- The long-delayed Tucuruí Transmission Line extension, providing energy autonomy to Roraima state, appears to be moving ahead rapidly under the Bolsonaro government, with federal institutions carrying out secretive political maneuvers to speed construction at any cost, regardless of opposition, say critics.
- The project’s environmental license has been suspended since 2014. One sticking point: the impact of the project on the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory. Of the 721 kilometers (450 miles) of extension envisaged for the transmission line, 125 kilometers (78 miles) with 200 electrical towers would cross through the reserve.
- Another obstacle is ongoing negotiations with Transnorte, the selected construction consortium, which has demand what are viewed by many as excessive returns on the project. The Bolsonaro government has reportedly pressured the National Electric Energy Agency to accept the conditions demanded by the company.
- Analysts say the transmission line isn’t necessary, as solar power could be utilized to serve the needs of Roraima state, and implementation could be faster. However, some experts suspect that the powerline is connected to plans to open the region to industrial mining, which requires huge amounts of electricity to operate profitably.
Since January 2019, the threat of infrastructure development has cast a long shadow across the Brazilian Amazon — generating concern among indigenous and traditional communities in the rainforest. Under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, proposals for large new projects have gained momentum to a level not seen since the end of the nation’s military dictatorship in 1985, say critics.
To date, much of the intensified planning for these projects has been happening behind closed doors, leaving those likely to be impacted and the media mostly in the dark.
The case of a long-delayed electrical transmission line between two regional capitals — Boa Vista in Roraima state, and Manaus in Amazonas — is a case in point. The Bolsonaro government seems intent on pushing the powerline through regardless of opposition, even when resistance comes from within the administration itself. That’s according to documents viewed by Mongabay that reveal hidden intergovernmental clashes in the negotiations behind the initiative.
The project, an extension of the “Tucuruí Transmission Line,” aims to guarantee energy autonomy to the state of Roraima. It got underway in 2012, when a public-private company called Transnorte was awarded the construction concession. Transnorte itself is a consortium, resulting from the union of ALUPAR, an association that controls various other companies; with Eletronorte, a state energy firm.
From the outset, the project presented logistical, environmental and social challenges: of the 721 kilometer (450 mile) extension envisaged for the transmission line, 125 kilometers (78 miles) would cross through the heart of the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory, on the border between Amazonas and Roraima states.
More than 200 transmission towers would be needed to carry the electrical lines through the reserve — each one occupying an area equivalent to a football pitch. Add to that construction and maintenance roads, and the necessity of regular clearing of foliage along the route. Analysts predicted irreversible impacts on the lives, livelihoods and culture of the Waimiri-Atroari, who say they still suffer the scars inflicted by government violence and genocide during the dictatorship.
The Kinja — the name the Waimiri-Atroari use to refer to themselves — point to likely construction damage: the cutting down of tree and plant species that guarantee the tribal food supply, the profaning of sacred places, an escalation of political pressure on communities, more outsiders on tribal lands, the risk of proliferating “white man’s diseases,” and other threats to the indigenous way of life.
Due to the complexity and potential harm of the project, the environmental license for its execution has been suspended since 2014. Neither FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, nor IBAMA, its federal environmental agency, have granted the necessary licenses to move forward.
In addition, ANEEL, Brazil’s National Electric Energy Agency, the body responsible for monitoring project implementation, is presently in strong disagreement with the conditions demanded by Transnorte for the line’s construction.
As a result of the long delays, Transnorte is negotiating a project renewal, but the two parties disagree over three central points: the annual economic returns to be received by the firm; the logistical difficulties of building the transmission towers within the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory; and the required consultation with indigenous communities over the damages that the Tucuruí Transmission Line will cause.
With regards to the third point, in 2018, Maria Suely, Roraima’s then governor, filed a lawsuit in the Federal Supreme Court “to dispense with indigenous consultation,” pushing for project construction at any cost and without the required meetings with the Kinja.
“Systematic and free consultation with the Kinja never happened,” says Fernando Merloto Soave, a public prosecutor with the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), independent litigators in Amazonas state. The MPF has been monitoring the case since 2013, and advocating for the indigenous peoples’ right to consultation and full participation in decisions regarding the project as guaranteed by international law.
The MPF has already filed two lawsuits concerning violations of the rights of the Waimiri-Atroari, with charges brought against Transnorte, ANEEL, FUNAI, IBAMA and the national government. One of the lawsuits requests the annulment of the initial concession, and the other requests the cancellation of any environmental licenses that have already been granted.
“The military participated in a genocide of the Kinja population in the 1970s, and there are historical conflicts with the State [and indigenous people]. Pushing the Tucuruí Transmission Line ‘down their throats’ represents an immense regression, a return to an era of serious [human rights] violations,” says Merloto, one of the MPF prosecutors assigned to the case.
A project facing staunch resistance from the outset
The extension of the Tucuruí Transmission Line to Roraima as currently envisaged would follow alongside highway BR-174, through the northern region of the indigenous reserve. Planning got underway there in 2012. However, it wasn’t long before the relationship between Transnorte and ANEEL showed signs of wearing thin — largely the result over quarrels concerning the studies required to begin construction, including analyses of environmental impacts and possible harm to the Waimiri-Atroari.
According to records of the process included in an official letter from ANEEL, and obtained by Mongabay through the Law of Access to Information: “Transnorte expressed its intention to not continue with the project for the first time on November 14, 2014 by asking to schedule a meeting… to discuss the necessary and inevitable suspension of the contract… agreed between TNE [the acronym for Transnorte] and the Union [the national government].”
By that time, the Public Ministry had already requested cancellation of the auction. The federal court in Amazonas ruled in favor of the MPF in the case, which was then appealed to higher courts. The lawsuit remains in process. At present, the concession won by Transnorte is still valid, but with one caveat: no environmental license can be granted before the Waimiri-Atroari have been consulted.
And, say critics, this consultation must be done properly: “It is not a simple consultation to establish whether they are for or against [the project]: it is intended to level out the decision power of those involved in the process, including the Kinja. What always happens in this [sort of} case is a kind of ‘uneven’ conversation in which the government speaks ‘from the top down,’” explains Fernando Merloto.
The legal basis for the federal prosecutor’s case is International Labour Organisation Convention 169, signed by the Brazilian government, which stipulates that the administration in power is responsible for developing “coordinated and systematic action to protect the rights of [indigenous] peoples and to guarantee respect for their integrity.”
Disagreement over returns stalls negotiations
In addition to the lawsuit already described, in 2016, a new problem emerged which would complicate construction even further. Transnorte, conflicted over whether to abandon or move forward with the project, presented a study produced by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), with newly revised calculations for the value of the project — as well as its profits.
The value initially established at auction for the company’s annual revenue upon project completion was R$ 121 million (US$ 30 million). This was to be the annual return authorized by the federal government, paid to Transnorte once the Tucuruí Transmission Line became operational.
But according to Transnorte’s new calculations, its annual returns should be higher: the consortium argues that it should receive R$ 391 million (nearly US$ 100 million) — more than 3 times the original agreed to revenue. The dispute between the government and the consortium over the wide gap between the new evaluation as compared to the initial contract brought the project to a halt.
“There is no way… that we can recognize additional costs presented on the grounds that they were unforeseeable. The information was available and the Concessionary [Transnorte] was aware of it, so this should have been incorporated into the value [first] offered,” said ANEEL technicians in a letter from June 2019 concerning the case.
Nevertheless, also in 2019, ANEEL redid its calculations, establishing R$ 275 million (US$ 70 million) as the new revenue permitted for the project. That suggestion did not go down well: Transnorte rejected the proposal, which was valid until October 31, 2019, according to the federal agency.
A nearly complete breakdown of negotiations then followed between Transnorte and the agency. The unsustainable climate of hostility existing between the two parties then forced the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to intervene — based on its links with ANEEL. According to Mongabay’s sources, one of the chief reasons for Transnorte’s steadfast tenacity in the negotiations is the backdoor support it receives from MME.
For six years, the Ministry of Mines and Energy remained in the shadows, not interfering in the negotiations over the Tucuruí Transmission Line. However, during the administration of former president Michel Temer, the ministry changed its position, becoming more engaged.
At the time, it was headed by Fernando Coelho Filho — now being investigated under suspicion of receiving bribes during the Dilma Rousseff government. The former minister belongs to the same party as Temer, the MDB, which traditionally controls the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Under his tutelage, the MME began pressuring ANEEL to accept Transnorte’s threefold return request.
In a letter, sent in February 2018, the ministry’s Secretary of Energy Planning and Development, Eduardo Azevedo Rodrigues, asked the agency to analyze “the situation in its entirety, with all its details, in order to promote, at [the agency’s] discretion, the economic and financial rebalancing of the contract.” Here, the Ministry of Energy and Mines seems to be subtly suggesting ANEEL reconsider a better deal for Transnorte, agreeing to potentially readjust the firm’s returns upward.
Other actions carried out under the Temer administration suggest that the growing push to get the transmission line built may have been the result of vested mining interests lobbying behind the scenes to dramatically increase electricity supply to the northern Amazon. Temer tried to allow mining in the gigantic National Copper and Associate Minerals Reserve, known as RENCA, a plan foiled by Brazilian and international public outcry. RENCA, were it opened to mining, would require massive amounts of energy to be productive and profitable. Today, NGOs monitoring the scene still believe that there is an unspoken relationship between the two plans — especially because there is a long history of Brazilian public works energy development projects being discretely linked to new, large-scale private mining projects.
Institutional divides and backdoor politics
The Bolsonaro government, since taking power in January 2019, has signalled through its administrative statements and actions that it regards the Tucuruí Transmission Line as a vital stepping stone to other large infrastructure projects, and to developing the “unproductive Amazon.”
This view gained strength on February 27, when the National Defense Council decided that the Tucuruí Transmission Line was strategic for national security — a measure aimed at providing the legal go ahead for construction, despite all indigenous and environmental opposition.
Also, the decision-making power of two inter-ministerial councils — both headed by the minister of Mines and Energy, former naval officer Bento Albuquerque — is apparently being leveraged to push the transmission line ahead. The councils are empowered to ask the President of the Republic for exceptional measures — such as, ordering that Transnorte’s contested profitability demands be accepted.
In May, the Electricity Industry Monitoring Committee sent a recommendation to the National Energy Policy Council for there to be recognition “by the Granting Power [to ANEEL, in this case] of the exceptional and specific conditions for the implementation of the project, in order to facilitate the beginning of construction on the Transmission Line.”
The recommendation clears the way for Bolsonaro to authorize construction, even if the Waimiri-Atroari, ANEEL, the Public Ministry and other institutions object — an indication that the administration wants the project done regardless of monetary, social or environmental cost.
In addition, over recent months, Minister Bento Albuquerque held a series of meetings with federal bodies that could potentially interfere and hold up progress, stitching together support for Bolsonaro’s administrative decisions.
Between April and September, the minister met with Attorney General of the Union, André Mendonça, who has already given the greenlight to the project; the president of FUNAI, who is responsible for defending indigenous interests; the management of ANEEL; and General Eduardo Villas-Boas, of the Institutional Security Cabinet, a representative of the military wing of the government that defends “neodevelopmentalism” in the Amazon. The military has long supported major infrastructure development in the Amazon as a matter of national security.
According to Mongabay’s investigation, a series of meetings were also held between representatives of the Ministry of Mines and Energy and ANEEL to discuss the conditions demanded by Transnorte. At those meetings, the executive MME secretary pressured ANEEL to accept the sums demanded by the consortium. When questioned, the Ministry of Mines and Energy refused to comment on these activities.
The Waimiri-Atroari Community Association has announced that it will continue resisting the transmission line through its demarcated territory. Indigenous peoples also reiterated their demand that they be properly consulted and pointed out that of the 37 impacts identified by the project’s studies, 27 are irreversible — underlining the seriousness of their fears.
“Up to now, the [indigenous] community’s only concern is with the correct identification of the real socioenvironmental impacts that the undertaking will have on the life, territory and culture of the Waimiri-Atroari people — and what should be done to avoid and/or mitigate them as much as possible,” their representatives wrote in a statement published in June 2019.
Tucuruí Transmission Line not the only option
As Bolsonaro moves to fast track the powerline, researchers and the Public Ministry continue to argue that there are better alternatives for achieving Roraima energy autonomy. Researchers at the Federal University of Rondônia (UFRO) and Unicamp, along with NGOs including Greenpeace, have suggested solar energy production could offer a cheaper, faster option.
According to experts, the total cost of energy produced by the transmission line (US$ 60/MWh) would be about 30 percent more than that of photovoltaic solar production (US$ 45/MWh). And that’s not to mention the advantage in terms of speed of implementation: a technical note, signed by three solar specialists and endorsed by the MPF in Amazonas, indicated that solar-produced electricity could be made available before transmission line construction completion.
“Alternative energies are produced by smaller structures, often in much quicker projects, [but] the [photovoltaic] sector doesn’t yet have a lobby as consolidated and problematic as hydroelectric energy,” explained Marcelo Laterman, from Greenpeace, one of the researchers responsible for the analysis.
The question looming today among environmental and indigenous activists is when will the clandestine administrative maneuvers of the Bolsonaro administration necessarily burst into public view — and how strong will public resistance be then to the powerline’s completion?
Banner image caption: A portion of the existing Tucuruí Transmission Line close to the Amazonas and Pará border. Image by PAC / Promotional.