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Amazon fish kill at Sinop spotlights risk from 80+ Tapajós basin dams

  • Evidence shows that a 2019 fish kill in which 13 tons of dead fish were found in Brazil’s Teles Pires River was likely caused by anoxia (lack of oxygen) created by the filling of the Sinop dam’s reservoir by the Sinop HPP consortium (which includes French and Brazilian firms responsible for construction and operation).
  • Scientists and environmentalists had warned of this and other ecological risks, but their calls for caution were ignored by regulators and resisted by the builder. Only 30 percent of vegetation was removed from the area of the reservoir, rather than the 100 percent required by law, which helped cause the die-off.
  • The concern now is that similar incidents could occur elsewhere. There are at least 80 hydroelectric plants planned for the Juruena / Teles Pires basin alone — one of the Brazilian Amazon’s most important watersheds.
  • Of immediate concern is the Castanheira dam on the Arinos River to be built by the federal Energy Research Company (EPE). Critics fear that, under the Jair Bolsonaro government, environmental licensing and construction will advance despite serious threats posed to indigenous reserves and the environment.
Dead fish viewed from a small boat during the 2019 Sinop reservoir fish kill. Image courtesy of the Mato Grosso State Public Ministry

At the end of January a Smartphone onboard a small boat captured a disturbing video on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon near the city of Sinop, close to the Mato Grosso and Pará state borders. Murky brown water near the shore was clogged with large shoals of dead fish.

A witness on the scene mourned: “it’s something one cannot believe! It stinks. Look at the size of the pacus and piaus.… That’s all there is: a lot of dead fish.” Between January 30 and February 4 more than 13 tons of fish were found dead in the river.

State Public Ministry independent litigators and experts say the 400 megawatt (MW) Sinop hydroelectric power plant, and its builder and operator, the Sinop HPP consortium, caused the fish kill during the process of filling the dam’s reservoir. The operation was authorized by the Mato Grosso Environment Secretariat despite opposition from environmentalists. According to critics, the dam creates a choke point on the Teles Pires River where tropical waters stagnate and lose oxygen — becoming anoxic — within the 337 square kilometer (83,274 acre) reservoir. Sinop HPP denies this assessment, saying high sedimentation created in error was the cause of the die-off.

Conservationists also say that the problematic Sinop dam is emblematic. It is just one of many such projects in the Amazon basin of Brazil that poses major environmental threats to aquatic ecosystems, riverine traditional and indigenous communities.

According to Brazil’s National Electric Energy Agency, there are at least 80 hydroelectric plants planned for Mato Grosso state’s Juruena / Teles Pires basin alone — one of the Brazilian Amazon’s most important watersheds. Both the Juruena and Teles Pires Rivers are tributaries of the Tapajós River, one of the Amazon basin’s most biodiverse and pristine regions.

The total number of hydroelectric power plants that may eventually be built in the Juruena / Teles Pires basin could be even higher: according to local NGOs, there are at least 125 small and large power plants in the planning, construction, or completion phase there.

All across the Amazon today, rivers great and small suffer flow reductions, anoxia, a loss in aquatic species populations, and ecosystem imbalances due to hydropower projects.

The Sinop Dam seen from the upstream side with the river at its natural level without a dam. Image courtesy of P.M. Fearnside, November 13, 2018.

An unnecessary disaster

The Sinop HPP fish kill could have been avoided if the Mato Grosso Environment Secretariat had heeded the critiques found in environmental studies for the project, say critics. The state agency is responsible for licensing the dam, which was built via a partnership between the Brazilian and French governments.

Dam expert and Amazon National Research Institute Professor Philip Fearnside was one of those who denounced the project and who questions hydroelectric environmental viability in the Amazon. According to his latest report, only 30 percent of original vegetation was removed from the Sinop dam reservoir area, “instead of the 100 percent demanded by law — a law which has been widely ignored” in Mato Grosso.

In tropical dams “the decomposition of litter, leaves and other organic material of easy degradation leads to a decrease of the oxygen in the water, especially during the filling of the reservoir. This can cause fish deaths inside the reservoir, while the release of oxygen depleted water from turbines and spillways can kill fish downstream from the dam”, Fearnside pointed out.

This environmentally irresponsible behavior isn’t quite new. In late 2014, local newspapers had denounced the same practice on the same river,  carried out by the Teles Pires HPP.

In addition to the anoxia problem, when a reservoir is filled without fully removing trees, the flooded vegetal material decomposes and adds significantly to methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 percent more powerful than carbon dioxide. Global atmospheric methane levels have been unexpectedly rising for the last four years, and scientists have been unable to determine the specific cause, something which many researchers find alarming.

An aerial view of the Sinop dam during its construction. Image courtesy of Sinop HPP
More than 80 hydroelectric dams are in the planning, construction, or completion stage along Amazon River tributaries in Mato Grosso state. Image by Ricardo Carvalho / OPAN

Officials questions dam environmental assessments

As the recent Sinop disaster unfolded the MPE, the Mato Grosso State Public Ministry, a government group of independent public prosecutors, intervened to investigate environmental violations. Experts traveled 27 kilometers (around 17 miles) along the river, measuring fish impacts — evidence used to request a discontinuance of activities by Sinop HPP.

“We filed a request to stop the filling [of the reservoir], and for the company to be held liable. The Environment Secretariat fined the [firm] but, unfortunately, it was too late — as we had anticipated,” explained State Prosecutor Marcelo Vacchiano.

In recent years, the Mato Grosso public prosecutor has worked on other hydroelectric cases across the state. Vacchiano said that he has been involved in investigating violations by the Colider and the Teles Pires HPPs, both on the Teles Pires River on the border with Pará state, and many other projects.

“We have joined specialists on a case-by-case basis: we create a workflow that seeks to understand the socio-environmental impacts of the [projects. But our] surveys often diverge from reports submitted by [the companies own assessments], which have been accepted by the Mato Grosso Environment Secretariat,” Vacchiano said.

The Sinop HPP has been in trouble with the Mato Grosso Justice system since 2013. To begin with, the firm’s dam was licensed by the Mato Grosso Environment Secretariat despite underrated impacts and incomplete environmental statements. After that, more worrying episodes occurred: at one point during construction employees even recorded the collapse of part of the dam after storms hit the region and weakened the structure.

Vacchiano said that Public Ministry attempts to question the inadequacy of past environmental studies has had a somehow opposite effect. As courts have granted injunctions authorizing licenses, the company has become more legally empowered against the criticism it has faced. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to challenge future socio-environmental impacts on this project and in others, similar to this.

“Ideally, disputes over such projects should be resolved [during] the environmental licensing [process]. However, what we see [instead] are problematic processes; they often end up in court,” explained the Mato Grosso public prosecutor.

Amazon dam projects are typically built and operated by consortiums, complex partnerships of transnational and Brazilian companies. The Sinop dam’s major shareholder is France’s Electricité de France (EDF); Brazilian firms own significant shares too. Image courtesy of Sinop Energia

French company controls Sinop hydroelectric plant

The Sinop hydroelectric plant was built and is operated through a partnership between the Brazilian government and Electricité de France (EDF) — a French, state-owned transnational company — the world’s largest energy producer and distributor. EDF, through its Brazilian branch Norte Fluminense, is the major shareholder of Sinop Energia, while minority shareholders include two Brazilian public companies, Chesf and Eletronorte, both controlled by Eletrobras, the largest federal power utility company, with 49 percent of total shares.

The Mato Grosso justice system has raised legal alarms regarding the company since the January fish die-off. In February, the MPE filed a request to monitor Sinop Energia directors via electronic anklet, and forbid them to access the powerplant. Among the monitored directors is the Sinop HPP president, the French engineer Jean Christophe Marcel Delvallet. The electronic anklets are being used to prevent his and other executives escaping from the country while investigations continue.

In addition, the Federal Public Ministry is holding $20 million Reals (nearly US$5,2 million) of the company’s assets to bear the costs of compensation for damages. That fine has been added to another of $50 million Reals (US$13,1 million), applied by the Mato Grosso government.

A bend on a portion of the undammed Arinos River in the Brazilian Amazon where the Castanheira hydroelectric project is planned. Image courtesy of Castanheira HPP

Castanheira dam project threatens indigenous groups

No matter what fines are leveraged against Sinop HPP, they cannot remedy its environmental harm. However, Fearnside says that lessons learned from this disaster can help prevent similar mistakes elsewhere.

“The case of Sinop HPP is important not only because of the impacts, but also as a lesson for [solving] problems in decision-making and licensing systems in other [hydroelectric] plants. There are several others in the state, hydroelectric Castanheira being the next to have state licensing,” he warned.

The Castanheira dam project is designed to be built on the Arinos River. The Energy Research Company (EPE), a federal firm, is responsible for this project and is following a similar script regarding environmental licensing. Researchers and NGOs fear that, under the Jair Bolsonaro government, licensing, auction and construction will advance despite problems pointed out so far.

The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has been investigating the project since 2014. According to the MPF, the company has minimized the cumulative socio-environmental impacts caused by the multiple HPPs building dams on the Juruena basin. This is a common complaint among researchers who say that dams should not be assessed singly for harm, but rather as multiple projects within a river system. In 2017, the MPF advised the Mato Grosso Environmental Secretariat not to license Castanheira (DOC: 710-2017-48 RPA – TAPAYUNAS – RECOMENDAÇÃO UHE Castanheira). That recommendation cautions that the licensing process will go to litigation if it continues to proceed as planned without correction.

A map showing the proposed Castanheira reservoir on the Arinos River in relation to indigenous reserves. Image by Ricardo Carvalho / OPAN

EPE plans to build the Castanheira dam on the Arinos river, including a reservoir covering 94.7 square kilometers (23,400 acres), equivalent to 13,000 football pitches, in the cities of Juara and Novo Horizonte do Norte. The Arinos is one of the main tributaries of the Juruena, one of the most important rivers of the Amazon basin in Mato Grosso state.

The planned dam will destroy the primary fishing grounds and food supply of several indigenous groups, who fish for cacharas, matrinxãs and other important species. The Castanheira HPP dam will block fish migration routes, risking the destruction of fishing grounds along the entire river upstream and downstream of the dam.

The project also threatens the indigenous lands of the Apiaká/Kayabi, Erikpatsa, and Japuíra — these three territories are less than 40 kilometers (around 24 miles) from the hydroelectric plant site. The Apiakás, Kayabis, Mundurukus, and Rikbaktsas are actively resisting this federal government project.

“We have already seen what happened with Belo Monte [a mega-dam on the Xingu River] and [on the] Teles Pires river complex [where several dams have been built]. Our tribes are united: we don’t want this hydroelectric plant here. We have suffered a lot with the action of the white man, we only want our land to be in peace,” said Orengô, one of the few Tapayuna Indians living in the region, and for whom the dam poses a severe danger — their disappearance.

The Tapayuna are an indigenous people popularly known as the Beiços-de-Pau (Wooden-Lips); they were nearly annihilated between 1950 and 1970. The Castanheira HPP dam project on the Arinos River seriously threatens them today, experts say. Image by João Américo Peret photographed in 1968

The Tapayuna were nearly decimated between 1950 and 1970. This indigenous people, popularly known as Beiços-de-Pau (Wooden-Lips), numbering only 160 today, were ignored in the environmental studies for the Castanheira project; as a result of this oversight, FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, advised against licensing. Officially, other members of this tribe live in Xingu National Park, a federal indigenous reserve created during the Brazilian dictatorship more than 300 miles away from their original territory and the nearby Castanheira dam site.

To obtain the dam’s environmental licenses, EPE was required to provide an Indigenous Component Study (ECI), a report that was only delivered after major delays and with serious gaps. In December 2017, an analysis of the study was delivered by FUNAI, advising against the hydroelectric project.

FUNAI found a great number of problems. During the dam’s construction, said the agency, the region’s local population would swell significantly as laborers arrived from outside the Amazon to build the dam, its transmission lines, access roads and other infrastructure. This influx would cause negative impacts to Tapayuna lands, their culture and tribal memory, and greatly increase the risk of their group’s, and other indigenous groups,’ exposure to alcohol and drugs.

It is “already known that incomprehension rules the relations [between] the indigenous with the nonindigenous. One of the possible misunderstandings is related to the [potential shared] use of the territory outside the [demarcated] indigenous land, which causes conflicts over the use of natural resources,” highlights the report.

But from the outset, environmental licensing policies by the Bolsonaro administration which came into office in January has created major setbacks. For instance, the government weakened FUNAI’s authority, by moving the portion of the agency that deals with indigenous land demarcation and policy implementation to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is controlled by ruralists, agribusiness producers who have long sought control of indigenous lands.  The Special Secretariat for Land Affairs is now headed by Nabhan Garcia, a declared enemy of all indigenous demarcations and land grants in the country.

A recent image of the Tapayuna, of which only 160 members remain within their home territory near the Arinos River. They could be put at risk by the Castanheira hydroelectric project. Image by Beatriz Matos / Tapayuna History, guided by the Instituto Socioambiental [ISA]

Castanheira linked to large Amazon mining operations

Civil organizations have made a cost-benefit analysis of the Castanheira dam, a report used as a reference in Public Ministry decisions made against this federal project. According to this document, the projects estimated socio-economic costs come in at around 558 million Reals (US$142 million) which includes greenhouse gas emissions, economic losses due to the flooding of productive lands, and diminished fish reserves.

With so much to lose, many experts have questioned what type of interests are pushing forward so hard with Castanheira. It comes as no surprise that the dam is being built in proximity to extensive copper, diamond and gold reserves. With more energy made available from the nearby government-built and maintained dam, it will become possible for Brazilian and transnational mining firms to extract ores on an industrial scale. While backers often tout the energy to be provided by new Amazon dams, the reality is that little of that power every benefits Brazilians, with the electricity instead produced to support associated mines and ore processing.

“We need to think about hydroelectric proposals in association with other sectors, especially with mining. We [know] that there are valuable minerals in the surroundings of the entire basin of the Juruena River, such as lead, sulfur and gold,” said Herman Oliveira, executive secretary of the Mato Grosso Forum on Environment and Development (Formad), an NGO which is monitoring the case.

It isn’t only the mining-friendly Bolsonaro administration that is interested in this hydroelectric plant. In January, Mato Grosso saw a new governor, Mauro Mendes, take over: he is a partner in a problematic gold mining company in Cuiabá, raising conflict of interest concerns.

The Juruena River basin is known for its significant reserves of copper, diamonds and gold ore which has drawn transnational mining company attention to the region. But those minerals can’t be dug up and processed without vast sums of electricity, which would need to come from new Amazon dams. Image by Ricardo Carvalho / OPAN

“As in other processes here, in the Juruena basin, decisions about hydroelectric plants have a much more political rather than technical character. Because of this, our resistance is very challenging,” explained researcher Ricardo Carvalho with the Operação Amazônia Nativa (OPAN), an NGO that is investigating the Castanheira dam.

Meanwhile, Thiago Barral, the current president of the Energy Research Company, gave signs that Castanheira will advance — and soon.

Barral said recently that the Bolsonaro administration aims to slate the hydroelectric plant for the upcoming energy auction scheduled in the second half of 2019. It remains to be seen how the Mato Grosso Environment Secretariat will respond to this expectation via the licensing process, and if indigenous groups will be able to effectively resist the project.

BANNER IMAGE: Dead fish collected as evidence of the fish kill from the Teles Pires River. Image courtesy of the Mato Grosso State Public Ministry

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