Linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the Latin American landmass has often been presented as one of the holy grails of development for the region. While China’s idea of a ‘Nicaraguan Canal’ has made headlines globally, another major infrastructure project is in the works further south: the Bi-Oceanic Railway. The idea has already spurred transboundary environmental cooperation, but the public is still in the dark.
This idea has gained momentum as Peru, Bolivia and Brazil join forces to build a corridor that would stretch over 3,800 km from the port of Santos, in Brazil, across Bolivia to the port of Ilo, in Peru. If fully implemented, the mixed-use railway (for both cargo and passengers) will cut the costs of transporting commodities and other goods along the usual trade routes, which require ships to navigate either through the Panama Canal or around Cape Horn. The railway would cut the time required to take goods from Brazil and Bolivia to Asian markets by 20 days.
The project idea dates back to the 2000s but only started taking shape after a conference was held in 2016. Feasibility studies have already been carried out to identify the investments needed in each of the three countries. In Brazil and Bolivia, stretches of track are already in place but would have to be rehabilitated in order to accommodate much heavier traffic. In Peru, most of the railway would have to be built from scratch, along with dozens of bridges and tunnels cutting across the tricky mountainous terrain of the Andes. While it is not yet clear who will finance and build the railway, European countries such as Switzerland and Germany have expressed interest.
The planned route of the Bi-Oceanic Railway would run from the port of Puerto Santos in Brazil to Puerto de Ilo in Peru. | © Google Maps
The Bi-Oceanic Railway has already begun to spur a number of regional agreements, some of them addressing specific environmental and climate change issues. A recently signed agreement between Bolivia and Peru covers the decontamination of Lake Titicaca, which the two countries share, and promotes information exchange designed to improve resilience to natural disasters resulting from climate change. Such agreements may eventually reach other countries in the region. Paraguay is considering building tracks that link up to the railway, and in Chile the mayor of Iquique has called upon the government to plan development projects that would connect to the railway.
However, project negotiations have not been entirely transparent. While media outlets have reported that the three core countries are focusing on three key areas—infrastructure and technical analysis, agreements and academic collaboration, and public-private partnerships—total costs have not been divulged. There are also widely varying estimates of the project’s construction duration. In addition, what is known about the feasibility studies indicates that they focus heavily on technical and economic aspects rather than addressing environmental, social and climate change issues. Neither the framework agreement nor the feasibility studies have been made public. Until they are revealed, the Bi-Oceanic Railway will continue to prompt basic questions about the project’s social and environmental impact.
Adriana Erthal Abdenur coordinates the International Peace & Security division of Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank dedicated to issues of justice, peace and security based in Rio de Janeiro.
[The views expressed in this article are personal.]