The Chiquitano forest in eastern Bolivia, home to many of the world's most vulnerable species, including the jaguar, the ocelot and the critically endangered hyacinth macaw, faces bisection by a 224-mile-long pipeline transferring natural gas from Rio San Miguel in Bolivia to Cuiaba in Brazil.
The development, backed by a consortium led by the US oil giant Enron and in which Shell is a 25 per cent partner, is "completely unacceptable," said Clive Wicks, head of international programmes for WWF-UK. "This area has been identified as one of the richest, rarest and most biologically outstanding examples of the Earth's diverse habitats and a priority region for conservation efforts," he said.
"Shell did some good work with us in Peru. But their support for this project flies in the face of their claims to respect the environment. They are showing a deliberate and reckless disregard for the conservation of a unique ecosystem, all in the name of profitability."
Shell recently stepped up a public relations campaign committing itself to reducing the negative environmental impact of its policies. The company said yesterday that the $500m (pounds 312m) project was fully in accordance with its policy of taking "environmental and social considerations into account in everything we do". The pipeline will provide much-needed energy and economic development to Bolivia and Brazil, a spokesman said.
But the company refused to comment on a WWF claim that the consortium's environ-mental consultants said they were "dealing with a single complex ecosystem which should be preserved at all costs". WWF was one of five green groups that assessed the pipeline's impact, saying it would be "devastating", and calling for it to be rerouted.
But that proposal was rejected, with Enron claiming the forest was "secondary". Instead, it offered a compensation package of $20m to improve the conservation status of the area.
WWF said yesterday it was a foregone conclusion that the pipeline would be constructed on the proposed route. But Chiquitano was "pristine primary forest", the charity said. Ninety per cent of this type of forest had already been destroyed by logging and other activities, said Mr Wicks.
"Nature has very few strongholds like this left on the planet," said Patricia Caffrey of WWF Bolivia. "Endangered species that have been all but eliminated elsewhere are found in this forest."
Enron said yesterday it was "surprised and disappointed" at the WWF claims. The company considered the forest to be "very important" and was committed to helping the area, a spokeswoman said.
She claimed that adopting a new route would have an impact on 20 additional indigenous communities, cross eight rivers rather than two, and be 70 per cent longer.