Water and Environment

Photo courtesy of Oscar Thomas.

From the Guarani aquifer system to modern hydroelectric dams, the region’s rivers have shaped its territory.

The Guarani and the Iguaçu National Park

An Environmental History

By Frederico Freitas

The Iguazu/Iguaçu National Park spans the Argentine-Brazilian border, but the center of attention is the mighty Iguazu/Iguaçu Falls.

View the photo gallery.

In September 2005, a group of 55 Guarani Indians occupied a forested section of the Iguaçu National Park in the state of Paraná in southern Brazil. You may recognize Iguaçu as a park and tourist destination on the Brazilian side of the famous Iguazu Falls. However, it also protects 400,000 acres of Atlantic forest, one of the last large continuous stretches of this endangered biome. The Guarani came from the overcrowded Ocoí reservation on the shores of the Itaipu reservoir, some twenty miles from the park where they lived. Chief Simão Tupã Vilialva said the group intended to use the occupation to pressure the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the Brazilian Agency for Indian Affairs, into solving their land shortage problem. Through the occupation of Brazil’s most visited national park, the Guarani demanded a solution for the dozens of families whose land was encroached by farmers and the Itaipu lake in the 570-acre Ocoí reservation.

The Guarani remained in the Iguaçu National Park for eighty days, only agreeing to leave after being promised by FUNAI officials to be taken to Guarapuava, headquarters for the FUNAI office for Western Paraná. They wanted a face-to-face meeting with FUNAI officials to present their demands for new land. FUNAI brought in a bus to transport the Guarani, but instead of heading to Guarapuava, the driver took them to another reservation, Tekohá Añetete, in Diamante do Oeste. There, FUNAI officials planned to cram the 55 Guarani in an existing and already overcrowded reservation shared with other indigenous groups. Perceiving FUNAI’s deception, the group led by Vilialva was infuriated. As they were getting off the bus, a clash took place between the Guarani and state officials; a police officer was shot with a Guarani arrow. Eventually Itaipu Binacional, the company behind the hydroeletric dam, decided to intervene and acquired a new 600-acre area adjacent to the Tekohá Añetete reservation providing land for some of the Guarani families from Ocoí. 

A couple of hundred acres did little to assuage the chronic land shortage suffered by the Guarani at the Ocoí reservation. In October 2013 a new group of eight individuals once again occupied the Iguaçu National Park. By the end of May, the group had swelled to 25. The Guarani who entered Iguaçu claimed their people had inhabited those forests, the Ka’ Aguy Guasú (big woods), before the park’s creation in 1939. They argued they were not responsible for the transformation of nature into soy plantations, grazing fields, factories, roads and cities. Therefore, they should not be penalized by exclusion from the last continuous stretch of Atlantic forest in Western Paraná. They demanded that part of the national park be declared an indigenous reservation, thereby correcting what they saw as a historical wrong committed by the Brazilian state when it created a protected area that barred indigenous peoples from the forest. 

Were the Guarani from Ocoí correct in claiming they had lived in the area occupied by the national park before its creation? It depends on where one sets the threshold. Unquestionably, the Guarani and other indigenous groups like the Kaingang had lived in the area way before the creation of the national park. However, what is not clear from the historical record is whether they had been driven away from the territory of the park at the moment of its establishment by park authorities, or prior to that, by settlers. 

Before beginning my research in the history of the Iguaçu National Park, I believed the Guarani would be a constant presence in the historical documents. After all, in the last three decades the historical scholarship on national parks has brought to light a common pattern of eviction of indigenous communities in the creation of protected areas devised to be devoid of people (but not tourists). So I believed I would find documents indicating Indian displacement in the creation of the national park. Instead, what I found was mostly silence. For the first decades of the park’s existence, hardly any source indicates the presence of Guarani or other indigenous groups in the park area. The first time they appear in park documents is in a 1967 memo by Renê Denizart Pockrandt, then the director of the Iguaçu National Park. Pockrandt suggested the indigenous peoples roaming the Argentine-Brazilian border be settled inside the Brazilian park as a touristic attraction, a suggestion that never became a reality.

Another type of evidence of the presence of Guarani within the limits of the park was provided by anthropologist Maria Lucia Brant Carvalho. In her Ph.D. dissertation, Carvalho inter-viewed Narcisa Tacua Catu de Almeida, a senior member of the Guarani community in Ocoí, who claimed to have lived in two different Guarani communities in the area encompassed by the park from 1934 to 1962. Almeida cites a first, violent eviction in 1943, followed by another in 1962. However, it is unclear who pushed the Guarani away from the park since park authorities had only tenuous control over its territory for the first thirty years. The park then existed mostly only on paper. 

Brazilian authorities finally moved to enforce the Iguaçu National Park as a protected area in the 1970s, and nowadays the park stands as an island of rainforest surrounded by a sea of farming landscape. The park presents a significant area covered by old-growth forests, since sixty percent of its territory has been established as an “intangible area,” a designation banning human settlements and all types of human activities except for scientific research and surveillance. Park zoning allows more intensive human activities such as tourism in the remaining area, but it bans permanent dwellers and extractive activities. In this way, the Guarani claim to the park’s natural resources puts them at odds with environmental authorities whose mission is to keep a territory free of most types of human interventions.

Brazil established the Iguaçu National Park in 1939 following the creation of the Argentine Iguazú National Park on the other side of the border five years earlier. Both parks were intended to protect each side of the bi-national Iguazu Falls, the massive 1.7-mile-wide series of waterfalls located on the Iguazu River, at the border shared by the two countries. The parks also extended inland, sheltering more than 555,000 acres of the original Atlantic forest that, in the early 1940s, still covered most of the Brazilian southwest, Argentine extreme northeast, and the Paraguayan east. Eighty years of successive waves of colonization, mostly by Brazilians of European descent coming from Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, transformed what was a sparsely inhabited frontier of forests and mate gathering into an expanse of crop fields and mechanized farming. The region became a center for the green revolution transforming the Brazilian (and later Paraguayan) hinterland in the 1970s and 1980s. The two parks, therefore, contained the last large stretch of forest cover in the Triple Frontier, thus earning the status of UNESCO heritage sites in the 1980s.

The Iguaçu National Park in Brazil originated with the donation of an estate by the government of the state of Paraná that included the Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian side. The original proponents wanted to transform the area into a national park to guarantee Brazilian access to the waterfalls. From 1939 to 1944, the park was limited to the donated estate’s original 12,350 acres, but in 1944 the federal government decided to incorporate new land into the park to protect the forest from loggers, increasing its size to 400,000 acres. Large public land tracts comprised the bulk of the land used in the park expansion. However, there was a problem: for the expansion, the federal Forest Service used public land that was in judicial dispute between the Brazilian federal government and the state of Paraná. 

The long court battle between state and federal governments ended with a 1963 Brazilian Supreme Court ruling in favor of the federal government. The decades-long juridical incertitude about who owned the national park’s public land, coupled with the land grabbing practices that plagued western Paraná, allowed hundreds of southern Brazilian migrants to acquire land and settle inside a section of the national park. In the 1970s the Brazilian military dictatorship decided for the costly and politically difficult removal of the 447 families (about 2,500 people) living inside the Iguaçu National Park. The great majority had arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, and they came to occupy seven percent of the park’s area. They had built farms, villages, schools, roads, and even a chapel inside the Brazilian park. After the eviction, infrastructure that could not be removed by the settlers was torn down by park authorities. Over the years, a secondary forest grew over most of the area formerly occupied by farms.

Inadvertently, the resettlement of these 447 families of white settlers served to reintroduce the Guarani into the history of the Iguaçu National Park. The area where the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA), the Brazilian agency for agrarian reform and colonization, chose to relocate settlers in the early 1970s already harbored a group of Guarani. Inside the chosen area was Jacutinga, a small Guarani community engaged in fishing and subsistence farming near the confluence of the Ocoí and Paraná Rivers. This Guarani community was not under the radar of FUNAI, and in its survey INCRA classified their members as squatters. In order to prepare the terrain to receive the settlers evicted from the Iguaçu National Park, INCRA started pressuring the Guarani to leave the Ocoí area. Many decided to flee to Paraguay or Argentina, but some resisted. The agency brought in henchmen to harass them, burning their houses and confiscating their fishing and agricultural tools. 

INCRA’s attack on the Guarani drew the attention of a local human-rights activist, lawyer Antonio Vanderlei Moreira. In 1975 Moreira accused INCRA employees and their hired gunmen of threatening, assaulting and burning the houses of Guarani and peasants living in Ocoí. In 1977, a committee formed by INCRA and FUNAI officials was established to investigate the presence of Indians living inside the Ocoí estate. The 30,000-acre tract had been expropriated by INCRA in 1971 to receive the 2,500 settlers evicted from the national park. It was named Projeto Integrado de Colonização - Ocoí (PIC-OCOI), “Ocoí Integrated Colonization Project.” The INCRA-FUNAI committee found 27 Guarani living inside PIC-OCOI near the banks of the Paraná River. To accommodate these individuals they created the Ocoí reservation in another area inside PIC-OCOI. The small area set to be an Indian reservation had originally been designated as forest reserve for the incoming settlers. The Guarani ended up enclosed in a small reservation surrounded by the farmers relocated from the Iguaçu National Park.

In 1982, the creation of the Itaipu reservoir flooded part of PIC-OCOI, swallowing a big chunk of the land available for both the Guarani and the white settlers. The Guarani found themselves in a narrow, 570-acre swath of degraded forests on the banks of the new reservoir, trapped between the new lake and the relocated farmers. Life in such conditions was hard, and the Guarani suffered all sorts of environmental problems: erosion by lake waters, contamination of lake water by pesticides from neighboring farms, endemic malaria, and encroachment by the surrounding farms. At the same time, the population of the Ocoí reservation continued to increase due to natural growth and new arrivals from other Guarani communities. In 1986, the Guarani started a campaign for new lands and pressured the World Bank for a solution—the bank had financed the building of the Itaipu dam. They sent a Harvard-trained anthropologist, Shelton H. Davis, to assess the veracity of the Guarani claims. Davis’ report, along with a new report by Brazilian anthropologist Silvio Coelho dos Santos, president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology, convinced Itaipu to work for solving the problem of the overcrowded reserve. The company acquired a 4,300-acre estate in Diamante do Oeste to accommodate the Guarani families from Ocoí. This was the same reservation to which the Guarani group occupying the park in 2005 would be deceitfully taken by FUNAI.

The Guarani who entered the Iguaçu National Park for a second time in 2013 have already left the park, following a court order issued in August 2014. However, the overpopulation problem at the Ocoí reservation, where about 600 hundred people share 570 acres, still persists. The existence of a protected area containing the last large remnant of Atlantic forest in the region became a point of contention between environmental authorities and indigenous groups. What the former see as crucial reserve of a dwindling biome, the latter see as the retention of natural resources that should be made available to the region’s indigenous peoples. Yet, after recogniz-ing the difficulty in changing an environmentalist paradigm that sees national parks as an off-limits territory for people, the Guarani, by resorting to occupations, have turned the park into an instrument for leveraging their position in their struggle for access to land.

Frederico Freitas is a PhD. candidate in Latin American History at Stanford University. His research focuses on the environmental history of the border between Brazil and Argentina in the twentieth century, and the creation of the two national parks of Iguaçu, in Brazil, and Iguazú, in Argentina.

The Invention of the Guarani Aquifer System

New Ideas and New Water Politics in the Southern Cone

By Martin Walter

On October 19, 1979,  the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay gathered in Asunción to sign an agreement setting general principles for the utilization of the Paraná River, a major waterway shared by the three nations. The agreement enabled the construction of hydroelectric dams in the basin and eased the tensions resulting from the competitive exploitation of the watershed. Decades later, in 2003, authorities from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay would meet again to launch a cooperative process to determine how to govern their shared waters. This time, the objective was to develop instruments to manage and protect the Guarani Aquifer System (GAS), a transboundary groundwater basin spanning over more than 1.1 million square kilometers and considered one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world (see Figure I). By 2010, the countries had implemented several new local-level policies and ratified a framework agreement to manage and protect the aquifer system. 

Countries in the Southern Cone had been quarrelling—and striking agreements—over shared surface waters since colonial times, but policy for the GAS was in many ways different. Similar to other shared water policies, the governance mechanisms created for the GAS emphasized each of the countries’ in-alienable sovereignty over the resource and enshrined reciprocal no-harm and sustainability as guiding principles for the future exploitation of the resources.  However, the GAS policies dealt with an entirely new kind of water resource—transboundary groundwater—for which few countries in the world have managed to strike formal governance agreements. More importantly, they were developed at the initiative of local non-state actors supported by international organizations. Unlike previous shared water policies created to respond to the needs and plans of national authorities, the new shared water  governance instruments were expected to help promote local and sustainable development.

Ideas played a key role in the development of the GAS policy. Indeed, the notion of a transboundary groundwater body in the Southern Cone only emerges in the final decades of the 20th century. Before then, although the existence of aquifers in the region was well known, scientists had failed to identify the transnational linkages between groundwater bodies. The aquifers that make up the GAS were studied as separate entities under different names. Understanding local aquifers as a single interconnected basin subverted the established compartmentalized approach to the study of local groundwaters that had prevailed until then. Local hydrogeologists first theorized and then defended this view in opposition to the interpretation of experts from canonical disciplines of geology and hydrology. Seminal hydrogeology studies conducted during the 80s and 90s would provide empirical support for the single aquifer system theory. At the same time, hydrogeological research contributed to the development of new epistemic communities, leading to the emergence of a new group of experts who shared the belief that the regional aquifer existed, and that its resources would require new policies in order to be protected. Regional hydrogeologists agreed on a unified name for the aquifer system—the name “Guarani” was chosen for its sociocultural implications instead of a more conventional nomenclature—as well as on a strategy to gather further financial resources to study the aquifer. In the late 90s, scientists wielding a new idea kick-started a process of international cooperation among political entities, a process that would shape policy for the waters of the GAS. 

The idea of the GAS was scientifically controversial because the geological formations that make the GAS are extremely dissimilar across the region, but it was also politically compelling. The existence of a unique system of connected aquifers implied that groundwater exploitation decisions were interdependent. It meant that groundwater exploitation practices were having an impact beyond jurisdictional borders, and that some degree of international coordination would be necessary to adequately exploit the resources in the medium to long term. Also, the unified conceptualization of the aquifer system helped draw additional attention to specific local management challenges, for it turned them into components of a larger, more strategically significant shared water governance issue. The idea of a unique regional aquifer helped to raise the profile of provincial challenges in the national political agenda and obtain additional resources. 

The invention of the GAS can also be understood as a byproduct of democratization. With democracy, regional academic institutions gained autonomy from central government decision-making. New academic disciplines such as hydrogeology blossomed and focused on new issues relevant to local and regional interests. Political change helped people to focus on new problems relevant to local economic development. At the same time, more permeable borders facilitated the development of transnational knowledge networks and epistemic communities by helping to foster the social relationships behind the transnational policy initiative. The international cooperation process that would lead to policies for the GAS reflected the initiative of local actors seeking practical solutions to their problems, rather than the strategic response from centralized authorities that was prevalent in the decades that preceded democratization. 

Source: Adapted from Favetto et al. (2011)

Indeed, the invention of the GAS was the expression of new international relations in the Southern Cone. Still, new ideas cannot explain policy outcomes. Governance instruments for the aquifer system developed concomitant to the increasing demand for the resources in the region. Groundwaters were becoming an increasingly crucial component of diverse economic activities—i.e., the supply of fresh-water for urban consumption in southern Brazil, crop irrigation in Paraguay, and thermal tourism operations in Argentina and Uruguay. These practices led to the slow yet noticeable quantitative and qualitative deterioration of the resources. Lack of regulation encouraged, for example, the proliferation of groundwater wells, the contamination of recharge zones, and the absence of proper well-drilling standards. These new problems prompted demands for solutions.

The regional scale of the aquifer system catalyzed the recognition of the potential geostrategic value of the resources and prompted the involvement of public officials at the national level. Driven by the demands of regional scientists and local stakeholders, but reflective of the strategic interest of the national governments, groundwater issues entered the political agenda. The countries engaged in a process of multilateral cooperation and established a project—co-financed by an international organization, the Global Environment Facility—for the assessment of resources and the established regulatory frameworks in the year 2000. The initiative helped develop a knowledge base for the development of policies aimed at the protection and sustainable management of the aquifer system. The international cooperation project concluded in 2009 with the production of a strategic action plan for the GAS, which was rooted in concrete management policies at the local, regional and national levels. Information gathered through the cooperation process was centralized in a system of publicly accessible geographic information to aid decision-makers. On this basis, local stakeholders implemented new well drilling standards, determined minimum buffer zones between wells, and protected vulnerable recharge areas. The action plan also led to the signature of a multi-lateral framework agreement in 2010, which outlined general non-binding principles for future transboundary groundwater governance in the region.

If anything, the process that led to the creation of the governance instruments for the management and sustainable exploitation of the GAS shows the many roles that scientific knowledge plays in modern environmental politics. Information about transboundary groundwaters was simultaneously instrumental to the introduction of the resources in the political agenda and the political negotiation of concrete management provisions. In fact, the process of political recognition of the resources was inseparable from the emergence of new theories about the aquifer system’s scale and from the struggles for peer recognition of the regional scientists. Moreover, official negotiations about the “new” shared resources—the waters stored in the Guarani Aquifer System—resulted from the mobilization and interest of actors who, historically, had been marginal in regional politics. Instead of being designed and directed exclusively according to the preferences of central government agents, the governance of the aquifer system was fostered by subsidiary political authorities and non-state actors: expert networks and international organizations.

Tracing the role of ideas in policy-making is a challenging endeavor, for they are both the expression of contextual factors and powerful drivers of change. The recognition of groundwater problems results from the interplay of particular groundwater exploitation patterns, the increased understanding of the factors behind hydrogeological conditions, and the changing social value attributed to the services provided by the resources. None of these factors, taken individually, is sufficient to explain the entry of groundwater problems in the political agenda. Reliance on groundwaters increases the value of the services provided by the resources, albeit only given a “sufficient” understanding of the factors behind the deterioration or depletion of the resources. Simultaneously, the value of groundwater resources is shaped by the availability of hydrogeological information and modeling techniques because it both exposes the causes of groundwater degradation and determines the stakeholders’ ability to exploit and to manage groundwater resources. The interactions of these three factors highlight the social nature of groundwater problems.

The processes of social construction that lead to the recognition of groundwater problems are too often ignored by the literature dedicated to water governance. Problems tend to be taken for granted—seen as existing a priori of the policy-making process—or, alternatively, framed as purely instrumental to the strategic preferences of political actors. In this sense, perhaps the most significant contribution of the constructivist approach to international water policy is that it highlights a constitutive phase of the policy process. It emphasizes that the recognition of groundwater issues is concomitant with the formulation of preferences vis-à-vis the management of the resource; in other words, it stresses that the acknowledgement of groundwater problems is inseparable from the involvement of actors in the political process and from the entry of the resources into the political agenda. This is a process driven not just by “objective facts,” but also by the changing meaning of these facts in specific socio-historical contexts.

Martin Walter is currently a consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, and his work deals with the socio-political intricacies of implementing projects for the protection and sustainable development of natural resources.  He can be reached at  mw.martinwalter@gmail.com.

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). 


Building the Future

By Oscar Thomas

Pre-Texts. Workshop for teachers with Doris Sommer (Arequipa, Peru 2015).
Photo courtesy of Oscar Thomas. 

View the photo gallery. 

A hydroelectric plant is about much more than water and energy. It is about community and environment, urban planning and resource development. It is about the future and the past of the surrounding area.

In 1973 the governments of Argentina and Paraguay signed the Treaty of Yacyretá to build one of the world’s most important hydroelectric power plants on the Paraná River, the fastest-flowing large river in South America.

The option for a hydroelectric plant was clear: oil, used as a fossil fuel, had to be replaced by a renewable source. 

As I am myself an architect from the province of Misiones, in Argentina, I was determined to take advantage of the development of the hydroelectric plant to transform, in a positive way, the situation of those who would be affected and to improve the urban planning for the region’s most important cities and the surrounding area.

The actual construction of the power plant took 34 years, from 1978 to 2011. Finally inaugurated in 1998 with a reservoir level seven meters (7.65 yards) lower than originally designed, the plant was producing only 60% of anticipated energy. A number of engineers and architects focused on achieving the maximum production of electric energy. At the same time, they had to ensure the adaptation of the inhabitants affected by the new reservoir level. All this took place in the Argentine provinces of Misiones and Corrientes and in the Paraguayan departments of Itapuá and Misiones. The reservoir area would encompass 1,500 square kilometers (nearly 590 square miles).

Yacyretá had already built an important bridge linking both countries over the Paraná River. However, the transformation of the surrounding region was still pending. The nearby cities had experienced accelerated growth without any urban planning. Some 700,000 inhabitants—especially the 80,000 who lived in the coastal regions under unsanitary conditions and recurrent floods— would have to be taken into account with the flooding of the reservoir. The environment would undergo changes that would alter its equilibrium.

I felt compelled to come up with possible solutions. Perhaps, being from Misiones, I was especially sensitive to the importance of the rivers—their historical, as well as environmental, importance. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jesuits and the Guarani-speaking indigenous peoples built more than thirty urban settlements supported by the rational exploitation of water, land and cattle-raising. The streams provided the water they needed for their own consumption and served for fishing, boating and as an energy resource for water wheels and hydraulic mills. I thought that history was not only memory but also a fund of experiences that could serve us now and in the future.

We had to come up with solutions for the high energy requirements of both Paraguay and my country. Completing the reservoir would provide it. The adequate functioning of the Yacyretá undertaking would be the guarantee for the necessary investments for the region.

My home province is a land of rivers and streams, the red soil and the jungle. No element from that habitat could be damaged. Maintaining the quality of the water would be one of our most important objectives.

Some 1,500 square kilometers were set aside as ecological reserves to compensate for the land flooded by the dam for the Yacyretá hydroelectric plant. Actions centering upon the aquatic environment involved monitoring with an eye towards conservation, as well as building capacity for local and regional governments to do the same. We can now contemplate environmental sustainability in the context of a new balance, with images of a neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) feeding on the common armado fish (Pretodoras granulosus) and several other Paraná tiger fish found in the vicinity of the dam. Nature has returned. Storks and tuyuyú birds known as American wood storks (Mycteria americana) grace the landscape of the Iberá estuary. All the actions carried out for environmental preservation are carefully explained to all the region's communities. 

The past of this region was always present as an element of identity. At the Ayolas museum, we displayed the archeological pieces found during the earlier explorations for the development of the hydroelectric plant. The Guarani and Kaingang indigenous groups had left traces of their ways of living and teachings to connect us with nature.

But my concern was not only the past; it was the future. The cities in the region had to be renewed. In Paraguay, Ayolas, Santos Cosme and Damián, San Juan del Paraná, Carmen del Paraná, Cambyretá and Encarnación were about to experience changes. In Argentina, the cities of Ituzaingó, Posadas, Garupá and Candelaria would form part of the project. Each would undergo urban reform plans jointly agreed upon with local governments that would integrate the different sectors of the city. Various enclaves were separated not only by streams but by the absence of the necessary road infrastructure. By constructing bridges and providing roads, we would transform vehicle circulation and the means of transport.

There were other challenges to ensuring future growth. Renovation and improvements had to be provided to hospitals, schools, public administration, security and services; likewise, recreational areas, parks and squares and riverside promenades had to be developed.

Thus, a new connection could be formed with the landscape and, especially with the Paraná River. The result would be the formation of urban coastal areas with access to the water for all. 

The city would be thought of as a whole, a living, growing organism.

The population affected by the Yacyretá undertaking received social and health assistance programs. People were moved to housing developments, harmoniously integrated into the city that offered infrastructure and community services. Members of indigenous communities were provided with property titles to well-constructed homes, as well as bilingual schools and social services.

All the cities in the project expanded towards the river. Encarnación has become a river resort; Posadas has considerably increased its number of tourists. The urban and rural sectors now have a better access to the cities after the construction of roads and bridges across streams.

Looking back over the changes that have taken place over a decade, I believe that the Yacyretá hydroelectric undertaking has had strong regional impact. The best way of making the most of its construction and energy production was to see the project as a way to improve the living conditions of all the people in the region by providing the vital infrastructure. That infrastructure would have been impossible to achieve without the hydroelectric sector.  

For future hydroelectric undertakings in the region, we will have to bear in mind the past experiences. Only if we integrate the necessary projects to improve the daily lives of the residents will we find support for the construction of these new works. And only with these new projects will we find adequate renewal energy for the area and beyond. 

Oscar Thomas, who hails from the Province of Misiones, Argentina, is an architect and executive director at Yacyretá of the Binational Entity of Yacyretá for Argentina. He is the Argentine President for the Argentine-Brazilian Joint Technical Committee for the Construction of the Hydroelectric Plants in Garabí and Panambí. He has taught at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the UNNE of Argentina and at the Faculty of Architecture of the Catholic University of Paraguay.

Y marane’ÿ rekávo

Looking for Uncontaminated Water

By Bartomeu Melià, S.J.

An aerial view of the hydroelectric plant; the Guarani worry about bad waters. Photo courtesy of Oscar Thomas. 

It is not only the earth that is filled with impurities. So is the water. Lifeless waters extend throughout the earth, and not only on its surface. Like cholesterol-clogged arteries, contaminated waters also circulate with difficulty deep inside the earth—under the world’s skin. 

The search for water will be the quest of many—indeed all— in this 21st century. Where can this clear and crystalline resource be found, these waters of life in the desert, this optimistic and powerful liquid that sings in the creeks and roars in the waterfalls, shining with the brilliance of a diamond hidden in the bowels of the earth? 


The Guarani, anchored in the future for centuries, believed water to be their place of origin, the center of their earth. We are reminded of the mythic account of the Mbyá, as told by León Cadogan in his book Ywyra ñe’ery: fluye del árbol la palabra (Asunción, CEADUC, 1971, pps. 57-58). 

Everything happened in the place
where Our Grandmother lived,
in the Authentic Water.
This happened in our land in 
years gone by. 
This happened before our land 
was destroyed.

(Because today's earth is merely 
a semblance of that earth.)  
And Our Grandmother lived in 
the future center of the earth. 
She held the staff of authority in 
her hand as 
in our future earth she lived. 
She had a son, but she had neither 
a father nor a mother.
She gave birth to herself.

Thus, the heart of the earth is water, Y Ete, the authentic water, the true and real water. Water is the heart of the earth; it is where life began. Earth’s life is water. Today, as it happens, this Guarani prophecy has turned into a subject of more prosaic plans, but equally vital for the future, not only for the countries of Mercosur, but of the entire world.


The Guarani territory is home to what is considered the largest aquifer on the planet. The Paraguayan public is perhaps unaware of this fact, but specialists have been well aware of it since the 1970s, and those who engage in geopolitics have probably been negotiating this issue for quite a while. I myself found out about the aquifer quite late and as strange as it may seem, it was through the Guarani of Brazil, who are worried about what is happening to their water and if it will meet with the same sad fate as their land. 

So I quote here from a technical report: “The Guarani aquifer is certainly one of the largest reserves of subterranean fresh water in the world with an accumulated volume of 45,000 km3.”

The interesting thing about this enormous wealth is that it corresponds almost exactly to the geographical and ecological limits occupied by the Guarani people prehistorically. It is really just that the water reserve be known as the Guarani aquifer.  Cutting across borders, just as the original Guarani territory did, it occupies some 325,000 square miles in Brazil, 87,000 square miles in Argentina, 28,000 square miles in Paraguay and 22,400 in Uruguay. That is, the aquifer is an enormous body whose veins branch out for 463,322,590 square miles. And the waters are so pure that one can drink them untreated because of a natural process of bio-chemical filtration and self-cleaning in the subsoil.   

My dear readers, many of you will have noticed that I am quoting a technical report I received from my Guarani friends, authored by the expert Aldo da C. Rebouças, who has written many papers on the subject.  

The search for this pure water, this Y Marane’ÿ, truly fills us with admiration, but it also leaves us apprehensive. Who will take ownership of this Genuine Water, this Y Ete from the place of Our Grandmother, which is to say, Mother Water?

The conquerors were always looking for the latest El Dorado wherever they went, if not just over the horizon, then right under their feet. The curious thing is that the discovery of the great aquifer was something of a disappointment; they were looking for oil and only found water. And now the most valuable liquid of the future is that simple water, pure water. 


Bad waters are what worry the Guarani nowadays. If the land has already been destroyed, isn’t the water next?  The risks involving the improper use of subterranean waters are on the horizon. More or less deep wells are already being dug without adequate technology, with the goal of immediate exploitation, exclusive and self-interested use that sucks up enormous quantities of this precious water, turns it into soft drinks and beer and sells it on the market. And the pollution of the upper aquifer, already quite affected by this extraction, could easily contaminate the deeper levels. 

The treatment of the waters of the Guarani aquifer has been relatively good until now, but for how long? Speculators and businessmen can set up a system of water trafficking—with its parallel to drug trafficking—that would mean death to the life that comes from the Genuine Water, the Y Ete of the Guarani people.

The Guarani aquifer is a true bank of water of countless value that cannot be wasted nor left in the hands of unscrupulous agents. It is a deposit of extremely high value that should be protected and ethically administered. 

“The accumulation of urban and/or industrial residues without adequate technology, as well as the uncontrolled and increasing use of modern chemical components in agriculture, are potential sources of contamination of the subterranean waters. It must be remembered that pollution reaching the ground level or superficial waters can reach deep aquifers or can be confined, depending on the degree to which deep wells continue to be built, operated or abandoned without adequate technology,”  warned Brazilian groundwater expert Aldo da C. Rebouças. 

The ethical and political implications of this situation cannot be overlooked. Water is no longer a free good that anyone can use arbitrarily; it is a natural resource with social and economic value—and the groundwater even more so than the surface water supply.

Looking for a tierra sin mal—a land without evil—the Guarani found this Y Marane’ÿ, an unexplored, deep, transparent good that bestows life, clarity and goodness, always and whenever it continues to being y sakä (transparent water), and satï (clear water), and porä (good water), and ete (true and genuine water).

This place of flowing water is rightfully known as the Guarani Aquifer. Its brilliant and appropriate name should not be stained with the evils of capitalist contamination and self-interest. 

Bartomeu Melià, S.J., is a Jesuit historian, anthropologist and linguist who focuses on the Guarani people. His work involves the study and the protection of the Guarani language, as well as advocacy for its use.