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Hydrogeographies – Resource Extraction Geographies

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From colonization through industrial development, the the interior of South America has an extensive precedent of resource extraction; the area of influence surrounding the Guarani Aquifer is no exception to this history. Although unified by this aquifer, one of the world’s largest holding over 40,000 km³ of fresh water, the differences between the Paraguay and Paraná Rivers are much more apparent than their similarities. The Paraná, flowing atop the Brazilian Shield inland from the heavily populated Atlantic seaboard, is an intensely engineered hydrological landscape. Hundreds of dams, locks, and hydroelectric plants follow the course of the river and its tributaries, and have modified it such that the waterway is more man-made than natural. This dense infrastructural network enables the use of water as a resource, both as a primary resource in the forms of municipal water and irrigation, and as a secondary resource for its electricity generation. A landscape of water control is the defining characteristic of the Paraná River. In contrast, the Paraguay River has been developed as an axis of transportation of extracted minerals and even mining itself. A string of river ports and peripheral mines string the banks of the slow flowing river as it carries millions of tons of cargo each year.

The geographies associated with resource extraction extend the urban condition into the landscape, creating an environment along the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers that is neither city nor nature, but a gradient of hybrids between the two.

It is widely acknowledged that the activities of resource extraction leave a mark on the landscape. The effects of mining, damming, and transportation on the natural environment are well researched and documented by biologists, ecologists, and geographers. What these studies fail to explore are the spatial implications of the elements associated with resource extraction. The built infrastructure supporting the extraction of natural resources is manifested across scales; from region, to landscape, to object. Analogous to more typical urban forms, casualties across scales are observable. These relationships can be from large to small (the location and depth of mineral deposits determining locations of mine pits), or from small to large (the dimensions and navigational radius of a barge requiring dredging and straightening of a river course). Although widely varied in scale and form, the elements of resource extraction manifest the spatial presence of humans in the peripheral hinterlands.

To a large extent, the topography surrounding the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers has shaped the types of resource extraction that take place. On one hand, the greater variation in relief of the Paraná’s fluvial hills and valleys is the ideal condition for the construction of dams and proliferation of hydroelectric power. A deep and narrow valley requires a smaller dam to contain the same volume of water compared to a low, wide valley. The floodplains of the Paraguay are the antithesis of these steeper valleys. In the marshes of the Pantanal Wetlands, a three foot increase in the river’s water can (and does annually) flood thousands of acres of wetland plains. Downstream from this condition, the river’s consistently deep channel and wide bends are suitable characteristics for high-volume shipping with river barges and a network of river ports. The resource extraction infrastructure, for both hydroelectric generation and river transportation has evolved due to the forces of the river morphology.

An examination of the resource flows stemming from the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers brings into focus not only the contrast in resource extraction trends between the two rivers, but more importantly, a picture of the entire landscape of the interior as a hinterland of resources feeding into more densely populated urban areas. The direction of these flows have roots in the European colonization of the continent. In the case of mineral transportation, product flows follow the ports along the Paraguay river downstream towards Buenos Aires; an inverse of the exploration and settlement sequence followed by the Spanish empire. Electricity infrastructure funnels hydroelectric power from the reservoirs and generators of the Paraná to Brazilian urban centers. Access to this abundant hydroelectric power enables the continuing prolific urban growth along the Atlantic coast in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Curitiba. In the case of both rivers, however, the flow of resources is from the continent’s interior, out; for use and processing in coastal cities and export to overseas markets.

The forces at play in the Guarani Aquifer Region seem to converge with a critical mass near the town of Corumbá, Brazil. Layers of political boundaries, mineral resources, natural ecosystems, cultural heritage, and global economies all negotiate presence in the landscape. An abstraction of the dynamic situation reveals a dichotomy between man and nature; embodied in El Cerro Mutún mine and the Pantanal Wetlands. The Pantanal is home to one of the most rich ecosystems on the continent. Thousands of species of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants rely on the fragile seasonal wetlands as a habitat, and the wetland’s role as a recharge area for both the Paraguay River and the Guarani Aquifer mean that disturbances here have effects that reach far downstream. Pollution, destruction of ecosystems, and distrubance of the natural flows of water are the largest threats to the wetlands. El Cerro Mutún iron mine, less than twelve miles inland from the Paraguay River’s west bank and even closer to seasonal wetlands, has the potential to drastically change the landscape of the area.The 40 billion ton iron ore deposit is the largest in the world, and its development as a mine has ignited great controversy between local residents, the state government, environmentalists, and global corporations. A 2007 contract with Indian mining company Jindal Steel and Power Unlimited has since been overturned, and development of iron mining and processing is being pursued by a Bolivian company with the backing of the state government and development loans from China. Beyond the mine operation itself, infrastructures of power, transportation, and economics are linked to its growth. Two IIRSA projects, a natural gas pipeline bringing fuel to iron mining and processing sites and the Hydrovia river modification project to increase shipping volume, are directly tied to El Mutún. ESA mining company manager Oscar Alvarez has said: “The bottleneck for export of iron is transportation, not many barges can carry from our port of Puerto Aguirre (Puerto Quijaro) linking Bolivia to the Paraguay River to exit the Atlantic.” Huge infrastructural projects are slated in this remote region and fragile landscape. Without careful design and oversight, critical and fragile ecosystems could be destroyed by efforts of resource extraction and overseas exports.

While the conflicts arising on the boundary of overlap between the Pantanal Wetlands and El Cerro Mutún mine may be the most explicit case in demonstrating the conditions and opportunities precipitated by the construction of the infrastructures supporting resource extraction, the resulting conversation is indicative of broader issues in the region. Omnipresent is the conflict between hurried development of sources of potential economic growth and the destruction of existing cultures or natural landscapes. In many areas of the region, i.e. the lands surrounding the Paraná River, industrialization and engineered modifications are so prevalent that considering realistic alternatives is extremely difficult. Elsewhere, however, historically remote and undeveloped regions of the South American interior are being pushed with continent scale development projects as they become the critical nodes connecting natural resources and expanding global markets. It is in imagining and planning the spaces of these unrealized connections that the potential for design intervention lies.

 

Hydrogeographies – Chris Roach & Sandra Vivianco

Fall 2012

California College of the Arts

 

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