Beyond the Dam

Intervention Strategies for a Resilient Environment

By Alfredo Máximo Garay

The construction of the immense Yacyretá dam took place on a territory with a very powerful story. The transformation of the society and the environment of the place where it was built did not begin in 1958, when Argentina and Paraguay signed an agreement that commissioned the design of the first project. It did not begin in 1973 with the signing of the Treaty of Yacyretá Binational, or when construction began in December 1983. The dam was constructed on layers of indigenous legacies, wars, territorial disputes and a unique mission history.  It can be considered a transition territory—a reality in motion over centuries.

For Spanish conquerors at the time of the Jesuit missions, the large rivers that form the Paraná Basin (Paraná and Uruguay rivers) had two major obstacles to navigation: Salto Grande (a waterfall for which the existing dam has been named) on the Uruguay River, and the Rapids of Apipé (current location of the Yacyretá dam). The colonial occupation took place on the navigable sections (up to Asunción). However, upstream, the Spanish conquistadors proceeded with uncertainty because of the dense subtropical forest that hampered their mobility and the exploration of the ground.

For the Guaranis, rivers provided the main means of communication; their economy had the forest and the river at its core.  It was just on the side of these northern basins where the Jesuits promoted the creation of small autonomous population centers—called missions— with their own agricultural production.  The system of the Jesuit missions covered a vast territory. Other forms of colonial occupation relied on the original native settlements, some of which had achieved a great agricultural development, especially in the fertile valleys of the Andean mountain range known as the Inca Trail. However, the Jesuit model prioritized the natural limits of the forest and the upper basins of the major rivers, where people used to live with little accumulation of agricultural surpluses. This part of the ancient Guarani territory is known as the region of the Jesuit missions, a land that towards the end of the 16th century was marked by a model that proposed a different kind of relationship between two different cultures. The Guarani people conceived of the Jesuit missions as a land without evil, and in this environment they experienced the transition from a hunting-based economy to an agricultural-based one.  

In the first half of the 19th century, the upheavals of independence movements distributed the banks of the rivers among different nations, enhancing the conception of these lands as a battlefield. The violence that defined the period of the conquest was reintroduced as either border disputes or fratricidal wars.

By the late 19th century, communication through rivers stimulated a new system of settlements on their banks. This settlement process was left to colonizing companies and they gathered potential settlers (agricultural workers) from impoverished regions of Europe. The arrival of these new immigrants—German, Polish, Swiss, Ukrainians and other Europeans—with their own languages and idiosyncrasies—had a strong cultural impact on the existing population, which had already undergone several mutations over the course of five hundred years. The new immigration accelerated the transformation of forest to farmland, displacing native people who could not prove their land titles.

As depicted on the maps of the Military Geographical Institute in the early 20th century, these lands seem to be perceived as possible battlefields. During the industrial development phase of the second half of the 20th century, the prevalence of this geopolitical view (doctrine of national security) delayed the development of the Region (“Region” describes the metropolitan area of Posadas, the municipality of Candelaria and the city of Encarnación in Paraguay). At the beginning of the 80s, Mercosur, a subregional bloc made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, came into existence and this viewpoint was revised, multiplying the construction of infrastructure projects in order to link the Region with other parts of the country.

The presence of different post-independence nations that lived on these river banks resulted in intense commercial activity, increased fluvial activity and the growth of border cities. Population movements from one bank to another show the profound unity of the people from this Region, people whom the old independence fighters like San Martín, Artigas or Andresito Guacurarí never conceived as different from one another. 

The construction of the Yacyretá dam—as happens with most large hydraulic works—had an obvious impact on the characteristics of the Region. From the start, the project gave priority to the continuity of navigation along the Paraná River, and already in 1905 the proposal included power generation.  In 1958, an agreement between Argentina and Paraguay commissioned the design of a first project that started in 1973 with the signing of the bi-national Treaty of Yacyretá. Work began in December 1983.  Yet the Yacyretá projects appear to be full of contradictions. During the 90s, a major crisis took place that interrupted construction, making it clear that any project should include the viewpoint of local stakeholders. The new program aimed at compensating flooded land area by setting up new ecological reserve areas. Moreover, the program committed to developing flood barriers and regional infrastructure works such as  bridges and roads to rebuild the urban tissue of the affected cities, and to redirect the commercial flow of the city of Encarnación—whose dynamics shifted from the port to the bridge—and lastly, to relocate the affected families on both sides of the river.

From the physical point of view, Yacyretá became a concrete dam of 1,908,000 m3, channeling an average flow of 14,000 m3/sec. over a planned maximum of 95,000 m3/per sec. About 13,000 m3/per sec. pass through 20 turbines. This flow seeks to produce more than 3,100 MW with an annual average energy output of 20,700 GWh/ year. This meets 22% of Argentina's energy demands. The dam turned the course of a 213-mile stretch of the Paraná River into a 1,800 km2 lake (21,000 Hm3 of water), which made it necessary to build flood barriers, reconstruct the urban area, build roads between Posadas and Encarnación, and develop environmental protection areas. These works resulted in 3 million m3 of excavations, 24 million m3 of fills and embankment, 3 million m3 of rock protection and 62 miles of road works for renewing urban areas, bridges and access to the cities.  Furthermore, 383,000 acres were to be set aside for new environmental reserve areas, managed by park rangers and environmental operators, and 1,500 acres provided for urban parks and green areas, along with 5,000 linear meters of beaches and the construction of 8,500 social housing units. The commercial district in Encarnación was relocated to three urban sectors with 3,000 new stores.

The project's huge dimensions have considerable impact on a territory that has experienced profound social, economic and cultural transformations, among which the growth of the cities is one of its most eloquent expressions. The idea of a land in transition places people in the context of a reality in motion, reinforcing the need to develop and achieve a more stable horizon for territorial and social resilience. 

Resilience is understood as a human group’s response or ability to recover from confrontation with adverse conditions, developing a set of traits that define its cultural identity. The group exists in relation to the characteristics of the spaces it inhabits, but is also shaped by its experience of ruptures, fusions and transformations.

The impossibility of reversing certain historical processes or major transformations makes it necessary for people to adapt to a new reality by becoming resilient. When big changes are imposed, as in the case of the dam, actions must aim to correct unwanted effects of the transformations. Also, analysts and managers must pay close attention to the evolution of the reality under the new conditions. Then they can plan by analyzing what steps must be taken to develop the region from a sustainable development perspective.

The viability of a project is more closely related to the complexity of interventions than to its size. The problem is to align a wide range of stakeholders with diverse positions (interests, collective imagination and the ability to act). From this perspective, the building of the dam (and its changing effects) promotes a constant rearrangement of the positions taken by the different actors involved in the project, forcing those responsible for its implementation to become involved in true strategic planning.

In the case of Yacyretá, society's perspective about this project has changed profoundly during the years between its development, initiation and completion. The assessment of the environmental and social impact has led to the review of the initial criteria for safekeeping the territory and creation of resilience. Moreover, the dam project has stimulated more ideas to ensure sustainability, such as preservation areas and the implementation of environmental protection and social development policies.

It is interesting to analyze the factors that led to stopping the project in the 1990s. The attempt to privatize the venture in the context of neoliberal policies emerging from the Washington consensus presented difficulties in confronting increased costs. The original project faced doubts about its contribution to national energy development.  It was not clear how the project would move forward, but there was a clear need to identify the impact of these works on local development. Locals required infrastructure and needed to adapt to the urbanization of the villages affected by the completion of the dam (with water rising from 76m above sea level to 83m above sea level).

The work plan developed between 2000 and 2014 (which allowed resuming the works) had a hugely positive impact on the urban tissue of the villages. Many tasks are still pending, but the economic benefit (related to the generation of electricity) guarantees the necessary resources for their funding.

The investments had huge economic impact, with a million dollars injected daily into the Region's economy. Previously, the construction of the Itaipú dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil had had a similar impact, generating more than US$5 million daily for the community.  Investment in the Yacyretá dam created 15,000 direct jobs, and another 20,000 that resulted indirectly with the work on the project.  Migration increased as a result, with the Region’s population increasing from 80,000 to 500,000 inhabitants in the last decades. Increased migration in turn accelerates urbanization and the accompanying demand for housing, equipment and public services.

The dam project also changed the Region’s productive profile. Traditional economy was based on agriculture, mainly yerba mate, tea and tung. In the 70s, paper and forestry became leading industries with significant environmental effects. Energy has now replaced those industries with the greatest share of the regional GDP, leading to discussions about the development of new hydroelectric projects.

In the process of developing these projects, cities have become increasingly important, and along with rejuvenated cites came more vibrant border trade centers.  In the measure that these cities assume complex roles as service providers, their significance increases. 

With growing environmental quality and compelling landscapes, these settlements attract tourists, migrants and those seeking to start new businesses. Real estate booms with more square footage built each year.

From the social viewpoint, the Metropolitan Area of Posadas (which includes Garupá and Candelaria, but not Encarnación) has improved its position in the levels of Unmet Basic Needs (NBI), which is a measure of structural poverty instead of merely insufficient income.   In 2010, 13.9% of the population had unmet basic needs, compared to 18.25% in 2001.  The infant mortality rate also fell from 29 per 1,000 in the 90s to 9 per 1,000 today.

Although migration to the area—well above the national average—multiplied demand for housing, public services and urban infrastructure, the Region presented improvement in the cities, while rural areas with their traditional productive methods show a slower rate of improvement.

                     Chart courtesy of National Census 2001, 2010

Once urgent problems related to dam construction have been resolved and sustainable development takes off in local communities, broader issues emerge, such as the integration of the Region in the national and global context as well as the role and participation of the most disadvantaged people within this development process. At a local level, the experience of large social groups (ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, immigrant populations) is key to the development process that  involves a transition lasting for several years. A social imaginary that takes into account the effects of these transformations must be fashioned in the process. 

One idea to address this issue is to build a cultural space—the Museum of Cultural Heritage—that would represent the profound changes experienced by the society of the Region. This museum would seek to study, exhibit and preserve the cultural and environmental legacy left by ancestors of the current population, hoping to develop the tangible and intangible potential of cultural identity. 

This cultural center would also develop research projects and  create opportunities for exchange and dialogue. The production, classification and exhibition of museum material and the creation of meeting places, events and other forms of expression would show the cultural production in this region, permeated by the experience of the Guarani people.

This museum will be located in a crucial spot in the new Posadas waterfront (El Brete sector), becoming a milestone for the past and present, telling the Region's powerful story of resilience and adaptation.

Alfredo Máximo Garay is an Argentine architect, president of the Antiguo Puerto Madero Corporation and a professor in the Urban Planning Department of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). He also teaches at Boston's Lincoln Institute and several other universities in Argentina and Paraguay. He was contracted by the Entidad Binacional Yacyretá to work on the urbanization process of the coastal strip of the cities of Posadas (Argentina) and Encarnación (Paraguay).