A decade ago, South American governments introduced the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) — a multinational initiative to connect and develop the continent. Since then, Brazil has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure in the region, but not everyone is happy about the direction of the development. Indigenous groups in the area say that rampant development — which includes projects that will dam rivers and introduce roads to remote areas, potentially changing the Amazonian landscape forever — will destroy their traditional way of life.

jirau dam

Above is one of the more controversial projects Brazil has embarked on, the Jirau Dam. Complaints about the dam have ranged from labor conditions to flooding of environmentally sensitive areas and the displacement of indigenous peoples. Currently in construction, the dam on the Maderia River is Brazil’s second-largest infrastructure project. Here’s a tour of some of the megaprojects that have stirred up passions on both sides of the debate.

Under Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s watch, Brazil became an economic and political powerhouse in the region. The country has taken a leadership position in pushing forward IIRSA projects, initiating conversations with Bolivia for a transoceanic highway. Although continuing to participate in IIRSA projects, other countries in the region are unhappy about what they see as Brazil’s expanding dominance.


Above, South American presidents gather for a UNASUR summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in December, 2006. Presidents from left to right are Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay.

Environmentalist protests against IIRSA projects are often mixed with intra-state rivalry; in Bolivia, for example, opponents of a recently proposed highway cite not only environmental destruction, but also the worry that the new road will only benefit the cattle grazing and agricultural industries — two businesses that are dominated by Brazilians owners operating in Bolivia.


Above, an aerial view of Bolivia’s tropical lowlands that have been converted to cattle land. Bolivia is facing some of the highest deforestation rates in the region.

The most controversial IIRSA projects in the region are often funded by Brazil, and many attempt to build in previously undeveloped areas, like a proposed 152-mile highway near the Tipnis National Park in central Bolivia.

bow and arrow

Above, Juan Gabriel, 11, a Yuracaré boy, fishes with a bow and arrow in a lagoon off the Isiboro river in Tipnis Park. Yuracaré communities in Bolivia live primarily by hunting and fishing, and worry that the highway would bring wholesale destruction to their lands and way of life.


The construction of the Jirau and San Antonio dams in the Rondônia state of Brazil has caused flooding in the region, displacing locals and releasing large quantities of methane gas. So far though, the drive for development is overpowering environmental concerns about the IIRSA initiative.

The IIRSA project that would bisect the Tipnis National Park is currently one of the most controversial of those proposed. The highway would dramatically change a part of Bolivia that until now has been largely untouched by the outside world.


Above, 62-year-old Carmelo Aguilera, a Yuracaré Indian, washes his face. Carmelo has lived his entire life on the edge of the Isiboro river in Tipnis Park. He spends his days chopping firewood, fishing, hunting, and bathing.

Those living in Tipnis depend on the river and its fish for their survival. Environmentalists worry that the IIRSA highway would damage fragile Amazonian ecosystems in the area.


Above, sardines and pirañas fill a canoe in Tipnis.

But like many of these projects, there are also compelling arguments for building the highway. If the road is built, the area will open up to outside traffic, which would bring much needed resources to the region. Currently, many families in the area are living on subsistence hunting and struggle to make ends meet.


Above, alligators fill the canoe of an indigenous family returning from an alligator hunt in the Tipnis. For one week each year, the reserve allows each community to hunt a pre-determined number of the protected species. The communities have formed a cooperative that then sells the skins outside the park.

Though they often lack contact with urban areas, across the Amazon — in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador — communities like those living around Tipnis are divided about their goals for the future. Many would be happy to continue the way they are, undisturbed by development.


Above, children watch a canoe pass their village on the Sécure river in the Tipnis national park.


Vincente Morales, a park ranger employed by the government to patrol the Tipnis park for almost a decade, pulls a fish from the river. Vincente recently marched in protest against the planned highway. He expects to lose his job, but says that despite the risk, he will continue to fight against the highway.


Workers at the Jirau dam in the Brazilian Amazon pray before beginning a work shift. In April, workers at the project rioted after a 26-day strike in protest of working conditions. The unrest has delayed construction and is spreading to Brazil’s other major infrastructure projects. Protests against IIRSA projects have picked up around the region.


Above, indigenous marchers are cheered by supporters as they cross the Andes Mountains at nearly 15,000 feet above sea level during a 65-day, 325 mile protest march to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. The marchers demanded the government halt the highway construction through Tipnis. They joined a wave of protests across South America opposing other IIRSA dams and highways.

rough weather

Indigenous groups endured rough weather and camped in the Yungas valley during their protest march earlier this spring from their jungle communities to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz. But the struggle initially appeared worth it; the marchers convinced the government to temporarily halt the proposed Tipnis highway. It seemed to mark the first time that protests had halted a major Brazil-funded infrastructure project in the Amazon region.

The conflict over the Tipnis highway placed Bolivian President Evo Morales between opposition from his indigenous constituency and pressure from an important ally, Brazil.

bolivian police

Above, Bolivian police face off with indigenous protestors who camped out in front of the presidential palace demanding a meeting with Morales.

morales megaphone

Morales (with megaphone) attempted to negotiate with the indigenous protestors, but the conflict had dented his popularity — for the first time in his six-year administration. And after an initial agreement to suspend the road, the government insisted on going forward with a referendum vote on the road, leading the protesters to march to La Paz again, setting off another standoff in June 2012.

As the Tipnis protests prove, stopping these projects can be next to impossible. Despite the temporary suspensions, many IIRSA projects are presented fait accompli.


Above, construction has already begun on part of the Tipnis highway.