- A wealth of great rivers caused Brazil in recent years to pursue a frenzy of mega-dam construction in the Amazon and Cerrado, work that enthusiasts claimed would benefit Brazilians with cheap energy. Critics say otherwise, however, noting much of the power produced goes to large mining company operations.
- Analysts also point to completed projects, such as the Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antonio, Jirau and other dams, that have resulted in significant environmental harm, the displacement of rural indigenous and traditional populations, and to generating massive corruption.
- A case in point can be found in the small town of Formosa in Tocantins state. The building of the Estreito mega-dam, completed in 2008, flooded fields, pastures and homes. The most impacted half of the community was relocated by the consortium of companies that constructed the dam.
- The rest remained and were denied the social and economic benefits they’d been promised by either the government or the dam building consortium, which includes two mining giants, Alcoa and Vale, and Suez Energy and Camargo Corrêa Energia. Many Brazilian mega-dams were planned to offer energy to large mines.
This is the seventh in a series by journalist Anna Sophie Gross who traveled to the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Maranhão in Legal Amazonia for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.
FORMOSA, Tocantins, Brazil – The tiny settlement, or rather, what remains of it, sits on the border between Maranhão and Tocantins state, and it is steeped in a history of conflict. Its sixty families, now diminished to 29, have fought the government, a consortium of mining and energy companies, and local eucalyptus plantations for more than a decade to keep the rights to a parcel of land that they can till and live upon.
Founded in 2002 with a valid land deed, Formosa had roughly four good years in which to cultivate crops, rear livestock, put down roots and weave together a strong community fabric based upon friendship and mutual dependency.
In 2007, the Formosa families were suddenly confronted with an existential threat to their homes and livelihoods.
Despite great protest from people in the region and environmental activists, the Estreito hydroelectric dam was built on the Tocantins River, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) downstream from Formosa.
Some speculate that the dam was built primarily to provide electricity to mining operations, though officially the energy is distributed to the national grid. Either way, its reservoir filled and flooded half of Formosa’s titled territory. In 2008, the year the dam went operational, thirty of the families were relocated by the consortium of mining companies that constructed the dam and profit from it to this day. Those whose homes were not directly flooded, but who lost farmland, remained.
“We lost our friends, but we also lost access to water [and] to the areas we used to plant crops and to the river beach,” explained Maria Helena de Souza, the community’s leader.
Before the dam, Formosa’s river beach had been a popular destination for local people who gathered there to swim and lounge on sunny days. That afforded the community with a business opportunity, selling fruit and snacks to the beachgoers. Local women would also pluck nuts from babaçu trees near the river shore and make oil, which they’d sell locally.
The beach and all the babaçu were drowned by the dam’s reservoir, washing away two steady streams of income.
The relocated were taken to new homes 150 kilometers (93 miles) away. Those that remained in Formosa were promised the same amenities that their departed friends had received – clean drinking water, proper sanitation, improved access roads. But it has been a decade since the dam became operational; nothing has materialized.
The initial reparations agreement was made between the community and the Consortium of Hydroelectric Energy in Estreito (CESTE) – the coalition of energy companies that built the dam – and the federal National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA).
“We received nothing, nothing, nothing. Not money, or the services they promised they would provide,” said de Souza. She pointed to a water pump that it took CESTE 5 years to install but which has never functioned.
“They had the nerve to try to host an inauguration ceremony for the pump, but we wouldn’t let them celebrate something that doesn’t work,” she said. That was four years ago, and since then no one has come to repair the broken pump.
The reason for the stalemate comes in the form of a disagreement over whose responsibility it is to provide Formosa with its guaranteed reparations. The superintendent of INCRA in Tocantins, Carlos Alberto da Costa, flatly denies INCRA’s accountability: “It is CESTE’s responsibility to supply all of these things,” he said. “It’s not our responsibility to make CESTE hold up their end of the agreement.”
But CESTE told Mongabay a different story, stating that it did not have any responsibility for the promises made within the agreement. “We note that the implementation of the UHE ESTREITO [dam] occurred with absolute dialogue and respect for the community and government institutions,” CESTE representatives said.
However, it seems likely that both government and consortium share in the responsibility. In the case of other Brazilian mega-dams, such as with Belo Monte on the Xingu River, it is the dam building consortium that is accountable for paying reparations, while it is the government’s responsibility under the law to make sure that happens.
But at Formosa, the deadlock remains, and the community suffers on, mostly in silence and so far without legal recourse.
Enter the speculators
The dam’s reservoir is just one of Formosa’s survival worries. Large eucalyptus plantations, “green deserts” devoid of biodiversity, and an egg farm, surround the community today.
And there is no shortage of entrepreneurial representatives looking to buy up the settlement’s remaining land along the river to gain access to irrigation water. Many residents have received low purchase offers from agribusiness – tempting nonetheless for those whose subsistence livelihoods and sources of income have been deeply curtailed by the dam.
“Our quality of life here’s gotten so bad, which means more and more people are thinking of selling out and moving on,” said de Souza. “It’s weakening us.”
The village leader still dreams of a future where Formosa will regain its vibrancy and culture. She hopes that the community will someday be able to build a school to provide its young people with education and hope. She also yearns for a working water pump so residents no longer need to drink polluted river water.
How the dam came to be
Anyone crossing the President Juscelino Kubistchek bridge over the Tocantins River six years ago would have seen a much more pastoral scene. Where once there was forest and a few scattered homes, now stands one of the biggest hydroelectric complexes in Brazil, generating 1,087 megawatts (MW).
But the construction of the Estreito dam didn’t only change the look of the countryside. It also changed the character of the nearby city of Estreito, as hotels, restaurants, gas stations, a concert hall and other amenities sprang up to meet the demands of newly arrived construction workers, there to build the dam, transmission lines, roads and other infrastructure.
It had all begun with a lengthy federal bidding process. Then, on July 12, 2002, Suez Energy, Camargo Corrêa Energia, Vale and Alcoa – two of the world’s mining giants – were awarded the lucrative hydroelectric project. The companies organized the CESTE consortium, which planned and constructed the Estreito Dam, and which operates and profits from it today.
A business-biased building process?
Some commentators have identified troubling aspects to the construction on this, the biggest, high-impact energy project of its kind in Maranhão state.
In a doctoral thesis, Adila Maria Taveira de Lima, of the Federal University of Tocantins, writes that the building process “was marked by the [consortium’s] rush to finish the work and obtain return on investment.” She adds that this haste resulted in “extreme government influence being used to expedite the work and put pressure on licensing bodies to issue licenses.” All consortiums awarded large federal infrastructure construction projects are compelled under the law to conduct socio-environmental impact assessments, which require the full participation and input of potentially impacted communities.
However, de Lima says that CESTE’s negotiation meetings were barely participatory. Instead, the consortium cherry-picked supportive representatives from each group of impacted parties, rather than allowing the groups to self-select their own representatives. She concludes that final “decisions reached the affected communities without [residents] having the opportunity to make any significant changes.”
According to another qualitative study conducted in 2012 by Amarildo Silva Araujo, also from Tocantins Federal University, local communities endured a wide range of negative impacts caused by the dam – among them, the death and displacement of thousands of animals, cost of living increases, as well as micro-climatic disturbances.
The study author writes that all of his interviewees felt they were “significantly impacted by the establishment of the Estreito Hydroelectric Power Plant, and point out that none of the impacts were properly monitored by those in charge of construction.”
Silva Araujo concludes that the environmental impact assessment carried out ahead of construction failed to adequately anticipate the social and environmental harm that the dam would cause, and that there were serious failures on CESTE’s part to uphold reparations commitments made to river-dwelling populations.
Such failings, say critics, are a hallmark of Brazilian mega-dam projects, with similar accusations launched against the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, the Santo Antonio and Jirau dams on the Madeira River, a series of dams on the Teles Pires River, and others.
CESTE presents a different picture, celebrating its positive impact in Maranhão. In a statement sent to Mongabay, the company said that the consortium invested more than $75 million reals (US $20 million) in projects to improve social and health infrastructure in the region, and that 90 percent of its dealings with homeowners who were impacted by the dam were “conducted in a friendly manner.”
The consortium also claims that the construction of the dam generated 10,000 jobs, albeit temporary ones. CESTE does admit that now that the dam is operational, the hydroelectric project employs just 300 personnel.
Damming the Cerrado to support mining
A series of huge hydroelectric dams have already been built along the Parnaiba, Tocantins, and Estreito rivers in Maranhão – the Brazilian state with the second lowest GDP in the nation.
Plans for six new dams on the Tocantins River, means that Maranhão is poised to become among the highest energy producing states in all of Brazil, ultimately generating 11.6 million MW, almost ten times the amount the state currently uses.
Maranhão presently consumes just 1.5 million megawatts, including that generated by the Estreito dam. But according to Araujo’s research, almost two thirds of that amount is utilized by a single corporate enterprise – the Alumar Consortium, which refines and sells aluminum and is made up of three major transnational mining companies, Alcoa, South 32 and Alcan. It’s important to note that Alcoa is also one of the main companies in the CESTE consortium. The mining and processing of aluminum requires a tremendous amount of energy, so the proposed new dams seem intended to serve a potential massive increase in bauxite mining and aluminum processing.
“There are studies which show that dams have been constructed to produce energy specifically for certain major industries,” said Dernival Ramos Junior, Professor of History, Society and Territory at the Federal University of Tocantins.
He explained that the popular view that mega-dams bring economic development to the nation and benefits to the general population is a potent one with the Brazilian populace, but that it is “simply untrue.” He adds that, “The option to construct dams is political, and is very tied to the interests of big corporations.”
According to CESTE’s website, the Estreito dam has “the capacity to supply energy to a city with four million inhabitants” which “represents more energy and development for Brazil and the region where the plant is located.”
However, with Maranhão shooting for a ten million megawatt surplus of hydroelectric energy over what the state consumes, it is clear that much will be exported to other states, most of them richer and unperturbed by the social and environmental impacts that these mega-projects cause to rural populations in the Cerrado. It’s also clear that much of the exported electricity would likely benefit transnational mining companies like Alcoa, or giant Brazilian mining companies like Vale. The value of these big dams to the general public is less clear.
The future of hydraulic power in Brazil
Brazil is a land famous for its great rivers, with eight percent of the world’s freshwater found there. So it’s logical for government, industry and agribusiness to want to harness this cheap and abundant source of energy.
Brazil’s first dam was built in 1889 in Minas Gerais state, though the sudden proliferation of Brazilian hydroelectric dams can be traced to the policies of President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61), a proponent of post-World War II industrialization.
An explosion in mega-dam construction arrived in recent years, also resulting in a significant socio-environmental backlash, which even halted construction in a few ultra-controversial cases, including the defeat – at least for now – of the 8,000 MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam on the Tapajós River in the Amazon basin in 2016.
There have even been whisperings of an end to the contentious mega-dam construction craze, with a shift to medium and small dams (though even these can be dangerously ecologically disruptive), and to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
Philip Fearnside, a specialist in Amazonian dams, isn’t hopeful. “Dams are still very much the center piece of Brazil’s electricity generation plans,” he told Mongabay. Fearnside points out that, to date, none of the dams on the government’s ten-year plan have been de-listed, while two top officials who positioned themselves against hydroelectric megaprojects resigned abruptly earlier this year.
Fearnside notes that Chinese state-owned companies have been buying up Brazilian dams and transmission lines, and are negotiating for the purchase of others. Chinese investment banks and construction companies are also active in promoting major Brazilian transportation infrastructure projects, including new industrial waterways that would require dams, railways and roads, that could soon bring Brazilian commodities more easily and cheaply to Asia.
There are also a host of pending legislative proposals in Congress that could massively weaken environmental licensing, making dam construction significantly easier and cheaper in the future.
Among the troubling bills now in the legislature is PLS 654/2015 which calls for the creation of a fast-tracked environmental license, which would take just eight months to obtain, for infrastructure projects of “strategic importance” to the government. The strategic importance label is sufficiently vague to be slapped on a host of projects.
PL 447/2012, dubbed the “Corruption Bill” by critics, would prohibit the suspension or cancellation of infrastructure projects once they have already begun, and also restrict the power of oversight bodies, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office and even the judiciary, from intervening in cases of malpractice.
Newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office in January, has indicated his support for fast-tracking the infrastructure licensing process. Retired general Oswaldo Ferreira, in charge of infrastructure planning for Bolsonaro’s campaign, also recently suggested reopening feasibility studies for the São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, in Pará, and resuming analyses for proposed Amazon hydropower dams with large reservoirs. Ferreira favors wind and solar energy, but feels neither are sufficient to “keep the economy growing.”
Fearnside is categorical about what he thinks needs to happen next. “Dam construction should be stopped and priority given to using less electricity,” he said. Then it is time for Brazil to shift its focus to wind and solar power. That’s a move that the residents of Formosa – feeling cheated out of hydropower’s promise – would almost surely applaud.
Mongabay contributor Anna Sophie Gross was accompanied on her trip by Thomas Bauer, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting and supporting communities in the Cerrado and Amazon for over 20 years. He produced nearly all of the photos and videos for this series.
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