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Is Brazil green washing hydropower? The case of the Teles Pires dam

  • The Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company (builder and operator of Brazil’s Teles Pires dam in the Amazon Basin) was awarded a Green Certificate in the “Responsible Social and Environmental Management” category of the Chico Mendes Award, a prize named after the murdered Brazilian eco-hero.
  • The company has won other green awards for its construction projects (including Amazon dams), and been awarded carbon credits by the United Nations.
  • But critics ask how green the company that built the Tele Pires dam can be when their project wrecked indigenous and traditional communities, led to the dynamiting of an indigenous sacred site, did harm to biodiversity and fisheries, while also likely producing significant carbon emissions.
  • The company claims it is not to blame, because it complied with all government regulations during the dam’s construction, and even went further to make the project sustainable. The Teles Pires dam raises key questions about “sustainability,” and who has the right to define it.


(Leia essa matéria em português no The Intercept Brasil. You can also read Mongabay’s series on the Tapajós Basin in Portuguese at The Intercept Brasil)

The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.

Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon. This is the fourth of their reports.

In April 2014, the Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company — builder and operator of Brazil’s Teles Pires dam in the Amazon Basin — was awarded a Green Certificate in the “Responsible Social and Environmental Management” category of the Chico Mendes Award, a prize named after the assassinated Brazilian social activist and eco-hero.

That prize was presented by the NGO Instituto Internacional de Pesquisa e Responsabilidade Socioambiental Chico Mendes (Chico Mendes International Research and Social Institute). The award goes to companies that provide Brazil with “solutions to conflicts between development, social justice and environmental equilibrium.” Winning it “is considered the most important socio-environmental event in Brazil,” says the institute.

A closer look at the award might lead one to reasonably ask how the firm that built the Tele Pires dam could be praised as a champion of sustainability, when its hydro-project wrecked indigenous and traditional communities, dynamited an indigenous sacred site, harmed biodiversity and fisheries, and increased forest clearance, while also likely producing significant carbon emissions.

Early morning fishing on the Teles Pires River. River communities depend on fish for their diet and income. The Teles Pires dam is altering river temperatures and flow, concentrating agricultural pollutants, and has closed off migratory fish routes — all of which is harming the fishery. Despite that, the company that built the dam has won several green awards. Photo by Thais Borges
The Teles Pires dam under construction. The Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company has received several green awards for its projects, as well as carbon credits from the United Nations. Photo by Brent Millikan / International Rivers

The award also raises broader questions of what criteria should be used to define sustainability, and just who should decide what is green and what isn’t. Is it right, for example, that a company should receive recognition for “sustainability” and “social justice” while taking part in a gigantic government project notorious for its inadequate environmental and social impact assessments, and for its almost total disregard of indigenous interests.

In an interview with Mongabay, University of São Paulo archaeologist Francisco Pugliese said that he was angry but not surprised that a project that had destroyed an indigenous sacred site had won an award for social and environmental responsibility: “This award goes against everything that you could expect from a prize that carries the name of Chico Mendes, and its consequences will be catastrophic if it is used as an example of social responsibility, rendering even dirtier and more lethal the production of energy by the hydroelectric dams that are planned or built in indigenous territory” in the Amazon Basin and around the globe.

More awards, more questions

The Teles Pires hydroelectric project (built on the Teles Pires River, the main tributary of the Tapajós River) was given a first phase environmental license in 2010. It was built in record time, just 41 months, and began operating in November 2015 despite numerous protests and lawsuits launched against it before and during construction by indigenous and traditional communities, environmentalists, and the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent branch of the Brazilian state.

The US $2 billion Teles Pires dam has an installed estimated capacity of 1,820 megawatts, making it the second largest hydropower project (after the Belo Monte mega-dam) of the “Program for Accelerated Growth” promulgated by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

An indigenous woman washing a carpet in the Teles Pires River. The Munduruku and other indigenous groups rely on the river for everything — for work and play, as livelihood and a transportation corridor. The Teles Pires dam has negatively impacted many of these activities. Photo by Thais Borges

Atila Rocha Macedo, the social communication coordinator of the Teles Pires company, told Mongabay that the Chico Mendes Green Certificate recognizes the contribution the company makes through its dams to “sustainable development” and “improvements in the life of the populations in the region around it”.

This isn’t the only green honor that has been lavished on the company. Two groups linked to the Brazilian energy sector — Power Brasil and the Acende Brasil Institute — awarded the firm a prize, in 2014 and again in 2016, for its innovation and commitment to social and environmental sustainability.

The Teles Pires company also received important environmental recognition in 2102 when it requested and obtained Kyoto Protocol carbon credits. Under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), hydroelectric dam projects in developing countries that reduce carbon dioxide emissions can earn these credits, which in turn can be sold to industrialized countries to help them meet their emissions reduction targets.

The UN award of the carbon credits to the Teles Pires company came despite the fact that recent research has shown that newly built tropical dams, with their reservoirs full of rotting vegetation, produce significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

“Various studies have shown that the emissions from hydroelectric dams in the Amazon are considerable in the first ten years, which is the period that the carbon credits cover,” noted Philip Fearnside, a scientist and opponent to Amazon dams at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia.

Sandro Waro Munduruku: “There are far fewer fish [in the Teles Pires River downstream from the dam now]. We never catch as many as we used to before the dam was built. Shoals of fish are dying. We don’t know how we are going to live in the future.” Photo by Thais Borges

Inadequate social and environmental assessment

Given so much public praise for the Teles Pires dam, one would expect that the project was subjected to a thorough scientific appraisal of its potential impacts prior to the decision to construct it.

But no such evaluation took place, said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director for the NGO International Rivers. Long critical of the Brazilian government’s rush to build so many Amazon dams, Millikan told Mongabay that: “The political decision to build the Teles Pires dam came years before the technical, economic and environmental viability studies were carried out.”

When those studies were finally done, care was taken, reports Millikan, to make sure that there were no “surprises” that would derail or slow the project. For instance, Leme Engenharia was one firm chosen to do the assessment. But Leme had a history of working with construction giant, Odebrecht, helping it build two dams (Capim Branco I and II) in the state of Minas Gerais. It also so happens that Odebrecht was a key player in building the Teles Pires dam: it was both a minority shareholder in the Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company, and part of the consortium chosen to build the dam. Leme Engenharia is also linked to the large French-Belgium energy company, ENGIE, formerly GDF/Suez. But the government never addressed the conflict of interest.

Map showing the Teles Pires dam and how completed
and planned dams and reservoirs will impact
indigenous lands. Map by Mauricio Torres

As with any major construction project, the studies carried out by Leme and other firms should have considered all potential project impacts, including negative effects on fisheries, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, biodiversity, traditional and indigenous communities, climate change, and more. None of the studies’ findings led to Ibama in any significant way delaying or redesigning the construction process.

And much research simply didn’t happen, or when it did, the experts in charge did a slapdash job. Solange Arrolho, who teaches at Mato Grosso State University and who is an expert on the fish in the Teles Pires River, told Mongabay that, “Most of those carrying out the impact studies [were] not from the region. They [didn’t] go to fish markets. They scarcely talk[ed] to local fishermen or the local universities. I have been here for 25 years and have the largest collection of local fish, yet the studies were carried out without anyone coming here to talk to me.”

According to Arrolho, the shortcomings of the studies led to the environmental and social costs of the dams being seriously underestimated. “When a project is planned — a road or a hydroelectric dam, for example — what do [the assessment firms] conclude? That it is viable, because they don’t take into consideration the whole social and environmental process. The environmental and social impact they calculate is tiny compared with the real one”.

Ricardo Scoles, lecturer in ecology in the Federal University of the West of Pará, also concludes that the dam’s impacts were routinely under-estimated. “There is no scientific basis for guaranteeing low social and environmental impacts when building a dam in a region of high social and environmental diversity, such as the Teles Pires Basin,” he declared flatly. “The Tapajós-Xingu is a region with a high level of endemic species, and thus the potential impacts on the fauna will be more severe and irreversible given that many of the animals are only found in this bioregion.”

For Scoles, “it is highly irresponsible to interfere in the dynamic of the water courses in Southern Amazonia, a region already affected by local climatic changes, with a decline in rainfall and more prolonged droughts.”

Federal failings

Brazilian authorities weren’t blind to the environmental issues being ignored and minimized during construction of the Teles Pires dam. At times, the technical staff within Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency, and Funai, the federal Indian agency, balked at the reports they were receiving from the private companies doing the assessments.

Indeed, there were several federal rows over the Teles Pires licensing process, according to Millikan. The Empresa de Pequisa Energética (the Energy Research Company, EPE), a federal body in charge of planning Brazil’s energy supply, was “outraged” when Ibama and Funai raised objections regarding the Teles Pires dam, even though that was their official duty.

Brent Millikan, Amazon program director for the NGO International Rivers. The NGO has long been critical of the Brazilian government’s rush to build hundreds of Amazon dams. Photo by Mauricio Torres

Conflict within Funai was particularly fierce. In December 2010, agency staff produced a detailed technical critique of the dam’s environmental impact study, arguing that the indigenous portion had to be completely reformulated. But a few days later, the president of Funai, under intense pressure from the energy sector and from the office of Brazil’s President, gave the go-ahead for the first phase of the dam. A week later the auction to decide which companies would build it was carried out.

The study irregularities didn’t stop there. There were so many that in August 2012 a Federal Justice declared the impact studies carried out by the Teles Pires company to be “totally compromised and lacking in legality, for infringing the constitutional principles of public order, impartiality and environmental morality”. He upheld a lower court ruling to immediately halt work on the dam.

But his decision was soon overturned through the use of a judicial trump card, the so-called “Suspension of Security” power by which the federal government can get a higher court to overturn any lower court ruling in the name of “national security”, “public order” or “national economy”.

One of the few forums where public discussion occurred (although in a fairly limited way) about the possible impacts of the dam was in the public comments section of the UN Clean Development Mechanism. When the Tele Pires company was in the process of requesting credits in 2012, several bodies, both Brazilian and international, raised objections.

Mato Grosso State University professor Solange Arrolho: With the building of the Tele spires dam: “methane and other gases are produced through the decomposition of organic material. When these gases come to the surface, the water becomes more acid, the amount of oxygen declines, the [water] temperature increases… The whole structure of the river is altered. The fish don’t eat properly and there aren’t enough nutrients for the reproductive processes. It’s a big change.” Photo by Thais Borges

Indigenous groups had strong complaints, which were swept aside by the company. The Kayabi Indians warned of the impact that the destruction of the dam would have on their spiritual life — destroying Sete Quedas, a Teles Pires River rapid that was the equivalent of the Christian Heaven.

In its response, the Teles Pires company claimed that “currently [the Sete Quedas rapid] is not an area that is frequented or used [by indigenous people]” and that it is not “a location of sacred importance”. This is factually wrong. It had been known for many years that Sete Quedas was a sacred site and that the Indians did not visit it, precisely because it was so sacred. The Munduruku had long warned that its destruction would have catastrophic consequences for them spiritually and materially. The rapids were dynamited to make way for the dam.

Observable damage

Mongabay asked fish expert Solange Arrolho about the now completed dam’s observable impacts. She explained that hurried construction had prevented the proper gathering of baseline data in advance of the project, making it impossible to do “then and now” assessments.

But she could say with certainty that the project has impacted fish migration: “Before the dam was built, some fish, particularly large ones, migrated along the upper reaches of the Teles Pires, something that they cannot do now as the dam doesn’t have a side channel that allows them to get past the plant,” she said. But so far, bigger fish have survived. “They are finding other places to reproduce downstream. But they will become more vulnerable, much easier to catch, as they are held in larger quantities in front of the dam.”

Her views were corroborated by Francisco Arruda Machado; widely known as Chico Peixe (Chico Fish), an environmental adviser to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) in Mato Grosso. In January 2016, he collected fish samples in the Verde River, a Teles Pires tributary upstream from the dam. “In the past I would collect 10-15 big fish, fish like the matrinxã or curimbatá, each about 2.5-3 kilos [5.5-6.6 pounds],”he said. “This year I didn’t catch a single one. This proves to me that the fish aren’t managing to migrate up the river to spawn.”

An indigenous boy fishing. The Munduruku report that the construction of the Teles Pires dam has damaged their fishery. Photo by Thais Borges

The Munduruku Indians live downstream, so they shouldn’t yet be affected by the disruption in migratory flow, but many complained to us on our visit to their villages that the fishery appears to be in decline. Sandro Waro Munduruku, a young leader, told Mongabay: “There are far fewer fish. We never catch as many as we used to before the dam was built. Shoals of fish are dying. We don’t know how we are going to live in the future.”

Arrolho explained the reason for the fishery’s decline. With the building of the dam “methane and other gases are produced through the decomposition of organic material. When these gases come to the surface, the water becomes more acid, the amount of oxygen declines, the [water] temperature increases.… The whole structure of the river is altered. The fish don’t eat properly and there aren’t enough nutrients for the reproductive processes. It’s a big change.”

Those changes will be more dire over time. “The [adverse] impacts [of the dam] are cumulative”, explained Arrolho. “At the headwaters of the Teles Pires, there are a lot of large farms, with kilos and kilos of sediments, fertilizers and herbicides running off into the river. The dam downstream now prevents the dispersion of these residues.” The consequences are predictable: “It is like putting fertilizers into a bowl of water and then placing it in the sun. The water soon goes green with algae.” It consumes the oxygen in the water, and aquatic life dies. “Who pays for this environmental degradation? Fish and people,” she concluded.

But according to Arrolho, the state government has shown little concern for the failing fishery. “For many years, successive Mato Grosso governments have thought of Amazonian culture — which is a culture of river people, of people who know the importance of water — as a problem to be overcome,” she said.

“For years, the state government even went so far as to deny that any part of the Amazon lay within its boundaries, though it accounts for 67 percent of the state’s territory”. And now this traditional Amazonian culture is disappearing: “Instead, we have this culture of electric energy, of grain production, of mining”. Arrolho is pessimistic about the future, fearing irreversible damage to the river’s aquatic life, with “the impacts of the dams tending to get worse in the medium and long-term”.

Indigenous children. Indians travel up and down the Teles Pires River and its many tributaries, using them much as urban people use major highways and side streets. Dams block travel and reduce stream flow, lowering water levels sometimes in dry times to the point that boats can ground. Photo by Thais Borges

To award or not to award?

Confronted with all these criticisms, the Teles Pires company has consistently pointed out that it has conformed with all the demands made on it by federal agencies, and that it has gone even further in terms of good practices.

In a special issue of its company magazine entitled “Teles Pires – Brazil’s model hydroelectric project”, Neoenergia, the main partner in the dam construction consortium, wrote that it had redesigned the original project “to reduce further the environmental impacts, involving advanced techniques of sustainable engineering” and that “compared with other hydro-dams, the project stands out for its high energy yield and low impact”.

In an interview with Repórter Brasil, the firm asserted that it was careful not to damage the forest when building the dam, transporting the crew into the building site and lodging the 6,000 construction workers there, just as if the company had been building an oil rig in the middle of the ocean.

But the firm’s green building efforts become largely irrelevant when measured against the dam’s likely long-term impacts. No big dam has ever been built in the Brazilian Amazon without generating a large population influx, provoking wholesale deforestation. A similar effect is predictable for the Teles Pires River Basin, especially when adding in the four other dams being built on the river.

Yet when Repórter Brazil asked the company to comment on the recent record level of deforestation (18,000 hectares, or almost 70 square miles) in the district around the dam, it had no answer except to claim that “there is no way of establishing a connection between the increase in forest clearance and the arrival of the [hydroelectric dam] project.”

The Teles Pires dam isn’t the only major Brazilian infrastructure project on the river. Construction is well underway at the São Manoel dam (pictured here) with other hydroelectric projects completed or nearing completion. While every dam receives an individual environmental and social assessment, the Brazilian government has done no such assessment on the impacts of multiple dams on watershed-wide ecosystems and human communities — such studies are urgently needed, say scientists. Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Sharing responsibility

Even critics concede that the Teles Pires company itself is not responsible for initiating many of their dam’s environmental and social impacts. After all, it was the government that decided to launch the project, to do inadequate studies, avoid an open public debate, and even resort to authoritarian acts, such as the Suspension of Security measure, to get the dam built.

With the hydro-plant in operation, virulent critics still find it hard to stomach that a prize bearing the name of Chico Mendes should be awarded to the Teles Pires Company.

Francisco Pugliese, noted that the award is a good example of how corporate activity and profits often outweigh social and environmental responsibility. “If you look at the prize closely, you will see that it was given by a private institute linked to a very specific field of national economic power — which is not just active in Brazil, but in many countries of the world — the big construction companies.” Private institutions and major infrastructure companies, he pointed out, may paint themselves green, but that doesn’t make them so.


Thanks to the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) and International Rivers for their logistic help in the Teles Pires River region.

(Leia essa matéria em português no The Intercept Brasil. You can also read Mongabay’s series on the Tapajós Basin in Portuguese at The Intercept Brasil)

Indigenous and traditional river communities use the river much as urban dwellers might use the street or a park in front of their homes. The river is a place where people gather to talk and share their lives. Dams can hinder these activities in unexpected ways, warming tropical rivers, for example, which can then result in algae blooms that may make the water unsuitable for fishing, recreation, drinking, bathing and other purposes. Photo by Thais Borges