development by determining the value of infrastructure based on its contribution to human and environmental well-being. Second, the planning and decision-making process for new infrastructure projects must prioritize the communities most affected by those projects, particularly Indigenous communities. Finally, infrastructure agendas should better integrate science with policymaking to increase engagement and fully address the equity impacts of new projects.

—Elisheva Mittelman