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Brazil: anger over Amazon dams

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Protesting about the Amazon dams in Itaituba Credit: Telma MonteiroTen organisations and the former environment minister, Marina Silva, have published an open letter, claiming that the government’s decision to reduce the size of five conservation areas in the Amazon to pave the way for the construction of a complex of seven hydroelectric dams along the Tapajós and Jamanxim river basins is unconstitutional and should be reversed.

The organisations say that, according to the Brazilian constitution, a conservation area can only be reduced in size if the action “does not affect the characteristics that justify the creation of the unit”. This is clearly not the case with most of the conservation areas in this region, four-fifths of which are classified as being of “extremely high” priority for the conservation of biodiversity by the Brazilian Ministry for the Environment. One example is the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric power station that will seriously affect one of the main features of the National Park of Amazônia – the rapids of São Luiz, along the Tapajós river.

President Dilma Rousseff used her special presidential powers in January to issue a Medida Provisória (MPV) to authorise the reduction in the size of the conservation areas. The government was clearly hoping to quietly steamroll ahead with its plans, but it is proving harder than it expected. Apart from the protests from civil society, Brazil’s powerful body of independent Public Prosecutors, known as Procuradoria Geral da República, is also taking action to get the MPV revoked for infringing the country’s constitution.

Last week Imazon, a respected environmental institute, published a study that shows that the reduction in conservation areas in the Amazon in order to build the planned hydroelectric power stations will lead to the emission of 152 tons of carbon – which is equivalent to 10% of the total carbon emissions that Brazil has said it will emit. Indeed, Imazon believes that the reduction in the conservation areas will, by itself, make it extremely difficult for Brazil to achieve its carbon emission goal. Notwithstanding, the Brazilian Senate voted on 29 May in favour of turning the MPV into law.

pimental1One of the threatened communitiesIt is expected that São Luiz do Tapajós – the largest of the planned dams – will produce 6,133 MW of power. Although the government has said that 722.2 square kilometres will be flooded – an area far larger than the 510 square kilometres to be flooded by the controversial Belo Monte dam – the country’s Procuradoria Geral da República puts the figure closer to 2,000 square kilometres, an area well over the size of Greater London.

The alarm caused by the government’s action has been aggravated by the fact that the area to be flooded along the Tapajós river basin comprises one of the Amazon’s best-conserved areas, owing to a mosaic of conservation areas and the low-impact presence of indigenous and riverside communities.

“From the environmental perspective, the impact of the Tapajós dam complex will be far worse than that of Belo Monte”, says Felício Pontes Júnior, the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor for the state of Pará.

The government defends its plans by affirming that the dam complex will be built following the deep sea oil platform model. All equipment and labour will be transported to the construction site via helicopters and aeroplanes, thus avoiding road building to bring in workers, materials and equipment. The building sites will be isolated areas along the river. “There will be no road leading to the site, so that an urban area will not be developed there. Once construction is over, this structure will be deactivated and everything will be reforested; only the few workers needed to maintain the dam will remain”, says Altino Ventura Filho, secretary for Energy Planning and Development of the Mines and Energy Ministry. “Those responsible for construction will also be responsible for preserving the region, protecting it from invasion and deforestation” he continues. The proximity of the Transamazon highway casts doubts upon these claims.

Furthermore, the pro-dam discourse is full of contradictions. Maurício Tomalsquim, the president of the Empresa de Pesquisa Energética (which is part of the Ministry of Mines and Energy) claims that these are “areas of the Amazon rainforest where there is no human presence”, which ignores the fact that the area is, in fact, home to communities of indigenous and traditional riverside communities. On the other hand, government allies have repeatedly claimed that the reduction of conservation areas will give local people greater land security.

Local indigenous and traditional communities have repeatedly expressed misgivings, fearing that they will be expelled from their land and lose their livelihoods.One community actually expelled technicians from measuring their area in 2010. Other statements from locals can be seen here.

Already the opening up of a 33.5km-long path through the forest has been authorised by the country’s environment agency, so that plants and animals can be captured, collected and taken for studies in the run-up to construction.

The state-owned electricity company, Eletrobrás, aims to hand in its report on the environmental impact expected from construction by January 2013; the government hopes that by March the Federal Accounts Tribunal will have approved the technical and viability studies so that in June an auction can be held to decide which consortium of construction companies will build the São Luiz do Tapajós dam.

No alternative?

Pimental2Pimental, the community that expelled the techniciansThe government is adamant that the construction of dams on the Tapajós will go ahead. “There is no alternative to São Luiz do Tapajós. The other options would be worse. There is not enough time to install nuclear power plants, while wind and biomass cannot sustain the country’s energy needs. Thermoelectric power is more expensive and less favourable. There is no alternative”, declares Ventura Filho. Although he admits that time constraints are tight, he expects the São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá dams to be operational by the end of 2017. “The Tapajós River is the last frontier in terms of large-scale hydropower production in Brazil. That is why the São Luiz dam is a short-term priority. We are not considering alternatives, because they simply do not exist”.

However, civil society groups and specialists do not agree. “The Brazilian people are not being threatened by an imminent energy blackout”, argues Telma Monteiro, an independent researcher on infrastructure and electric energy in the Amazon and a social-environmental activist. “This is an excuse in order to build large hydroelectric dams whose energy will be used by companies that export products that require large amounts of energy for their manufacture. Cement producers and construction companies – which finance political campaigns during elections – are the beneficiaries of large-scale dam production”.

She goes on: “Economic growth in Brazil does not depend on the construction of hydropower dams. Society should be able to participate in the choice of its development model. If investments are made in the maintenance of current energy transmission lines (which currently lose 17% of the power they carry), modernization of existent hydroelectric dams, investment in energy efficiency programmes and campaigns to combat waste, along with the construction of genuinely clean energy such as wind and solar power, there will be no need for thermoelectric, coal or diesel power plants for future energy needs.”