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CSF celebrates its 15th birthday with 15 stories of success

conservation economics CSF strategy fund

Since 1998, Conservation Strategy Fund has been committed to making conservation efforts smarter through the use of economics. To celebrate, we're going to be sharing 15 stories over the course of the next few weeks. Each of these stories reflects how CSF's unique training and research programs equip people with the ability to both calculate and articulate the benefits of doing development right. Read our first story below and follow the series through our blog or on Facebook, and share your story at info@conservation-strategy.org.

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Act One: Madidi National Park, Unplugged

The ink was hardly dry on Conservation Strategy Fund’s Articles of Incorporation when a request came in from scientists Adrian Forsyth and Enrique Ortiz at the Smithsonian Institution: Analyze a giant proposed dam that would flood the most biologically diverse protected area in the world.

For about half a century, engineers and politicians have looked at the Bala Narrows in northern Bolivia and seen two things: money and power (the electric sort). Both could be made by plugging the gap in a ridge at the very edge of the Amazon. At this point, the Beni river forms a torrent that gathers nine Andean tributaries before it squeezes through the funnel of the Bala Narrows and spills out onto the Amazon plain. At the Narrows, the average annual flow of 2,200 cubic meters per second is enough to power all of Bolivia, with water to spare.

Over the decades, the arguments in favor of stopping up the Beni had evolved: to render longer stretches of the river navigable; then to provide power for Bolivia’s mining industry; then to control the flow of water so that downstream lands could be more successfully farmed. In 1998, the government declared the dam a priority for yet another reason: to supply Brazil’s huge energy market.

But building the Bala dam would create an inland sea covering 250,000 – 600,000 acres (100,000-270,000 ha), at least twice the size of California’s Lake Tahoe. The entire flooded area would be within the boundaries of the Madidi National Park and the adjacent Pilón-Lajas homeland of the Indigenous Tsiman and Moseten peoples. Madidi happens to be the number one park on the planet in terms of biological diversity.

CSF’s first ever research project spelled out some harsh economic realities. For example, Bolivia would have to construct approximately 600 miles of transmission lines to take the Bala dam’s power to reach desired markets in central and southern Brazil. And the energy would compete with Brazil’s low-cost generators, Bolivia’s very own natural gas and smaller dams higher up the Andean slope.

Estimated costs were steep—ranging from $1.8 to $3.2 billion. Added to unsure power markets were tradeoffs in terms of managing flows for both power and farming, which, in any case, was proposed for lands with no access to markets. CSF’s report concluded that financial losses on the project could run Bolivia upwards of $1 billion and possibly deepen the country’s poverty. At best, the Bala dam had a one-in-five chance of proving economically viable.

Nearly 15 years later, the Bala Narrows remains unplugged and Madidi’s luxuriant jungles above water. The park is a magnet for nature tourism that benefits locals. CSF’s study was the decisive evidence needed to bury the Bala plans and a watershed event in using numbers for nature in one of the most special places on Earth.

Continue the series with "Shaping Shipping: the Panama Canal"