The Great Barrier to Latin American Integration and How to Rise Above It

Simón Bolívar was not the first to dream of a united Latin America, and he certainly has not been the last. Integration has been on the agenda of many Latin American leaders, and of today’s most visible presidents, Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela have pursued their distinct versions of it for regional integration. The idea has been part of public discourse for so long that the original reasons for integration are rarely discussed with clarity. The most basic of the arguments is that unity is the pathway to strength. Every global power has derived its influential capacity from its ability to unify the interests of large populations under a centralized and stable government. A prime example is the ascendancy of the United States to world superpower status, through the successful integration of its individual states into a combined federal government. This belief also is confirmed by looking at the growing clout of the European Union.

Another argument in support of integration is derived from the supposed failure of the Import Substitution Industrialization policies, based on the findings of Raul Prebisch and subscribed to by many Latin American governments in the 1960s. Designed to foment domestic industry and reduce imports through a variety of mechanisms, these policies were more successful in larger countries where domestic demand was large enough to begin to consume the output of newly-generated production facilities. However, in small and large countries alike, these industries would have benefited from access to larger markets.

So far, many trade associations have been created in the region, offering lower tariffs to foster increased trade. However, their impact is somewhat minimal without the presence of a physical infrastructure, necessary to facilitate this trade. The integration of economies also provides benefits vis-à-vis the mobility of labor. Many parts of Latin America suffer from a surplus of unskilled labor, which local economies cannot absorb. Integration creates the potential for this labor to be absorbed by growth in other countries and markets, mitigating effects such as violent urban crime and political instability. Fluidity of labor is an essential aspect of truly free trade, and can also help to stabilize and increase average incomes and decrease the inequality that is endemic to the region.

An Unfortunate Geography
Despite the appeal of integration, the nations of Latin America remain disjointed and fragmented. The most fundamental factor responsible for perpetuating this situation is the unique geography of the region. Compared to the physical barriers that faced European integration, or even the breathtaking distance that has separated the various states of the U.S., the obstacles facing a united Latin America are monumental.

Unlike the Rockies, the Appalachians, or even the Alps, the Andes are a rising mountain range, which increases the incidence of earthquakes and a proliferation of active volcanoes. These destructive forces lay down an incessant wrath upon the infrastructure plans of Latin American leaders, from Mexico to Chile. In addition, the steep gradient and high altitude of the mountains have made the construction of railways extremely difficult.

Although a variety of solutions have been proposed and applied (most notably the switch-back technique, whereby the train or zigzags it’s way up a slope with an engine on either end), none have worked efficiently enough to form a viable method of transporting goods or people. Roads running from the mountains to the coast are only marginally more successful, with even the major thoroughfares often collapsing annually with the arrival of the rainy season. Unpredictable cascades of water undermine the integrity of these highways, forcing national governments to pour money into reconstruction projects only to have the roads collapse once more. While the potential for tunnels is higher than it was a generation before (given developments in drilling techniques and improved equipment and technology), they still carry with them prohibitive cost and a danger of collapse, due to the geological volatility of the Andean range. Despite public allegations of poorly conceived and shoddily engineered under-funded projects, the reality is that even a completely uncorrupted and extremely well financed and administered project would be hard-pressed to construct a respectable road system crossing these mountains.

The second obstacle to the expansion of infrastructure networks is through the Amazon Rainforest. To say the least, these road networks are “inconveniently” but necessarily located between the major South American population centers of the southern cone and the Andean countries. There are currently several initiatives being pursued by Brazil to breach this barrier, though the only one that has advanced beyond the planning phase is a series of monumental highway projects, most notably the Trans-Amazonian and the Trans-Oceanic initiatives. Construction on the Trans-Amazonian began in the 1970s, but large sections of the highway remain unpaved. In the rainy season (running roughly from October to March), the road predictably suffers from flooding, particularly in its unpaved sections, rendering it essentially unusable during this period. While hundreds of millions of dollars in additional investment will be necessary to bring about the highway’s completion, estimates of the total cost do not take into consideration the costs associated with maintenance. A high rate of plant growth predictably necessitates a comprehensive maintenance schedule in order to avoid the destruction of the road by encroaching plant-life.

Endangering Natural Resources
Environmentalists and conservationists are very critical of these massive infrastructure projects. They charge that the construction of highways in the Amazon will increase rates of penetration, which inexorably will lead to deforestation, illegal logging, and poaching of rare species, as well as disruption to the livelihood and lifestyle of the local indigenous inhabitants. Though one can debate the extent to which these processes will be accelerated by construction, the validity of these predictions cannot be denied. It is no coincidence that as the Trans-Amazonian Highway advances into the depths of the forest, huge swaths of land are cleared around it. The process of colonization around the highway through slash and burn tactics is a remnant of policies preached by the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1970s, and still very much around.

The original purpose of this highway was not to link Brazil with the Andean population centers, but rather to colonize the Amazon. Even if the aim of these highways supposedly has fundamentally changed, the colonization and the destruction it predictably carries with it are an immutable part of these projects.

All of the evidence laid out thus far indicates the difficulties that await current approaches to fabricating integrative infrastructure. Even if a reliable and non-budget busting network of land transportation could be constructed and maintained at an affordable cost, the proposed network would result in a limited development model always threatening to break out in uncontrolled growth. This would facilitate the marginalization of indigenous groups, endanger biodiversity, and will result in the destruction of the rainforest as an invaluable resource.

The alternatives Latin American leaders are presented with are not particularly compelling, and perhaps it is not surprising that many continue to pursue their plans as originally drafted, despite that there are obvious negative consequences.

Plans such as the Trans-Oceanic Highway have been criticized on multiple grounds. On the environmental side, proponents of sustainable development argue that these projects do not take into consideration their long term and wide-reaching impact on the ecosystem when undergoing cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, logistical concerns have been expressed over the ability of these governments to carry out such expansive projects without the bleeding of funds and excesses of mismanagement-shortcomings that have historically plagued infrastructural projects in the region.

It is a real possibility that the end result could be major and tragic ecological damage. What has been absent so far is a comprehensive assessment of viable alternatives to the type of transportation infrastructure being envisaged. If we accept that the barriers to transportation are formed by the fundamental nature of the region’s geography, then there are only two possible solutions – alter this geography to such an extent that it can no longer form a barrier (an alternative which would involve the virtual destruction of the Amazon) or, literally rise above this geography, mainly in the form of a new generation of manned airships.

Thinking Above the Box
Although air transportation has existed in the region for many decades, without a shift in priorities, it will always be relegated to be an ancillary factor. As long as technological advances focus on increasing the speed of airplanes, the cost of shipping goods or people will remain relatively high, as these aircrafts are focused on carrying limited weights at high speed, while maintaining a heavy dependence on jet fuel, which can only be expected to an increase in cost over the long run.

Therefore, airplanes, for the foreseeable future, will always be relegated to the rapid delivery of relatively luxury goods in relatively small quantities. This mode of transportation can never fulfill the need for inexpensive movement of large quantities of goods and people, nor will it be cost effective for them to land anywhere outside of major metropolitan areas.

The above relegates such aircraft to a limited and relatively small role in a much larger and more important network of land transportation schemes. Any aircraft that would be capable of carrying heavy loads (comparable to those carried by freighter ships) would not be able to land in isolated areas.

The coincidence of all these factors may present us with the necessity of major innovation in air travel. The best avenue for potential innovation is in the field of airships, a general category of aircraft that includes all those based on lighter-than-air gases, such as helium or hydrogen. There is a high degree of interest in the field concerning these devices, much as there was in the early days of airplanes. Because the bulk of lift for these aircraft comes from the large quantities of gas, and not from thrust, there exists the potential for vertical take-off and landing developments in the field. These blimp-type vehicles’ utility would also be able to carry bulk goods of unusually heavy weight with an economy of fuel usage.

The greatest obstacle to the success of this technology has less to do with actual logistics and more to do with public perceptions. Many may recall the first effort to utilize lighter-than-air gases for transportation in the culminating in the 1920s and 30s. Discussions of this technology often conjure up images of the Hindenburg disaster, an incident in which a German Airship burst into flames upon arriving in New Jersey. This explosion is largely responsible for the discrediting of this technology, because of the widespread publicity it received. Furthermore, for decades the explosion has been attributed to the volatility of the gas itself, significant as it discredits the fundamental use of lighter-than-air gas rather than the technology used to contain it. If the use of gas is to be revived, it is important to eradicate the misconceptions that surround it.

First of all, recent research by William D. Van Vorst, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at UCLA and Addison Bain, former manager, Hydrogen Programs Kennedy Space Center, NASA, has demonstrated that the accident was caused not by the use of hydrogen gas but rather by the chemical composition of the skin, which was ignited by an electrostatic charge generated by the manner in which the skin was attached to the frame. This research establishes that hydrogen is perfectly safe for handling, especially considering technological advances made since the 1930s. Moreover, helium offers an even safer alternative to hydrogen, and is in fact exclusively used for contemporary lighter-than-air applications. Although representatives of the transport industries challenged by airship advances can be expected to cite the accidents of the 1930s in order to denigrate these technologies, most academics and technical experts in the field are aware of the more promising realities of the present.

Unfortunately, without a higher degree of public interest and investment, it is likely to be some decades before the current prototypes could ever serve as a regional system of transportation. A government-imposed, industry-wide patent pool has influenced much of the airplane industry’s history. This along with high government investments in research and development, primarily for defense purposes, led to a period of rapid innovation, without which it is improbable that airplanes would have become a viable form of transportation. A similar strategy must be employed in regards to airships. The coordinated investments of governments across the region, coupled with the cooperation of industry leaders such as Boeing and Embraer, could quickly deliver us into the age of airships. In the foreseeable future, it is possible that regional integration could be achieved by rendering the largest obstacle to Latin American development inconsequential, as the mountains to a soaring behemoth.