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Here comes progress: what will planned megaprojects mean for an Amazon city?

The city of Itaituba, in western Pará state, is home to several construction projects of strategic interest for the Brazilian government. However, with local infrastructure fragile, residents are worried they will not share in the spoils.

A dirt road divides the neighborhoods of Vila Nova and Vila Caçula. Houses are raised on stilts here, along the bank of the Tapajós River, which skirts the edge of the city of Itaituba, in the west of Pará state. A team from Pública attempted to interview some local residents. From the wooden stairs leading up to their houses, they refused. "If we give an interview, our situation here won’t change. I won’t say anything," said a man with brown skin, white hair, and glasses. His wife sitting next to him also responded with a firm "no."

The neighborhood has no water main, and sewage runs beneath the houses straight into the river, a situation not limited to Vila Nova and Vila Caçula. The city has no sewage treatment system, while in the city center the sidewalks are so uneven that it is easier to walk in the road. Mobile phone coverage is patchy at best. Pública went in search of city hall, looking into four buildings until we learned that the city government has no headquarters.

Itaituba is the largest city in the mid-Tapajós region, which in the coming years will host several infrastructure projects that the government regards as key for the Brazilian economy. In recent years, the construction of transshipment stations that will load soy and corn onto riverboats for shipment to various ports and an industrial waterway, and the paving of federal highways have transformed the west of Pará into an important hub for the agribusiness sector as a strategic corridor for the transport of produce from the agricultural heartlands of the state of Mato Grosso.

Residents along the riverbank in Itaituba live in houses raised on stilts to avoid the effects of flooding. With no paved roads, water main, or sanitation system, these families are extremely vulnerableResidents along the riverbank in Itaituba live in houses raised on stilts to avoid the effects of flooding. With no paved roads, water main, or sanitation system, these families are extremely vulnerable. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

On top of these projects, the government is planning seven new hydroelectric plants in the region. Three are located on the River Tapajós (two of these will affect Itaituba directly), and four on one of its tributaries, the River Jamanxim. The project currently furthest along is 8,040-megawatt-capacity plant called São Luiz do Tapajós, which is due to be constructed just 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Itaituba. If the required impact studies are approved by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the federal environmental agency in charge of licensing the project, bidding will take place later this year. The project has an estimated construction cost of $10.5 billion and is slated to begin operation in 2020. The Jatobá plant, the second of the Tapajós River projects, is also at the licensing stage, and is slated to start operation in 2021.

According to Brazilian law, every infrastructure project that might cause environmental damage must pass through a multi-step licensing process. For each step, the interested company must conduct a study assessing the project’s impact on the environment, society, archeological resources, or indigenous populations. Once the impact studies are approved, usually by IBAMA, the company must use them to propose compensation programs for any damage resulting from the project.

However, as the projects advance, Itaituba residents are expressing concern that the benefits of development may pass the city by. If it goes ahead, the São Luiz hydroelectric plant will be the third largest of its kind in Brazil in terms of the amount of power it supplies. But with such fragile infrastructure, Itaituba is at risk of suffering the same problems as the city of Altamira, where the Belo Monte plant is currently being built. Altamira is suffering the consequences of rapid, uncontrolled growth, including property speculation, overburdened local health services, and increasing violence.

Municipality of Itaituba in the state of Pará, northern Brazil. Click to enlarge.

"We don’t know if this situation is going to be of benefit to us. In the south of Brazil it would be. In the midwest it would be. But for us?" said Davi Menezes, president of the Itaituba Forum of Organizations, an umbrella group that represents twenty-two institutions, including the local Order of Attorneys of Brazil, the Commercial Association, the Rotary Club, and the Freemasons. The Forum was set up to represent the interests of Itaituba’s business community during the implementation of the projects.

So far, the reality has been disappointing. "There’s a businessman here who bought nearly 200,000 PPEs [Personal Protective Equipment units]. You know what he’s sold? Not even one glove," Menezes complained. "He prepared himself to sell equipment to the companies building the ports, but he didn’t sell a thing. They brought everything with them." For Menezes, the interests of the big companies that come to the city are trumping the interests of local business.

Belo Monte is just next door

The mood of concern that has taken hold in Itaituba is not without foundation. Altamira, 500 kilometers (311 miles) away, comes up frequently in conversations with Itaituba residents. For Eva Bonfim, a native of neighboring Maranhão state, Altamira "is finished." "I have four siblings in Altamira and I went there to visit," she said. "The population growth is ridiculous, there’s a lot of death, accidents, robbery." She predicted Itaituba will suffer a similar fate with the construction of the São Luiz plant on the Tapajós.

The arrival of the Belo Monte project in Altamira, a city with an already fragile government and infrastructure, has led to a dramatic increase in violence. In particular, there has been a wave of sexual exploitation affecting women, children, adolescents, and indigenous communities since construction work began. In turn, spiraling property prices have taken a toll on institutions set up to combat the problem. This was reported in research by the Federal University of Pará, conducted during 2013 and 2014 (available here and here in Portuguese).

In addition, the consortium in charge of the Belo Monte project, Norte Energia, has not effectively compensated families affected by the construction work. There have been delays in the handover of new houses for families displaced by construction, and the compensation available to families who lose their housing is not sufficient. According to the news agency Amazônia Real, the compensation scheme does not account for the increased cost of living in Altamira, which is itself a direct consequence of the Belo Monte project.

In March 2013, there were reportedly 28,000 people working on the construction site —10,000 more than the number IBAMA authorized in licensing the project. Yet measures to reduce the impact on Altamira and four other affected municipalities have not been augmented accordingly.

Dom Erwin Kräutler is a bishop who has been in the Xingu River region for fifty years, and is president of the Indigenous Missionary Council. He said Altamira is unrecognizable today. "It used to be a rural town, where people would sit out on the streets in the evenings and chat. Today you can’t sit anywhere. Everybody’s building trenches, barriers. There are walls everywhere. We can’t see the houses anymore."

Eva Bonfim, principal of the largest private school in Itaituba, is worried about the impact of the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric plant. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

According to the not-yet-approved impact studies for the São Luiz plant, 13,000 construction workers are likely to come to the mid-Tapajós region, as well as 12,500 other people searching for work and business opportunities. However, these numbers may end up being much higher — as happened with the Belo Monte plant.

Bonfim is the principal of the largest private school in Itaituba, which stands to benefit from the arrival of new families to the city. Even so, she remains skeptical about the project. In classes and lectures, she is trying to warn her students about the impacts that the São Luiz do Tapajós dam might bring with it. "I think the population hasn’t been sufficiently informed about the project, about both the good and bad things that it will bring. It needs to be well explained," she said. "Today our children play outside the house, they go out, they go to the market. They’re soon going to lose this freedom because of the population increase that is coming. People say ‘but isn’t development a good thing?’ Is it good? In this case, I don’t think so."

Finding a way

With the wave of enterprise that is coming to the mid-Tapajós region, the federal government and local municipalities are drawing up plans aimed at guiding regional development.

In September 2014, the federal Ministry of Planning published the Four-Year Participative Territorial Plan for the Tapajós Region. It was compiled with a number of local municipalities, including Itaituba and the cities of Novo Progresso, Jacareacanga, Rurópolis, Trairão, and Aveiro. Federal investment of $662 million has been earmarked for the region, in sectors including infrastructure, culture and tourism, and health and education.

The plan remains on paper, unimplemented. Yet just across the Tapajós from Itaituba, in the Miritituba district, a transshipment station belonging to the multinational Bunge has been operational since April 2014. And another three transshipment stations belonging to the companies Cargill, Cianport, and Hidrovias do Brasil are currently in the environmental licensing stage and moving along quickly. The Tapajós has become a key route for the agribusiness sector, representing a reduction in transportation costs of 34 percent for the 2015/16 harvest, compared with the 2013/14 harvest, which had to travel a longer route through the ports of Santos in the state of São Paulo and Paranaguá in the state of Paraná.

However, it is the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric project that is the most sensitive at present. There is a conflict between the plant and the Munduruku indigenous group, whose lands in the Sawré Muybu indigenous reserve may be flooded by the project (read more on here and here). And there are similar concerns for the ribeirinho people, traditional fishing communities located along the riverbank in hamlets such as Pimental, which is 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Itaituba (read more on here). Flooding of indigenous lands to construct dams is forbidden by Brazilian law, and so far the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office has filed eight cases against the project attempting to guarantee the rights of local populations.

Infrastructure projects near Itaituba. Map: Agência Pública. Click to enlarge.

There is also a Regional Sustainable Development Plan for the Tapajós region, aimed at reducing the impact of the São Luiz project. However, the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic has been dragging its heels and things are moving slowly. The same plan is being applied in the Xingu region "in order to provide for a region characterized historically by the fragile presence of the state and the public policies necessary for its development," the Xingu plan’s website states.

The impact studies having now been submitted, the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric project is waiting for approval from IBAMA. While the region awaits the results, the Itaituba city government put together a multidisciplinary technical team to analyze the impact studies and demand certain guarantees from IBAMA for the benefit of the city. Through this analysis, which has yet to be completed, the city administration intends to study how best to mitigate the effects of the project.

Between August and November 2014, as part of their analysis, the technicians noticed a series of omissions from the impact studies. One of the problems, identified by Hilário Rocha, an environmental engineer and Itaituba’s secretary of the environment, relates to population figures. Rocha argues that the study bases its findings on inaccurate data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) indicating that the population of Itaituba actually decreased from 118,000 in 2007 to 97,400 in 2010. According to the city government, this occurred because IBGE researchers did not visit the entire municipality, which includes areas up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the city, as well as rural and mining areas accessible only by air.

The disagreement prompted Itaituba to take legal action against the federal government and the IBGE, demanding a recount of the population. As a result, Itaituba now receives funds from the federal government that correspond to a municipality of more than 100,000 inhabitants. However, the IBGE recount did not happen, so the government’s official population figure for Itaituba remains 97,400 even though the city administration holds that the population of Itaituba is 120,000.

Itaituba is the main urban center in the mid-Tapajós region, an area home to key projects for the agribusiness sector. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

This discrepancy has serious implications. According to the impact studies, there are plenty of hospital beds available (4.48 beds per 1,000 inhabitants; the Ministry of Health recommends 2.5-3 beds per 1,000 inhabitants), and 100 percent of the city’s children between 7-14 years of age are in school. The city government argues that the reality is different, and as such the measures suggested to reduce the impacts of the hydroelectric plant will not be sufficient. According to the city government, even using the federal government’s low-ball population figure there are already too few hospital beds: just 1.4 beds per 1,000 people. "The whole environmental impact study was based on false data," said Rocha.

In October 2014, CNEC WorleyParsons, the company responsible for the impact studies, presented that research and held a meeting to hear to the opinions of local representatives. "They understood that our participation is of fundamental importance for the process to be done in the correct way, but they didn’t make it clear where we stand," said Rocha. He argues that the research should be redone in order to readjust the projections of social impacts. That way, the project would be able to propose compensation measures that correspond more accurately to the reality of the city.

If the impacts are already of concern for the city administration and local residents, from an economic point of view the projects have yet to advance the city’s fledgling industrial sector. "Strong industry, production, manufacturing, taking a raw material and transforming it – Itaituba has almost nothing like this," said Eugenio Viana, the city’s secretary of economic development.

The hope is that the hydroelectric plants, by increasing energy production, together with the new transshipment stations, will promote the city’s production of soy-based products, such as animal feed. However, very little concrete development has actually taken place so far. "It’s difficult to say whether it’s going to happen in this or that sector," said Viana. "Probably it’s going to open up a whole range of opportunities, that’s what we expect."

Golden city

Gold remains Itaituba’s principal resource. According to Viana, around 60 percent of the local economy is based on mineral exploration. Public services account for between 20 and 25 percent, with commerce accounting for the remaining 15 to 20 percent. The city’s total gross domestic product is $230,000.

Most of the gold that leaves Itaituba is mined illegally. "For every legal kilo, ten illegal kilos leave the city," Viana explained. The same is true of diamonds. Without international certification (the Kimberley seal, created in order to prevent illegal diamonds fueling conflicts like those in Africa, is not available for Tapajós diamonds), there is no shortage of illegal mining, with 300 prospectors present on indigenous lands.

For Jubal Cabral Filho, a geologist and vice-director of the Tapajós Association of Gold Mines (AMOT), the high rate of illegal mining reflects the federal government’s poor management of the region. Cabral Filho argues that small prospectors should receive assistance in order to legitimize their activities. "If the government had come here, like it did in the south of the country, and had taught the prospectors to look after the land, we would all be better off," he explained. "But instead of offering guidance, they come first to punish, and punishment isn’t always effective."

Among the consequences of the illegal mining is the serious risk to conservation of the region’s environment. Changes in the color of the Tapajós in recent years sparked a public petition, demanding research into the river’s water quality. The suspicion is that dredgers who dig the riverbed in search of gold are also spilling mercury and cyanide into the water, putting the health of local residents at risk.

Small-time prospectors account for most of the mining activity in the region, but Itaituba’s gold has also attracted mid-size mining companies from abroad. Among those that have requested authorization to conduct research from the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) are the English company Serabi Gold, the Canadian companies Eldorado Gold Corporation, Magellan Minerals, and Mineração Regent, and the American company Brazilian Resources. Eldorado Gold Corporation is responsible for the Tocantinzinho site, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Itaituba, which was licensed in 2012 and is currently awaiting the revision of economic research. The project consists of an open-pit gold mine, with reserves estimated at 60 metric tons of gold and a lifespan of 11 years. $12 million has been invested in the project.

Itaituba’s main economic activity is gold mining. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Unlike the small-scale miners, who often explore just the surface and banks of the river, the companies aim to establish functional mines. "The process of setting up a mine involves a lot of planning; the company has to do research. It’s different than small-scale gold-digging, where the prospectors just start digging to see if there is gold," said Marcos Antônio Cordeiro, DNPM head in Itaituba. He is enthusiastic about the changes in the type of mining. "The research company inspects the site, it conducts geophysical and geochemical studies, provides an estimate of the mineral assets and assesses whether exploration is economically viable or not," he said. In this sense, infrastructure is of the utmost importance. Under current conditions, with no decent roads or a reliable source of electricity for the mine, such large-scale mining projects are not viable. But with all the construction work planned for the region that will soon change.

However, large-scale underground mining brings its own set of problems. In addition to deforesting the land and generating waste material, gold mining consumes immense quantities of water and energy and often pollutes any ground and surface water with the chemicals used during extraction. The Tocantinzinho project, for example, is likely to involve the use of explosives and chemical agents such as cyanide, caustic soda, and hydrochloric acid just 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) from the Tocantinzinho River.

The interest in the Tapajós region from established companies has increased in recent years. In Itaituba alone, the DNPM received a total of 1,445 requests between 2010 and 2014, more than five times the number it received between 2005 and 2009. According to AMOT and the secretary of economic development the growth of gold mining in the city has more to do with the acquisition of equipment than with the arrival of the large infrastructure projects. A type of backhoe known as a PC can reduce the time to extract gold from a month to as little as ten days.

Itaituba has received by far the highest number of mining requests among the municipalities located in the Tapajós region. In the last ten years it has received 1,717 — 90 percent of which relate to gold extraction — compared to 353 in Jacareacanga and 262 in Trairão, according to the DNPM.

The forest is out there

With a total territory of approximately 62,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles), an area twice the size of Belgium, the municipality of Itaituba is formed primarily by a number of areas of environmental protection. On the outskirts of the city, there are two indigenous reservations belonging to the Munduruku tribe, the Praia do Índio and the Praia do Mangue, which compete for space with residential neighborhoods. Beyond the urban center, there are also several preservation areas that are being threatened by economic interests in the region.

In 2012, President Dilma Rousseff changed the boundaries of seven of these preservation areas by means of an interim legal measure. All these changes were made to accommodate hydroelectric projects.

According to a statement published at the time by the Instituto Chico Mendes (ICMBio), a federal institute that manages conservation areas, Amazônia National Park was reduced by 6.7 percent, 2.5 percent of which was removed to make way for the lake of the São Luiz do Tapajós plant. Likewise, the National Forests of Itaituba I (2.5 percent reduction), Itaituba II (7.9 percent reduction) and Crepori (0.2 percent reduction), as well as the Tapajós Area of Environmental Protection (1.3 percent reduction) all had their areas reduced thanks to the São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá plants. In total, the areas reduced by the measure amounted to a little more than the territory of the city of Salvador, the capital of Bahia state.

As part of its environmental protection policy, Itaituba participated in the Pará’s state Green Municipalities program, the objective of which is to combat illegal deforestation in Pará. "How can we control illegal deforestation if the region is being targeted internationally?" asked Hilário Rocha, Itaituba’s secretary for the environment, referring to the infrastructure and hydroelectric projects that are coming to the city. "It’s hard to get the municipality to set targets and provide data when the federal government has an interest in the region," he argues.

"What are our concerns today? The federal government’s plans. It comes and builds these megastructures, takes up resources, uses our natural riches, and what are the benefits for the city?" asked Menezes of the Itaituba Forum of Organizations.

Of course, there is no easy solution. While the city is racing to prepare itself for the coming changes, local residents continue to survive on the promise of progress.

Other Special Reporting Initiatives Articles by Agência Pública
Dams or indigenous land: the battle over the Munduruku frontier

Exclusive: Funai confirms that land threatened by dam projects belongs to indigenous tribe

Nobody listened to them: fishing communities to be displaced by dams want a say in their future


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