On November 12, 2020, a Chinese consortium consisting of three state-run companies signed a contract with Bahia state, in northeast Brazil. The venture established a partnership to build a 12.4-kilometer long bridge, the second largest in Latin America. Construction is expected to begin in 2021 and last for five years.
The bridge will connect the city of Salvador, capital of Bahia, with Itaparica Island, in the Bay of All Saints. Itaparica is already connected to the continent through a bridge that provides access to the state’s southern region. The idea of building this new structure has been discussed since 1967 and is controversial: Part of the population, including experts and politicians, consider it to be too costly and to have an environmental impact on a historical and touristic area of the Bay of All Saints.
The bidding process that enabled China to win this project, carried out in 2019, had no competitors. The total investment for this construction work is nearly $1 billion, of which Bahia will pay nearly $300 million, while the rest will come from Chinese funds. The contract states that, in addition to building the infrastructure, China will manage the bridge for 35 years. In these three and a half decades, the Bahia government will also pay $10 million to the Chinese consortium annually.
Bahia is the Brazilian state with the highest rates of extreme poverty: some 8 million people, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. There is concern that the vast financial commitment of this contract with China will prevent investments in sectors that are already in a precarious state, such as health, education, and basic sanitation.
The Bahia State Court of Auditors found a nearly $42 million surcharge in the construction budget. Due to irregular findings and a potential loss for the public coffers, the auditors requested in 2019 that the bidding process be suspended. However, the agencies in charge denied the request.
Another controversial aspect of the bridge project is its environmental impact. According to a study conducted by companies hired by the Bahia government to identify and measure such risks, the construction of the Salvador-Itaparica bridge will generate 167 environmental impacts on the sea, rivers, animals, and plants, as well as socioeconomic impacts on the territories the work covers.
There is concern about the unbridled population growth on Itaparica Island, a bucolic region with untouched nature and some 60,000 low-income residents. According to experts, investments in physical and social infrastructure necessary for the area to withstand a sudden population growth have not been projected. “The mere crossing of a road through a relatively preserved environment tends to create conditions for the growth of sub-human population concentrations and their degradation,” researchers Francisco Lima Cruz Teixeira and Sílvio Vanderlei Araújo Sousa, said in an article about the bridge construction published in the Federal University of Bahia’s Center for Study and Research of Humanities social science magazine.
Local environmental groups also point out to the disappearance of a river caused by dredging, and the alteration of coral reefs due to sound pollution and pressure from underwater equipment, as well as the removal of local vegetation and mangroves, which are breeding grounds for fish, considering that fishing is one of the main activities of local islanders.