Tag Archives: Xingu River

The War on Dams

amazon river satellite image

An Amazonian community has threatened to “go to war” with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders.  The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.  Public prosecutors, human rights groups, environmental organisations and Christian missionaries have condemned what they call the government’s strong-arm tactics.

According to witnesses in the area, helicopters, soldiers and armed police have been involved in Operation Tapajós, which aims to conduct an environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed construction of the 6,133MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam.  The facility, to be built by the Norte Energia consortium, is the biggest of two planned dams on the Tapajós, the fifth-largest river in the Amazon basin. The government’s 10-year plan includes the construction of four larger hydroelectric plants on its tributary, the Jamanxim.

Under Brazilian law, major infrastructure projects require prior consultation with indigenous communities. Federal prosecutors say this has not happened and urge the courts to block the scheme which, they fear, could lead to bloodshed.  “The Munduruku have already stated on several occasions that they do not support studies for hydroelectric plants on their land unless there is full prior consultation,” the prosecutors noted in a statement.

However, a court ruling last week gave the go-ahead for the survey. Government officials say that neither researchers nor logistical and support teams will enter indigenous villages. The closest they will get is about 30 miles from the nearest village, Sawré Maybu.  The ministry of mines and energy noted on its website that 80 researchers, including biologists and foresters, would undertake a study of flora and fauna. The army escort was made possible by President Dilma Rousseff, who decreed this year that military personnel could be used for survey operations. Officials say the security is for the safety of the scientists and the local population.

Missionaries said the presence of armed troops near Sawré Maybu village, Itaituba, was intimidating, degrading and an unacceptable violation of the rights of the residents.  “In this operation, the federal government has been threatening the lives of the people,” the Indigenous Missionary Council said. “It is unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to impose dialogue at the tip of a bayonet.”

The group added that Munduruku leaders ended a phone call with representatives of the president with a declaration of war. They have also issued open letters calling for an end to the military operation. “We are not bandits. We feel betrayed, humiliated and disrespected by all this,” a letter states.  One of the community’s leaders, Valdenir Munduruku, has warned that locals will take action if the government does not withdraw its taskforce by 10 April, when the two sides are set to talk. He has called for support from other indigenous groups, such as the Xingu, facing similar threats from hydroelectric dams.

Environmental groups have expressed concern. The 1,200-mile waterway is home to more than 300 fish species and provides sustenance to some of the most biodiverse forest habitats on Earth. Ten indigenous groups inhabit the basin, along with several tribes in voluntary isolation.  With similar conflicts over other proposed dams in the Amazon, such as those at Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antônio and Jirau, some compare the use of force to the last great expansion of hydropower during the military dictatorship. “The Brazilian government is making political decisions about the dams before the environmental impact assessment is done,” said Brent Millikan of the International Rivers environmental group.  “The recent military operations illustrate that the federal government is willing to disregard existing legal instruments intended to foster dialogue between government and civil society.”

Jonathan Watts, Amazon tribe threatens to declare war amid row over Brazilian dam project, Guardian, Aprl. 3, 2013

See also Resisting Dams, The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil

Resisting Dams: Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Two indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are holding hostage three engineers working for the company building the contested Belo Monte dam, the latest trouble to hit the $13 billion project.  The engineers working for Norte Energia, a consortium of Brazilian firms and pension funds, were being held in a village close to where the 11,233-megawatt dam is being built on the Xingu River, Brazil’s national indigenous institute, called Funai, said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Juruna and Arara tribes say construction of the dam, which has been opposed by environmental groups and activists like Hollywood director James Cameron, is already preventing them from traveling freely along the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon River.  The dam would be the world’s third biggest, after China’s Three Gorges and Brazil’s Itaipu dam.

The three engineers, whose identities were not revealed, met with village leaders on Tuesday to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the dam, including a mechanism to allow boats to get around the construction site.  But the indigenous leaders were dissatisfied with the proposed solution and in protest prevented the engineers from leaving, environmental groups said. “The authorities report that the engineers are being prohibited from leaving the village but there is no use of force or violence,” Amazon Watch and International Rivers, two environmental groups opposed to the dam, said in a statement. Norte Energia declined to comment.

Funai said it did not know what the tribes were demanding in order to release the men. Funai representatives were with the Norte Energia employees to take part in talks with tribal leaders, the agency said.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists see the dam’s construction as the first step toward increased development of the Amazon basin, a hotly contested region that has seen violent and deadly conflicts between indigenous tribes and ranchers, miners and loggers.  The government of Brazil, a country which depends on hydroelectric power for more than 80% of its electricity, has said that it will build several dams in the Amazon to take advantage of the region’s ample hydroelectric potential, but has sought to minimize the impact of construction and operation of the dams.

In late June, members of several local tribes occupied the Belo Monte construction site to make similar demands, accusing Norte Energia of failing to carry out mitigation measures which the company is required to implement as part of its license to build the dam.  The company is required to invest about $1.6 billion in social programs such as building sanitation networks and relocating houses that occupy land to be flooded by the dam. In the past, the company has reiterated that it will carry out those investments, but that the investments will be completed as dam construction progresses…

Norte Energia is composed of government-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras, or Eletrobras, the pension funds of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro and government lender Caixa Economica; as well as utilities Neoenergia and Cemig and mining company Vale. Eletrobras is the biggest shareholder, with a 49.98% stake.

Excerpt,PAULO WINTERSTEIN, Tribes Hold Engineers of Dam in Brazil, Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2012

See also Amazon Watch, International Rivers

The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil: the need for a social pact

These dams [like the Belo Monte] harness the natural flow of the river to drive the turbines, so they do not require large reservoirs, and as a result, less land needs to be flooded – which means less of an impact on the environment and surrounding communities. However, it also means that during dry spells, they do not have the water reserves needed to continue generating electricity at a reasonable capacity.   “We are increasing the installed generating capacity, but water storage capacity has not grown since the 1980s,” which is a cause for concern, said Nelson Hubner, general director of the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency.  The “stored energy” represented by the country’s reservoirs has not kept up with demand, which will make it impossible to maintain the necessary supply of hydroelectricity during a drought year, warned Hubner at the Second Hydropower Summit Latin America, held May 9-10 in São Paulo.  The summit, organised by Business News Americas (BNamericas), a business and economy news service based in Santiago, Chile, brought together dozens of executives from both public and private companies in the sector. Many were highly critical of the model chosen for the country’s new hydroelectric power plants, which they believe will result in greater energy insecurity in Brazil.  “Future generations will demand compensation for the fact that biodiversity was decreased and reservoirs were not created” in current hydropower projects, predicted Jose Marques Filho, assistant director of environment and corporate citizenship at Companhia Paranaense de Energia, a power company run by the government of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná.

By renouncing the use of this “long-life battery”, as another summit participant described reservoirs, Brazil will need to build more fossil fuel-powered thermoelectric plants, which are more polluting but “are not under attack from environmentalists,” complained the hydroelectric dam constructors and their supporters.

Construction began in 2011 on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingú River in Brazil’s Amazon basin. A total of 516 sq km of land will be flooded for the project, but this is only 42 percent of the area that would have been flooded for the reservoir planned in the original version of the project, drawn up in the 1980s.  However, because of this smaller reservoir, the plant will only reach its total generation capacity of 11,233 megawatts during the brief rainy season when the river is swollen to its highest level. During dry spells, output will decrease significantly, since the flow of the Xingú can drop from 30,000 cubic metres a second in March and April to less than 500 cubic meters in a dry month like October.

“We have to get used to hydroelectric dams without large reservoirs because the environment demands it,” said Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of the Energy Research Corporation, which provides advisory services to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The Amazon region, where most of Brazil’s hydropower potential is concentrated, is primarily flat, which means there are few sites where water can be accumulated and stored without flooding large areas of forest, he explained.  Belo Monte, located at the end of a canyon, is one of these sites. A large reservoir there would flood two indigenous territories which are home to over 200 people. “That was a determining factor” for modifying its design and adopting run-of-the-river technology, Tolmasquim told Tierramérica.  This decision, however, did not spare Belo Monte from becoming the target of the most widespread opposition ever against an energy project in Brazil, with environmentalists, civil society activists, indigenous communities and even local soap opera stars and international celebrities joining forces to denounce its environmental and social impacts.

Tapping the rivers of the Amazon basin for energy production should begin “with smaller hydroelectric dams, with an output of around 500 megawatts,” said Goldemberg, a University of São Paulo professor who has headed a number of state-owned energy companies and was the national secretary of environment when the city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the Earth Summit in 1992…..

The conflicts that sometimes halt the construction of hydropower plants in Brazil pit a small local population of perhaps a few thousand people against a million people who will benefit from the electricity produced, but are far away and geographically scattered, commented Goldemberg.  What are needed are “good projects” that are transparent and attend to the potential social and environmental impacts. In addition, it is up to the government to “mediate and explain” to settle these conflicts, given the disproportionate ratio of opponents to beneficiaries of roughly “one per one hundred,” he said.

There are much more complex situations in Asia, where enormous numbers of people are affected because of the population density of countries like India, he added. Goldemberg learned a good deal about numerous cases like these as a member of the World Commission on Dams, which produced a report in 2000 detailing the damages caused by these projects and the requirements for their construction.

For those in the hydroelectric dam construction industry, the issue of the environment has become an obstacle to the expansion of hydropower in Brazil.  In the meantime, the wind power industry has experienced a significant boost, largely because their competitors in the hydropower sector have been unable to obtain permits from the environmental authorities for years, he observed.  According to Marques Filho of the Companhia Paranaense de Energia, overcoming this impasse will require a “social pact”, based on “a dialogue among all the stakeholders” that cannot be limited to environmentalists on one side and hydroelectric dam constructors on the other.

Excerpts, Mario Osava, Belo Monte Dam Hit by Friendly Fire, Inter Press Service, May 22, 2012

Judges Rule: the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil

Brazilian judge has blocked plans to build a huge hydro-electric dam in the Amazon rainforest because of environmental concerns. Federal judge Ronaldo Desterro said environmental requirements to build the Belo Monte dam had not been met. He also barred the national development bank, BNDES, from funding the project.

The dam is a cornerstone of President Dilma Rousseff’s plans to upgrade Brazil’s energy infrastructure. But it has faced protests and challenges from environmentalists and local indigenous groups who say it will harm the world’s largest tropical rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people.

Judge Desterro said the Brazilian environmental agency, Ibama, had approved the project without ensuring that 29 environmental conditions had been met. In particular, he said concerns that the dam would disrupt the flow of the Xingu river – one of the Amazon’s main tributaries – had not been met.

The government says the Belo Monte dam is crucial for development and will create jobs, as well as provide electricity to 23 million homes. The 11,000-megawatt dam would be the biggest in the world after the Three Gorges in China and Itaipu, which is jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay.

Excerpt, Brazil judge blocks Amazon Belo Monte dam, BBC News, Feb. 25, 2011