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Three borders, multiple threats: how climate change is making things worse in the Triple Frontier and what can be done

The tri-border along the junction of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil is an arena where multiple criminal dynamics and socio-environmental vulnerabilities overlap. Meanwhile, the intensifying effects of climate change in this region are  pushing different dimensions of human security to the brink. This article delves into the multifaceted role of climate change in exacerbating the Triple Frontier's challenges and articulates a comprehensive suite of policy recommendations aimed at tackling vulnerability and building resilience through community-based approaches.

Confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers, Puerto Iguazu, Misiones, Argentina, 6th. Jan. 2011. Photo by Phillip Capper, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 DEED

Human Security: Latin America’s Most Pressing Challenge

During the 1990s, the United Nations began to promote a paradigm shift and a reconceptualisation of the notion of security, which was initially narrowly interpreted as a matter of state sovereignty, military power, and national defence capability. The new frontiers of the concept of security were explored in the United Nations’ Human Development Report 1994, acknowledging that as long as there are people who face hunger, unemployment, state repression, violence, and disease, security will not exist. Through a more comprehensive and multidimensional lens that encompasses the respect for human rights, human security can be defined as “a condition that exists when the vital core of human lives is protected, and when people have the freedom and capacity to live with dignity”. Human security is thus conceived as “the condition where people and communities have the capacity to manage stresses to their needs, rights, and values”

This broadened concept encompasses seven aspects that capture the multidimensionality of human security:

The aforementioned report lists unchecked population growth, inequality, forced migration, environmental degradation, drug trafficking and terrorism as some of the main threats to global human security. The Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region is no stranger to these challenges, as it is faced with low economic growth, high inflation rates, high vulnerability to climate change, high rates of informal employment, unmatched crime levels, and prevailing poverty, further accentuated by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This context of compounding threats makes human security a primary concern in the LAC region. 


The Triple Frontier: Convergence of Borders and Problems

There is one particular area in LAC where risks to human security are critical: the Triple Frontier (TF) between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It comprises the Argentinean city of Puerto Iguazú, the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu and the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, all three divided by the Paraná and Iguazú rivers but connected through the Tancredo Neves and the Puente de la Amistad bridges (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Geographic location of the Triple Frontier in South America. Source: Machado et. al (2014).

This tri-border region is rich in natural, hydrological and energy resources. It is located at the epicentre of the Guaraní aquifer, one of the largest freshwater reservoirs on the planet. Argentina and Paraguay share the Iguazú Falls, which have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and draw tourists from all over the world. It is dominated by the Atlantic Forest, a jungle eco-region comprising one of the most biodiverse forests after the Amazon. The Paraná river hosts the largest hydroelectric power plant of the western and southern hemispheres, the Itaipú dam. 

The river, airport, road, service and banking infrastructure have bolstered connectivity and commercial and touristic activity in the area, making it a nerve centre of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Ciudad del Este is a commerce hotspot, and ranks among the principal Trade Free Areas worldwide, alongside Miami, Hong Kong and Panama. Agribusiness, particularly soy production, is also a major economic activity in the region. 

The TF’s privileged location, vibrant economic activity, and notably developed infrastructure are shadowed by the lack of government presence, institutional fragility, corruption, unplanned urban growth, poverty, and extreme weather conditions. 

Since the 1960s, the population of the TF has increased more than seven times and continues to expand. This demographic growth was greatly stimulated by the construction of the Itaipú dam commencing in 1971 which attracted foreign workforce, and later by the explosion of commercial activity in Ciudad del Este. The area also received significant Lebanese emigration during the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990). As a result, the TF became a multiethnic and multicultural region where South American, Arab, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Syrian and other communities coexist, although not without tensions. The suspicion of terrorist activities has led to the harassment of the Muslim community by extra-regional actors. Furthermore, there is a land-use conflict around Paraguayan peasants who are displaced from their lands by Brazilian soy producers and forced to migrate. 

The TF’s expansion has been mostly uncontrolled, as the sharp demographic growth has surpassed urban planning and job creation capabilities. As a result, informal and marginal settlements have proliferated, many of them located alongside river banks and other flood-prone areas, lacking basic service infrastructure, and where most houses are built with fragile materials such as fibre cement, straw and waste. Furthermore, due to unemployment, a large informal economy has been created. For instance, in Ciudad del Este, seven out of ten people work in the informal sector. 

Similarly to other border areas, the TF has been categorised as a “grey area” for being a fertile space for illicit activities, namely drug, arms and people trafficking; trading of forged goods in the black market; and money laundering. Before the pandemic, an estimated 18,500 vehicles and 20 thousand pedestrians crossed the Puente de la Amistad bridge to get to Ciudad del Este, where contraband goods from China and Southeast Asia can be purchased, as well as guns, tobacco, forged household appliances, clothing, toys, and many others. The banks and financial institutions that operate in Ciudad del Este are estimated to launder about 12 billion USD in illicit profits each year. The TF is also a hotspot for drug trafficking in South America, as cocaine and marijuana from Paraguay, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia exit the continent via Brasil to reach Europe. Illicit activity has been linked to the activities of both local and transnational criminal gangs such as the Brazilian Comando Vermelho and the Japanese Yakuza mob. The Arab community is said to finance Islamic terrorism through illegal trade in the TF, and dormant terrorist cells are presumed to be installed in the area –although these theories have never been confirmed. The high levels of corruption of government and border authorities and the police, in conjunction with the accentuated border porosity and institutional permissiveness, enable and facilitate unlawful practices.

Climate Change: A Threat Multiplier

While ethnic tensions represent a menace to community security, poverty jeopardises economic and food security, and criminal activity endangers the personal security of the inhabitants of the TF, there is yet another threat that is often overlooked and has a synergistic effect: climate change. 

Historical trends suggest that over the past five decades, weather patterns have changed in the TF region: annual precipitation has increased in frequency and intensity, and both minimum and maximum temperatures have experienced a positive trend, resulting in a warmer environment. Consequently, extreme weather events have impacted the area, namely floods (both river floods, caused by river level rise, and urban floods, caused by intense precipitation in urban areas), droughts, and heatwaves.

These extreme weather events contribute to severe economic loss and disrupt the livelihoods of civilians working in the tourism and agriculture sectors. For instance, in 2013 access to the Iguazú Falls had to be closed to the public due to flooding from the Paraná river, thus interrupting the flow of tourism that brings an income to many local families. Ironically, in 2021 the same river registered its lowest level since 1944, severely affecting the livelihoods and food security of smallholder farmers and artisanal fishermen. This unprecedented drought also brought about an estimated USD 315 million loss in exports in 2021 as ships had to significantly reduce their cargoes to prevent grounding. 

Climate change also constitutes a risk to health security in the TF. On the one hand, temperatures between 26°C and 28°C –characteristic of the TF’s subtropical weather– have been shown to increase the kinetics of development and survival of all stages of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the vector of diseases such as dengue, zika and chikungunya. According to Aquino (2014), the TF “provides optimal environmental conditions for Aedes aegypti but is also part of an area vulnerable to disease, mainly due to its large flow of people and goods as well as the formation of urban shapes marked by cultural and socioeconomic inequalities”. By March 2013, over 200,000 cases of dengue and several deaths had been confirmed in the TF area. On the other hand, the thousands of people who circulate daily by foot using clandestine border crossings across the TF –many of whom are victims of human trafficking and sex tourism– are often exposed to extreme heat. Also, many small merchants (known as sacoleiros) have street stalls where they work long shifts, in general without proper infrastructure to protect them from the heat, not to mention slum dwellers who also lack resources to mitigate the effects of heat. Importantly, average temperature in the TF region is projected to increase by the end of the century, and heatwaves are expected to become more frequent.  

The impact of extreme weather events might be aggravated by the high rates of deforestation in the TF. The Atlantic Forest is one of the most diverse, yet threatened, ecosystems in the world. Harmful agricultural practices such as logging for timber and field burning date back to the colonial period, and the advance of the agricultural frontier and intensive production models have led to deep transformations of the landscape, and it is estimated that only 5,8% of the original Atlantic Forest remains. As vegetation is lost, so is the forest’s role as a water and temperature regulator, thus significantly affecting environmental security in the TF. 

By disrupting economic activities and livelihoods, affecting people’s health, and altering the conditions of the physical environment, climate change has enhanced the level of human insecurity in the TF. The role of climate conditions as an undermining factor of human security has been widely studied, and climate change has been recognised as a multiplier of insecurity and vulnerability. Further, it tends to exacerbate existing social tensions and may generate new ones altogether.

Cooperation for Adaptation and Resilience 

To tackle the complex array of human security challenges in the TF, policy has to be focused on reducing vulnerability and building resilience through an intersectional approach. This may include:

  • Community-based urban and rural land-use planning to control and organise the expansion of urban spaces, prevent further proliferation of irregular settlements, reduce exposure to natural disasters (the relocation of houses threatened by floods should be considered), halt deforestation, and avoid the escalation of the dispute over rural land.

  • Investing in service and housing infrastructure as a way to combat precariousness and climate vulnerability, and to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events. This would include providing informal neighbourhoods with basic service infrastructure such as sewerage and waste collection; building efficient drainage systems both at neighbourhood and household level; where possible, leveraging vacant areas to create green spaces with vegetation to further contain flooding and reduce temperature; provide access to credits, loans, or other financial solutions to support families in adapting their housing to climate change (for example, for the purchase of resistant construction materials or cooling systems).

  • Strengthening of national climate risk assessment capabilities, including the modernisation and expansion of early warning systems and meteorological stations. This would generate key information to inform land-use planning and disaster risk reduction measures. To this end, cooperation between national space agencies could lead to better emergency preparedness outcomes, given the value of satellite data.

  • Promoting community-based resilience building to empower vulnerable groups to cope with and recover from climate-induced human insecurity. This approach would ensure that policy decisions account for local dynamics and grievances. 

  • Diversifying the economic matrix of the TF region, reducing dependence on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and tourism and incentivizing legal commercial activities. This could include investing in local industries through financing and technology transfer programmes for small and medium-sized enterprises; and leveraging the presence of the Itaipú dam to attract investments in sustainable energy production. 

Given the transboundary nature of the threats to human security that exist on the TF, effective policy-making relies on the cooperation among Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Significant improvements have been made in this regard, including the creation of the first Development Council for the Trinational Region of Iguazú and the establishment of the Trinational Network of Climate Sciences. These initiatives have set a valuable precedent for the creation of more collaboration mechanisms to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable communities and the natural environment.    



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