Fresh from his selfie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China’s Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Brazil yesterday, the first stop on an eight-day tour of Latin America, where he will discuss trade and investment deals including pushing forward a modest proposal that calls for the construction of a China-funded railway built through the Amazon rainforest, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Predictably, environmentalists aren’t enamored with the proposal.
Currently just a harmless line on a map, the 5,300km railway would start at Açu Port in Rio de Janerio state and end on Peru’s Pacific coast. It would reduce the transport costs for important commodities like oil, iron ore and soya beans, helping China acquire Brazilian goods and raw materials at lower prices. The Guardian reports that the Amazonian railway proposal already has high-level backing, citing a memorandum on the project signed last year by Xi Jinping and his counterparts from Brazil and Peru. On this visit, Premier Li is expected to suggest conducting a feasibility study to get the project moving.
Of course, what “feasibility” really means for Chinese leaders is a bit hard to define, especially when it comes to building railroads. Even without further study, the obstacles are obvious.The tracks would have to be built first through dense Brazilian rainforest and swamps. Then, once in Peru, developers would be given the choice of two terrain options: desert and/or mountains. The route will also pass through areas torn apart by conflict and ruled over by drug traffickers — even passing near the “Devil’s Railway” — along with land that is home to uncontacted tribes and the most spectacular range of plants and animals on the entire planet. Not to mention the railway’s estimated US$60 billion price tag.
A project this insanely ambitious will obviously be extremely controversial. Speaking with The Guardian, Christian Porer of Amazon Watch lists a few of the problems that might arise:
Past mega-projects suggest that far from consulting the indigenous communities that lay in their path, the government is more likely to steamroll their rights while paying mere lip service to environmental protection. As with road projects, railways open access to previously remote regions, bring a flow of migrant workers inevitably followed by deforestation mafias and cattle ranchers, creating a perfect storm of pressures upon the forest and forest peoples.
In the end, China may look at all of these technical issues and objections and simply say, “No problem.” It already has a record of mega-project proposals in Latin America like a canal through Nicaragua and a railway across Colombia, and already has made clear its ultimate goal of connecting everywhere on Earth via high-speed rail. At this point, a 3,000-mile railway through the world’s most biodiverse forest may seem like no big deal.
Want China Times reports that Brazil’s ambassador to China, Jose Alfredo Graca Lima, sees the proposed railway as a win for all involved. Cheaper stuff for everyone! Commenters also point out that a railway through the rainforest is a better option for the environment than highways. Anyway, whatever China ends up cutting down in the Amazon, it can just replant in Inner Mongolia. Problem solved.
by Alex Linder
[Images via Flickr & The Guardian]