Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, has decided not to give an environmental licence to the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric dam, the first of a series of dams planned for the Tapajós river basin. The project’s rejection is seen as a significant victory for the Munduruku indigenous people — whose livelihoods would have been impacted and part of whose lands would have been flooded — and for environmentalists.

Chief Juarez Saw Munduruku, from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land: “The only way I’m leaving is dead”. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá
Chief Juarez Saw Munduruku, from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land: “The only way I’m leaving is dead”. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

If it had gone ahead, the 8,000-megawatt São Luiz do Tapajós dam would have been the country’s second largest hydroelectric power station, after the controversial Belo Monte dam, which became operational earlier this year. It would have also been one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world.

The decision took into consideration reports from the federal attorney’s office (Advocacia-Geral da União, AGU), the indigenous agency Funai and Ibama itself, all of which advised against authorisation. The ruling now has to be endorsed by Suely Araujo, the president of Ibama. However, as she is a member of the licensing commission, which voted unanimously against authorization, she is expected to ratify the decision shortly.

While the decision is being welcomed by environmentalists and indigenous groups, it is not being well received by others. Luiz Barreto, president of EPE, Brazil’s Energy Research Company, which draws up the country’s energy studies, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper (which broke the story on Wednesday) that the deauthorization could increase energy costs: “To do without São Luiz do Tapajós necessarily implies finding other sources of supply, with different costs”.

The São Luiz do Tapajós dam was heavily opposed by the Munduruku Indians, who were horrified by the impact of the Belo Monte dam on indigenous groups who live beside the Xingu river — the large Amazon tributary to the east of the Tapajós. They’ve lobbied vigorously and effectively against the Tapajós dam. Recently, international NGOs, including Greenpeace, rallied to their campaign.

The construction of São Luiz do Tapajós would have meant the flooding of Munduruku territory known as the Sawré Muybu, where some Indians live. According to the Brazilian constitution, such an action is not permitted. Brent Millikan, the Amazon program director from the NGO International Rivers, is clear on the topic: “Indigenous land can only be exploited in very unusual circumstances, and then only after approval by Congress”.

In the past, the federal government has argued that it was not required to give this protection to the 170,000 hectares (656 square miles) of Sawré Muybu land, as it was not formally recognised as indigenous territory.

However, a turning point occurred in April of this year when Funai finally published an initial report that recognised the Sawré Muybu lands as indigenous.  This came after the Indians themselves, frustrated by the long delays, had marked out their own land boundaries.

The federal government could overrule the constitution by resorting to special powers, created during the military dictatorship. Indeed, it used these powers to push through the construction of the Belo Monte dam, but experts say that it seems unlikely that the government will invoke that authority now, given the degree of strong organized opposition to the São Luiz do Tapajós dam.

The decision does not mean that the federal government has given up its development plans for the Tapajós river basin. It intends to build 43 “big” dams throughout the basin, of which ten are considered priority, to be completed by 2022.

At the same time, the transport ministry has developed plans to convert the Tapajós and its tributaries, the Teles Pires and the Juruna rivers, into industrial waterways to transport soybeans from Brazil’s interior — especially the state of Mato Grosso — to ports along the Amazon River, and then to the Atlantic Ocean for export.

The industrial waterways plan, known as the Tapajós Complex, is also likely to stir up controversy. It will only be viable if the series of dams is completed, including the Chacorão dam, which would flood 18,700 hectares (72 square miles) of Munduruku land.

While environmentalists and indigenous groups have good reason to celebrate the decision over São Luiz do Tapajós, the battle over the future of the Tapajós river basin is far from over.

First published by Mongabay here.

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