I wake in a violently thrashing hammock. The Tapajós River, so often a flat and shining expanse, has turned into a heaving sea over which our little boat lunges, battling a suddenly vicious wind. The motor cuts off, the absence of its loud rumbling making the sound of beating waves seem all the more threatening. As I climb carefully out of my hammock, nausea building in my stomach, the crew members scuttle purposefully about the boat, securing it to the crowns of trees sticking out of the river
from a flooded spit of land. They come from communities on the left bank of the river, and are well accustomed to the moods and tides of their Tapajós. They know to tie up and wait out the storm. Just as the rain comes drenching down, we unroll the tarps fastened to the sides of the boat, lashing them in place against the driving drops.
Our little boat in the calm morning
South of Santarém, in the state of Pará, Brazil, on either side of the wide Tapajós River, great tracts of protected land dominate the river’s edges. On the right side of the river is the Tapajós National Forest (Flona), and on the left side, the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractivist Reserve (Resex). Traditional communities, both indigenous and non-indigenous, dot the edges of the waters. They have weathered many waves of exploitative development, fighting lumber and mining interests for the rights to their lands, and in the process creating a model for ecological conservation that includes sustainable land use by humans. Now, hydroelectric dams represent a new threat to the integrity of the land and its communities. In a region where the natural cycles of the river define human civilizations and ecological systems, the Tapajós has become a gaping hole in Amazonian land conservation policies, and a way for the development-oriented arms of the Brazilian government to bypass citizen’s rights.
It is because of the dams that I find myself on a fifteen-passenger boat in a tempest. I am tagging along with members of the social movement Tapajós Vivo as they head to the tiny community of Surucuá in the Resex. The residents there have asked the movement for a presentation on the impacts that a hydroelectric project might have on their lives. By morning, the storm has passed, and we cross the river in safety. Surucuá is just waking as we arrive. Three women receive our bags of food in what appears to be a communal kitchen and begin preparations for the lunch that will follow the presentation. People begin to arrive, some on motorcycles from other communities, instantly crowding around the movement’s representatives to voice their anxieties about the dams and other environmental issues. They pile up a mountain of questions before the lecture has even begun.
There exists only sparse documentation of the downriver impacts of hydroelectric dams. Most studies focus on the more dramatic and obvious flooding in the reservoir areas. As a result, mitigations efforts focus mostly on upstream communities as well. In the Relatório de Impacto Ambiental (Environmental Impact Report), or RIMA, published for the dam to be implemented at São Luiz de Tapajós, upriver from the Flona and Resex, counts the entire river basin below the dam, lands included, a part of the impact zone. Nevertheless, no compensation will be allocated for impacts in the area.
The most notable damage done downriver by other Amazonian dams was on fish populations. In both the Tocantins and Madeira rivers, fishing below the hydroelectric projects became increasingly difficult because of blocking of river passages for migratory fish and destruction of seasonal floodplain habitats. Migratory fish swim upriver to reproduce, and then their offspring relies on the shelter created by flooded forests for protection from predators as they grow to full size. Furthermore, these seasonally flooded forests provide a rich source of food for fish, as trees drop their fruits directly into the water. The placement of a dam stops fish migrations altogether, significantly decreasing the sizes of those populations. Once the dam is in operation, artificial regulation of water flow keeps the river from reaching its full rainy-season heights, ending this interaction between land and river.
For four hours, the people from Tapajós Vivo speak on concerns ranging from the dams to carbon credits to lumber exploitation in the Resex. These environmental issues are the most pressing political concerns of the residents of the Resex, indicating how directly the lives and livelihoods of these people depend on their immediate environment. With the loss of fish populations, the communities below the dam will lose an important source of food. While they do not depend entirely on fish, it is one of the most accessible protein sources available to them. Furthermore, the fish that remain will likely be contaminated with toxic mercury. The slowed waters in the reservoir create conditions for the methylation of naturally occurring mercury, creating a compound that can cause harm even in small doses, especially to children. In the case of the Tucuruí dam on the Tocantins River, populations of both fish and the humans who consumed them increased drastically after the construction of the dam.
The absurdity of leaving river waters unprotected in the Amazon is illustrated by the predicament of the people of the Flona and Resex. Through a great deal of struggle, the lands of the lower Tapajós have been secured for the people who live there, yet the river that runs between the two areas of conservation, that defines their communities and habitats, remains free for exploitation. The Law of the Waters, law nº 9.433, passed in 1997, should provide exactly this much-needed protection. It calls for social inclusion in the management of water resources and the creation and integration of protected areas, including the water, in river basins. Immense pressure, however, to develop the interior of Brazil has prevented this law from being applied.
The dam at São Luiz do Tapajós is only the first in a large complex of dams that will serve as locks, creating a waterway for shipping barges to reach the interior of Mato Grosso, a state known for soy production. The waterway would make shipping the soy to the coast much cheaper, making a bigger profit for the agro-industrialists that hold a great deal of power in the Brazilian government. Foreign investors have much to gain as well from the opening of the unexploited Amazonian interior. Facing national and international pressure, the people of the lower Tapajós are likely to have their rights to land and clean water compromised by the implementation of this massive development project.
We head back to Santarém in the clear afternoon, the river around us seeming unchangeably placid. But like a great storm, the dams are coming, to interrupt the unceasing flow of the river, to toss it, to inevitably change it. Those to whom the river belongs, the pilots of our little boat, the three men in a canoe whom we pass at sunset, will change with it. It is not with some misguided nostalgia for the rural idyllic that I write these last lines, but with a great trepidation at the true significance of the dams. Albeit unofficially, the river will become the property of the massive, semi-public Brazilian electrical companies, who will direct the flow of the river based on energy demands of foreign mining operations and domestic aluminum factories. The Tapajós will become one more vital piece of the Amazon sold, at great local cost, into the hands of the global market.
*Devon Reynolds is a Fulbright Scholar researching civil society responses to hydroelectric development along the Tapajós river. When not involved in academic projects, she works as an environmental educator in the Adirondack Mountains.