Greedy dam plans could choke the Amazon

Posted: 3 August 2006

Author: Oswaldo Seva

If schemes for dozens of dams on tributaries of the Amazon River go ahead they will choke the river. But as electro-intensive mining and metals processing industries proliferate throughout the Amazon, the dam-building interests are advancing on the world's last great rainforest, with a greedy plan to get their hands on huge amounts of electricity.

The Amazon River, whose tributaries are formed in the Peruvian Andes, flows over a sedimentary flood plain hundreds of miles wide, with thousands of lagoons and seasonally flooded lakes - it is a river that is impossible to dam.

However, the principal tributaries of the Amazon in its southern basin - the Madeira, Tapajós, Xingu, and to the east the Araguaia and Tocantins - descend steeply from crystalline rocks into the Amazon basin. From these heights rush enormous volumes of water, reaching volumes greater than 30,000 cubic metres of water per second. These numbers arouse the megalomaniac dreams of international dam builders and their Brazilian partners.

The Lula government, which took office in January 2003, has unfortunately also become stricken with this delirium, and damming the rivers of Amazonia has become a banner that will be waved widely by political candidates in this year's election campaign.

Harping on the increasing threat of energy blackouts by the year 2010 if large dams in the Amazon are delayed, the level of debate about Brazil's energy policy has fallen to a new low. The Lula government now appears more interested in hitting citizens in their guts with scare tactics about energy shortages, rather than in capturing their hearts and minds to advance the country toward a sustainable energy future.

Energy plan

As a response to this looming threat, 84 large dams with a total generating capacity of more than 30,000 MW are planned for construction - including 23 in the Amazon basin. Half of this energy generation would be provided by two huge dam complexes in the Amazon. Dozens of other dams being planned for the rainforest appear in the government's new energy plan for the year 2030, which will be released in coming months.

[Editor's Note: This rash of dams would dangerously increase Brazil's excessive dependence on hydropower, which already accounts for 85.4 per cent of the nation's electricity. Drought crippled the nation's electricity grids in 2001.]

A dangerous symptom of this dam fever is a rash of bold proposals to pre-emptively steamroll any opposition that could arise. Mines and Energy Minister Silas Rondeau, a Lula appointee, is introducing a bill in congress which would establish 'energy reserves' - a new form of protected area - in the Amazon. These reserves would take precedence over any proposals to create conservation units or indigenous reserves, in the interest of avoiding conflicts that could restrict the dam-ability of Amazonian rapids.

Green veneer

A Brazilian Congressman from the Xingu region has introduced a bill that would abolish constitutional guarantees of indigenous people to the exclusive use of natural resources in their territories, including their rivers. This constitutional right is viewed as an obstacle to the expansion of Brazil's hydroelectric network in the Amazon. Under Ribeiro's measure, indigenous peoples would receive a royalty when their territories are flooded by dams.

The hydroelectric potential of a dozen major Amazonian rivers is now being re-evaluated by the government, which insists dam projects will proceed with environmental safeguards. But environmentalists say that these 'integrated analyses of river basins' are only a green veneer masking a plan to destroy the cultural and biodiversity of the Amazon.

First and foremost in the sights of the dam industry have been the twin rivers Araguaia and Tocantins, which flow from Brazil's central plateau, descending 1,000 metres to the delta of the Amazon. The Araguaia still flows freely, and two proposals to dam it have been rejected by the Brazilian environmental protection agency, Ibama. It is generally recognised that dams on the Araguaia, which has a wide floodplain, would have serious environmental consequences. However, plans for damming the Araguaia are in the new energy plan.

The Tocantins has already been dammed at five sites - the first in its lower reaches was Tucuruí, built at the Itaboca rapids. Tucurui began operating in 1984, but its capacity is only now being expanded to reach its original design level of 8,000 MW. Some 2,860 sq. km. of the rainforest was flooded by Tucuruí, affecting more than 40,000 people.

Land conflicts

Upstream are Lajeado (850 MW) and Peixe Angical (450 MW), whose reservoir is now being filled, as well as Serra da Mesa (1,275 MW), which began operating in 1998. One of the most controversial projects was Cana Brava (450 MW), which was financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, and is operated by Tractebel (a subsidiary of the French company Suez).

The riverbank lands of the Tocantins are the site of some of the longest-lasting land conflicts in Brazil, and conflicts over dams being planned have accentuated these conflicts. São Salvador Dam is currently under construction, Estreito Dam is awaiting a construction licence, and in all 80 dams are planned for the basin, including 33 large hydro projects, and 47 smaller dams.

As in many countries, Brazil's dam industry defies human rights laws and democratic principles, destroys fertile farmlands, and inundates river rapids and waterfalls which are truly natural monuments which should be conserved. To further compound the controversy over new dams in Brazil is the growing harassment of leaders of Brazil's Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB).

Tragic destiny

MAB leaders have been beaten by the police and arrested as a measure to pre-empt protests against dams. By building strong ties with local political leaders and conservative interests in the countryside, dam builders create a parallel power structure based on promoting dams and violating the rights of dam-affected populations, helping limit the pace of Brazil's political recovery from 25 years of military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

Following the dismantling of many of Brazil's state electric companies during the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Lula government has emphasised a return to centralised state energy planning, and has halted the privatisation process. Still, the building of large hydroelectric dams continues to be practically the only plan for strengthening Brazil's electrical energy security.

It appears that Amazonia's rivers face a tragic destiny. As electro-intensive mining and metals processing industries proliferate throughout the Amazon, the barrageiros (dam-building interests) are advancing on the world's last great rainforest, with a greedy plan to get their hands on huge amounts of electricity. It is a devil's bargain that could accelerate the destruction of Amazonia, and for which the planet will pay dearly. - Third World Network Features

Oswaldo Seva is professor and researcher in Energy at the Mechanical Engineering Faculty at Sao Paulo State University, Unicamp. He coordinated the study 'Tenota Mo: Alerts on the Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams on the Xingu River', published by the International Rivers Network in 2005.

Source: This article, translated by Glenn Switkes, originally appeared in World Rivers Review (June 2006), and is distributed by Third World Network Features.