$11B Amazon rainforest dam gets initial approval

/ Mongabay.com

The Brazilian government has given preliminary go-ahead on a massive Amazon dam project that environmentalists and scientists say could be a potential ecological disaster.

$11B Amazon rainforest dam gets initial approval

$11B Amazon rainforest dam gets initial approval


July 10, 2007

The Brazilian government has given preliminary go-ahead on a massive Amazon dam project that environmentalists and scientists say could be a potential ecological disaster.

The approval from Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, means that construction firms can begin bidding on the US$10 billion-US$14.7 billion project, though other permits are still needed before building commences, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The government hopes to complete the Santo Antonio and Jirau dams on the Madeira River, the longest tributary of the Amazon by 2012. The dams are expected to have the capacity to produce 6,450 megawatts of electricity, about 8 percent of Brazil’s demand.

Balbina dam outside Manaus, Brazil

The Balbina dam flooded some 2,400 square kilometers (920 square miles) of rainforest when it was completed. Phillip Fearnside, a leading expert on the Amazon, calculated that in the first three years of its existence, the Balbina Reservoir emitted 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane, both potent greenhouse gases which contribute to global climate change.

Scientists say the dams, which will flood 204 square miles, will release greenhouse gases from rotting vegetation and block important route for migratory fish, including some of the river’s largest catfish species. Environmentalists have warned that the project could bring soybean farmers, illegal gold miners and loggers to remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, increasing pressure on the biodiverse ecosystem.

“According to IIRSA [Initiative for the Integration of South American Infrastructure, the plan for 335 large-scale infrastructure
projects being proposed by the governments of South America], the project could increase the area cultivated in soy by seven million hectares (27,000 square miles) in the Brazilian rainforest and savannas and affect a similar-sized area in Bolivia,” reports the International Rivers Network.

Research suggest the effects of the dam may be greater than projected by the government. Philip Fearnside, a researcher with the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) and one of the world’s foremost experts on the Amazon, has found that sediment accumulation in the reservoir could affect the dam’s economic viability, while flooding from the Jirau dam could extend into Bolivia, further than claimed by the Brazilian government.

“The project aims to transform the entire western Amazon, but the government is treating it as if it had only local impacts,” said Roberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth, Amazonia.

“The dams won’t cause problems only for us, but for all Brazilians who live off the fish from this river,” Amazon Watch writer Zachary Hurwitz quoted Domingos Parintintin, leader of the 400 remaining Parintintin, indigenous people who live in the Madeira river basin in southern Amazônia, as saying.

Manifesto of the Brazilian Ichthyology Society regarding the importance of the conservation of large migratory fish of the Madeira River

Brazil is the world leader in freshwater fish diversity, with the Amazon basin the richest in species, including many still unknown to science. Many of these species (such as tambaquis, jaraquis, matrinchãs, filhotes, surubins, piramutabas, douradas, among others) have to migrate during their reproductive cycle, and impeding this migration causes serious impacts to the numbers of individuals of these species, potentially resulting in the disappearance of the affected species. Hydroelectric dams are the most important cause of this impediment, and are among the man-made structures that have greatest impact on communities of fish, especially migratory species. The construction of large-scale projects which interfere with the natural flow of rivers in the Amazon must be adequately evaluated, considering the inevitable damage that the projects will cause.

At this moment, considering the discussions regarding the hydroelectric projects to be installed in the Madeira River basin, the Brazilian Ichthyology Society – SBI, an organization which includes as its members Brazil´s principal fish researchers, manifests its concern regarding the possibility that man-made alterations of the hydrological dynamic of the Madeira River may cause irreversible harmful effects on fish, adversely affecting possibilities for the conservation of one of the largest migratory catfish species of the Amazon.

In recent months, the media has been publicizing the fact that catfish were elected as the central figures in a supposed conflict of interests between sectors of the Brazilian government, as well as between the government and the private sector. In this context, it is important to emphasize that the catfish species which has been mentioned – the dourada (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii) – is a species of great commercial importance in the Amazon region, especially in the states of Pará, Amapá, Amazonas and Rondônia, in Brazil, as well as in extensive regions of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. It is a large species, which is at the top of the food chain on many rivers in Amazonia, and which deserves as much special attention as the large mammals of the rainforest and tropical savannas. The dourada is part of the group of amazing migrators which travel from the estuary of the Amazon River to the foothills of the Andes in order to reproduce, along with other species such as the piramutaba (B. Vaillantii) and the babão (B. Platynemum). Schools of these fish migrate annually from the eastern Amazon to the western part of the basin, swimming a distance of 4,000 to 5,000 kilometers. This migration results in the recomposition of reproductive stocks that live in the rivers upriver from Brazilian territory. On the Madeira River, the schools take four to five months to swim 3,100 km annually, which is the distance from the Amazon estuary to the Teotônio rapids (near Porto Velho, Rondônia state), travelling at a speed of about 15 to 19 km/day. The interruption of this migratory flux can have a great impact on the maintenance of these species and their populations, especially considering that genetic studies indicate that the whitewater tributaries (rivers of Andean origin) of the Amazon River present populations of dourada composed of combinations of various genotypes (haplotypes). Therefore, environmental alterations and the interposition of barriers to their migratory movements as a result of dam construction place the populations of large migratory fish of the Madeira River at risk.

Considering this, the Brazilian Ichthyology Society hopes that a rational and well thought-out solution may be reached for conflicts regarding the use of the natural resources of the Amazon, one which recognizes the importance of the conservation of the large migratory catfish.

Besides this, the SBI considers it inappropriate to elect only one species as the main object of a discussion which should address the entire ecosystem directly and indirectly influenced by the dams planned for the Madeira River, including many aquatic and terrestrial species as well as regional socioeconomic factors. Finally, it should always be kept in mind that the immense biological diversity of the Amazon region is of a fragile nature, and that it represents an important window through which Brazil is seen by the eyes of the world. Damage to the natural world of this region, especially involving natural resources utilized by more than one nation, can rapidly cause a crisis of global visibility, hurting Brazil´s image.

The above text was approved by the Directors of the Deliberative Council of the Brazilian Ichthyology Society (SBI), with the technical collaboration of Drs. Ronaldo Barthem, Jansen Zuanon, Ângelo A. Agostinho and Luiz F. Duboc. The SBI is a non-profit association for the public benefit which has, among other objectives, the mission to work to promote the conservation and utilization of Brazil´s fish fauna, and to represent the community of ichthyologists on the national and international level. Visit


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