Brazil debates $11B Amazon dam project
Dispute rages over Brazil dam project
By Larry Rohter
International Herald Tribune
June 10, 2007
PORTO VELHO, Brazil: The eternal tension between Brazil’s need for economic growth and the damage that can cause to the environment are nowhere more visible than here in this corner of the western Amazon.
More than one-quarter of this rugged frontier state, Rondônia, has been deforested, the highest rate in the Amazon. Over the years, ranchers, miners and loggers have routinely invaded nature reserves and Indian reservations.
Now a proposal to build an $11 billion hydroelectric project here on the Madeira River, which may have the world’s most diverse fish stocks, has set off a new controversy.
How that dispute is resolved, advocates on both sides say, could determine nothing less than Brazil’s vision of its future at a moment when it is simultaneously facing energy and environmental pressures and casting envious glances at faster-growing developing countries like India and China.
Unhappy with Brazil’s anemic rate of growth, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has made the economy the top priority of his second term, which began in January. Large public works projects, including the dams here, are envisioned as one of the best ways to stimulate growth.
“Who dumped this catfish in my lap?” was the president’s irate complaint when he learned recently that the government’s environmental agency had refused to license the dam projects because they might endanger catfish, according to Brazilian news reports.
But the proposal is far from dead, and continues to have da Silva’s support. Additional environmental impact studies are under way, but the dispute now raging in Rondônia appears to have more to do with politics and economics than science and nature.
“My impression is that some environmental groups see the authorization of construction as opening the door to unrestricted entry to the Amazon,” said Antônio Alves da Silva Marrocos, a leader of the Pro-Dam Committee, financed by business groups and the state government.
“But if they are able to block this,” he added, “then every other Amazon hydroelectric energy project is doomed as well.”
Many of the arguments for and against the two dams to be built, Jirau and Santo Antônio, reprise those from previous debates in Brazil and elsewhere. Proponents talk of the thousands of jobs to be created if the dams are built and predict power blackouts if they are not. Opponents warn of damage to the rain forest and say cheaper, more efficient alternatives are available.
But the correlation of political forces is now much different. Though Brazil’s environmental movement had a big hand in founding the leftist Workers’ Party in 1980, it has steadily lost influence under da Silva, who took power in 2003. He has since courted the business establishment.
As environmentalists see it, the dams, one of which is to be barely 32 kilometers, or 20 miles, from Brazil’s border with Bolivia, will not only add to the strains on the Amazon, but also generate tensions within the country and between Brazil and its neighbors.
“Yes, we need electricity, but not in this form,” said Artur de Souza Moret, director of the sustainable energy institute at Federal University here. “And there are still a lot of unanswered questions as to the impact that this project could bring.”
The energy generated by the dams is to be transported south more than 1,500 kilometers to Brazil’s industrial heartland, with little or no immediate benefit for this state of 1.5 million people, whose own growing demand for energy is supposed to be met by a new gas pipeline to the north.
“The biggest problem is the studies showing that this project will bring 100,000 people to Rondônia, between workers and their families,” said Silvânio de Matias Gomes, regional representative of the Amazon Working Group, a leading environmental organization.
“We already have serious deficits in housing, education, health, sanitation and drinking water,” he said, “and those problems will surely be exacerbated by such a migration.”
One immediate consequence of da Silva’s ire over the denial of the construction license has been a decision to split the environmental agency, already weakened by lack of financing, in the name of greater efficiency.
As a result of the change, proponents of the dams are now talking as if the supplementary environmental studies that have been ordered are merely a formality meant to assure the outcome that they and the president desire. But government monitors say they will not be intimidated and are determined that this time, in contrast to the past, things will be done in accordance with law.
“In general, environmental studies in Brazil tend to be weak and ineffectual and to omit relevant issues” because of a rush to construction, said Heitor Soares, a lawyer at the federal prosecutor’s office here, which has filed two suits alleging irregularities in the licensing process.
“Often, work the federal agency should be doing is farmed out instead to local government entities vulnerable to the pressures of politicians and construction companies,” he said.
Further complicating approval is that by law, environmental studies are also supposed to consider potential impacts throughout the river basin.
In this case, that would mean bringing both Bolivia and Peru into the discussions, something that supporters of the dam project are loath to do.
Indeed, many Brazilians blame Bolivia and its president, Evo Morales, for much of the energy squeeze their country is beginning to feel, in the form of higher prices for natural gas and uncertainties about future supplies.
Morales nationalized Bolivia’s large gas reserves last year, some of which were being developed by the Brazilian state energy company Petrobras. More recently, he took over a pair of refineries and is now quibbling with the Brazilian government over compensation.
“Bolivia has no reason to meddle in this matter,” Governor Ivo Cassol of Rondônia said of recent complaints by officials and environmental groups. “They’ve already given us enough problems with Petrobras and with the illegal immigrants they send across the border. All this stuff about the hydroelectric plants is simply a political game, meant to take more money out of our pockets.”
Sedimentation is another area of heated debate, with dam opponents warning of clogged turbines and proponents saying all problems have been solved.
The sources of the Madeira are in the foothills of the Andes, and the river carries vast amounts of soil, which gives its water a brownish tinge and makes the flood plains along its banks among the most fertile in the Amazon region.
Concerns have been raised that dam construction could stir up deposits of mercury known to be in river water. Those are the result of a gold rush in the state in the 1980s and 1990s, in which prospectors ignored the law and used mercury to extract ore.
But thanks to da Silva’s remarks, it is the catfish that has become the main symbol of the controversy. Scientists and environmentalists say their complex 3,000-kilometer migration to the mouth of the Amazon would be disrupted by the dam project, even though sluices are envisioned.
The Madeira basin is believed to have more distinct types of fish than any river in the world, with nearly 500 species catalogued. In addition, fishing for catfish and other species is one of the main sources of income for the approximately 3,000 river dwellers who would be displaced by construction of the dams.
“This project, like all the others before it, will bring nothing but damage to us river dwellers, so of course we distrust what they are telling us,” said Carlos de Morais Naboa, whose homestead, which his family has owned for 50 years, is perhaps a kilometer from Santo Antônio, the first of the proposed dam sites. “They’re only offering us peanuts for flood-plain land that is incredibly fertile and haven’t said where they plan to send us.”
Copyright © 2007 The International Herald Tribune