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Brazil could dynamite Amazon dolphin, turtle habitat for industrial waterway

  • Brazil plans to excavate and dredge many millions of cubic meters of material, including the ecologically sensitive Lourencão Rocks, to create an industrial shipping channel on the Tocantins River in the Amazon. This article includes rarely seen video images of some of the endemic and threatened fish living in the Tocantins River rapids.
  • Citing cost considerations, São Paulo-based DTA Engenharia plans to dump more than 5.6 million cubic meters of sand inside the Tocantins riverbanks, where Amazonian turtles now lay their eggs. The endangered Araguaian river dolphin would also be impacted.
  • In September 2019, IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, identified dozens of mistakes in DTA Engenharia’s environmental impact studies, which failed to list a dozen endangered fish, ignored the specialized riverine rock environment, and didn’t study turtles in most affected areas.
  • IBAMA ordered DTA to redo fish and turtle studies, with new studies conducted on local traditional fisherfolk’s fishing practices. Six fisherfolk village associations near the Lourencão Rocks (35 kilometers of which are due to be dynamited and dredged) warn that the fishery and the unique traditional culture it supports are in peril.

VILA BELÉM, Pará state, Brazil — The fisherman and I sit on the banks of the Tocantins River in Vila Belém, one of more than a hundred fishing villages north of Marabá municipality. All these communities, he tells me, will have their livelihoods negatively impacted if the proposed Tocantins River industrial shipping channel goes forward. The project would dynamite their fishing grounds and deepen the river to allow faster shipping of soy and minerals to China and Europe.

The villager gestures to the river, his hands moving horizontally to sketch the shuttling motion of boxy barges sliding up and downstream past his home.

“These riches will pass through. But what will be left for us?” he asks.

Brazil’s National Department of Infrastructure and Transportation (DNIT) plans a 212-kilometer (132-mile) blasting and dredging project that will demolish 35 kilometers (22 miles) of the 45 kilometer (28 mile) stretch of river known as the Lourencão Rocks — all of it culturally and biologically significant.

The company hired to do the job, São Paulo-based DTA Engenharia (and parent company DTA-O’Martin), says it would need to excavate 986,541 cubic meters (1,290,347 cubic yards) of rock over two and a half years. In addition, DTA would need to dredge a distance totaling 177 kilometers (110 miles), digging up 5,674,000 cubic meters (7,421,319 cubic yards) of sand, destroying seven sand bars, and dumping the load inside the riverbanks where Amazonian turtles now lay their eggs.

In a public hearing I attended July 2, 2019 in Itupiranga municipality (one of five eventually held), DTA Engenharia affirmed, in an hour-long slideshow, that no harm would come to the river’s fish.

The fisherfolk had to wait four hours into that meeting to present a different view.

Antonio, a fisherman, rows his canoe on the Tocantins River near the Lourenção Rocks, which harbor high rates of endemic fish and form the basis of local fisherfolk’s subsistence fishing. 35 kilometers of the Lourenção Rocks are due to be blown up to make way for an industrial shipping channel. Image by Tiffany Higgins.

Questionable science

Six community associations from the villages of Vila Belém, Praia Alta, Vila Redonda, Santo Antonino, Cajazeiras, and Vila Tauiry organized fisherfolk to attend the municipal hearing that evening at which more than 450 people overflowed a local school auditorium.

The fisherfolk were eager to know how dozens of months of dynamiting, dredging, bulldozing and the building of industrial ports along what is now a bucolic Amazonian river — and afterward, barge traffic putting 100-145 meters of river-width off limits to fishing — could possibly not affect their livelihoods.

DTA PowerPoints promised “free access” to the new industrial channel, a vow seemed aimed at prospective companies seeking to ship soy and ore, not fisherfolk who in low-water season would be unable to lower their canoes into parts of the Tocantins River — their street, their market, lifeline and identity.

In his hour-long presentation, the São Paulo engineer from DTA stated simply: “There will be some explosions. And then the fish will momentarily move away.”

When the public comment period began four hours in, the tired crowd, smaller then, but with a core persisting, were restricted in their response by organizers and a giant sports clock with red digital letters holding each speaker to three minutes.

“But, that’s not how fish act. We know!” declared one fisherman, denying the company’s claim.

The fisherfolk described how a warning shot, which DTA plans to fire before dynamiting, would not make fish swim away. At a loud noise, they said, the fish would freeze, then flee deeper into the Lourencão Rocks — not away from them — to meet their doom.

“What you’re saying, that the fish will not be harmed in any way, it’s not true,” said another fisherman.

At a July 2019 public hearing in Itupiranga, Pará state, to review the dredging of 212 kilometers of the Tocantins River, a man waits, listening, because he and the other fisherfolk weren’t permitted to speak until four hours into the meeting. Behind him are the overflow seats. More than 450 people attended the public hearing. A small core would stay until 2 a.m. to speak, but even then, a three-minute time limit was set on their comments. Image by Tiffany Higgins.

Three rows back, a tall, lanky gentleman arose, the biologist who did the fish collection studies for DTA’s report. “You don’t understand,” he said, “This is science.”

I heard a hiss from behind him. It was Cristiane Cunha, a Federal University of Southern and Southeastern Pará State biologist who has done years of participatory fish collection studies with the Tauiry village fisherfolk to study their livelihood. She too, though a scientist, had to wait her turn to speak.

When she did, she lit into the DTA expert: “How dare you devalue their knowledge?” she asked.

Biologist Alberto Akama of the Emilio Goeldi Museum would tell me later that the fisherfolk are correct; the fish inhabiting these rocky rapids have evolved not to flee, as DTA claims: “They don’t know anything about fish. On the contrary, the fish will dig deeper into the cavities of the rock because that’s how they protect themselves. They’ve adapted to have the escape mechanism of going deeper into the rock. Then [the company] will dynamite the rocks, and all the fish will be killed.”

Later, when IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, releases its September 2019 report analyzing the thousands of pages of environmental impact studies submitted by DTA, the agency will state that what the company’s biology team has done isn’t science, nor is it based on current scientific methodology.

President of the Tauiry Village Extractivist Fisherfolk Association, Ronaldo Barros Macena holds a yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) before it gets released into the Tocantins River as part of a conservation program. The yellow-spotted turtle is IUCN listed as vulnerable. Image courtesy of the Tauiry Village Extractivist Fisherfolk Community.

Amazon turtles and endangered fish at risk

It turns out neither the government’s DNIT nor DTA have studied the ecological impacts of the industrial channel once it’s operational, including the construction of shipping ports and the daily impacts of industrial barge traffic.

In its report, IBAMA also questioned the environmental impact of DTA’s money-saving construction measures, including the dumping of 5.6 million cubic meters of sand on river beaches where Amazon turtles now lay tens of thousands of eggs, rather than trucking the sand elsewhere. The resident turtles are the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), little studied but listed as vulnerable by the IUCN since 1996, and the giant Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis expansa), which in 2011 the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group recommended be considered critically endangered. DTA didn’t propose alternate sites for the removed materials.

Since July 2017, fisherfolk villages, including Tauiry, have collaborated with researchers to rescue turtle eggs and raise the young, then re-release them. The Tucuruí dam, built upriver in 1984, formed a reservoir that flooded and eliminated beach nesting sites, making the natural beaches at the Lourencão Rocks crucial habitat. Should DTA be permitted to dump sand on the river margins, this important community turtle management program would likely be forced to end.

In February 2020, Tauiry residents released 5,300 baby river turtles (among them the vulnerable yellow-spotted river turtle, Podocnemis Unifilis), back into the Tocantins River. The conservation program is a collaboration between UNIFESSPA university researchers and Tauiry village residents, who rescue eggs from river beaches, raise them for thirty days, then re-release them. It’s a model conservation program that has helped rebound the chelonian population. Image courtesy of the Tauiry Village Extractivist Fisherfolk Community.

The 212 kilometers of industrial dredging would worsen and remove habitat for many animals. In particular, Cunha warned that the armored catfish of the Loricariidae species, which now feed on river bottom algae and detritus, would be harmed.

“They claim that they’ll just dredge once and it will be over,” Akama said of DTA Engenharia, “But that’s not how these rivers work.” Because they silt up over time, he explained, the company “will have to continually dredge.” Ripping up aquatic habitat would likely exterminate many of the fish in the river.

The company plans to deposit the dynamited material into the deepest part of the river, another problem, the biologist pointed out: “There are fish that live in that [deep water zone] habitat. When you throw the rocks in there, it’s making it shallower, which removes those fishes’ habitat.”

In November 2020, Akama and his team completed the first-ever survey of the fish of the Pedral do Lourenção and the nearby Marabá rapids. Diving down as much as 130 feet, they found the Baryancistrus longipinnis, which lives only in the Pedral and nowhere else in the world, and the Lamontichthys parakana, which inhabits only the Pedral and downstream of the Marabá rapids. The scientists collected and identified twelve threatened species in all, including four endangered species, Crenicichla jegui, Potamobatrachus trispinosus, Sartor tucuruiense, and Teleocichla cinderella. Seven additional threatened species are known to exist in the Lower Tocantins River.

Alberto Akama said of the project: “It will probably exterminate all of these fish.”

On the banks of the Tocantins River in Vila Belém, one of more than a hundred fishing villages (including indigenous and Afro-Brazilian quilombo territories) north of Marabá, Pará state, that may have their livelihoods greatly impacted by the proposed Tocantins River industrial shipping channel. Image by Tiffany Higgins.

Decreased costs for agribusiness and mining companies

The demolition and dredging is part of a larger Tocantins-Araguaia industrial waterway planned by DNIT. The Tocantins-Araguaia river basin is the second largest in Brazil, with around 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of “navigable potential,” according to DNIT. In the dry season, the government department notes, the rocks of the Pedral do Lourencão present a formidable “impediment” to barges.

Starting near Brasilia, the Araguaia River flows through the Cerrado biome, largely deforested for agribusiness, northeast into the Amazon biome, where it joins the Tocantins River right before Marabá. The joined rivers flow north through the Pedral do Lourencão, through the locks of the Tucuruí Dam, to the industrial port of Vila do Condé near Belém, around 155 kilometers (92 miles) upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. DNIT points out that this port is “advantageously located” to access foreign markets. In addition to soy and corn, the industrial waterway would ship oil, fuel, semi-tractor-trailer trucks, and mining products.

An Araguaian river dolphin leaps in the Tocantins River near the Lourencão Rocks in Pará state north of Marabá. Image courtesy of Ernanes Coimbro.

Araguaian river dolphins in danger

In 2014, researchers published a DNA analysis proving that the Araguaia river dolphin (Inia araguaiaensis), present throughout the Araguaia-Tocantins basin, was genetically distinct from its Amazon River cousin (even though the Marine Mammalogy Society still officially classes it with the endangered (Inia geoffrensis).

That same year, Mariana Paschoalini Frias, a researcher for the Instituto Aqualie, helped the Fundación Omacha and Mamirauá Institute conduct a population survey of the 500-kilometer section of industrial waterway planned between Marabá and Belém. Just 1,083 Araguaian dolphins remain there, they found in their study published in April 2020.

It’s a “number [that] is considered low compared with other rivers in the Amazon,” says Frias, with the low population likely due to seven large hydroelectric dams in the basin.

If the Araguaian dolphins were recognized as a distinct species, “They would be classified as critically endangered,” Frias told Mongabay.

The industrial channel, as planned, could push those dolphin numbers even lower. “This intervention will cause an enormous alteration to the sediments” in the river, Frias said. It “will cause a lot of noise and intense concentration and movement of ships. The diversity and abundance of fish will be directly affected. As a result, the dolphins will lose natural habitat and availability of food resources.”

A map from Volume I of the Environmental Impact Study for the Demolition and Dredging for an Industrial Waterway on the Tocantins River (from Marabá to Baião), shows plans by DNIT (Brazil’s National Department of Infrastructure and Transportation) to conduct another Demolition and Dredging project further south on the Tocantins River between Palmas and Estreito. However, in a January 2020 email, DNIT denied having other projects planned. The map also shows major hydroelectric dams planned above Palmas (UHE Tupiratins) and above Marabá (UHE Marabá), which could further interfere with fish and dolphin populations. In the same email, DNIT wrote that the two projects were too far away to affect one another and that it wasn’t necessary to study synergetic effects on fish of the demolition and dredging from Marabá to Baião and of a Marabá dam. Image courtesy of DNIT.

Multiple errors and omissions

In its September 2019 report, IBAMA concluded that DTA’s animal collections, supposed to gauge potential impacts, were error-ridden, superficial, and utilized incomplete methods that neither reflected current scientific collection practices nor were accurate regarding fish inhabiting the Tocantins River basin.

More than a dozen species were misidentified, said IBAMA. The engineering company frequently labelled an endangered fish with the name of a non-endangered fish. Fourteen endangered species known to live in the area were not mentioned at all in DTA’s collection studies.

The 45-kilometer Lourencão Rocks — with its midriver stony labyrinths — constitute a specialized “pedral” ecosystem, in which numerous species, including fish, swallows, and lizards, birth their young. IBAMA’s report points out that the scientific literature on similar pedral river sites shows them to be richly biodiverse. However, IBAMA and Cunha noted that the Lourencão Rocks were given no dedicated collection of samples or study, a flawed omission by the company hired to demolish those rocks.

IBAMA also found that DTA’s environmental impact studies did not use currently accepted scientific methods for fish collection, resulting in species numbers much lower than expected. DTA’s lack of scientific rigor also led to a failure in reporting endangered fish that are already known to exist in the river. Instead, DTA identified dozens of fish species that don’t even exist in the river basin.

As for Amazonian river turtles, which biologists say will suffer the largest impacts from a 500-kilometer shipping channel, DTA studied only the small area abutting the future construction headquarters, failing to research turtle habitat in the 212-kilometers where dynamiting and dredging would occur. Turtles would, said Cunha, not only be impacted by the noise from dynamiting and shipping, but would be harmed by oil leaks from barges.

IBAMA ordered DTA to redo the fish collections and to conduct a new dedicated study of Lourencão Rocks fish. As for the fisherfolks’ demand that they be consulted about the proposed project, as required by the International Labour Organization’s Convention C169 (of which Brazil is a signatory), and also that an anthropological study be done, IBAMA demurred, only asking that DTA conduct studies on traditional fishing practices.

“It was a victory, because we delayed the project,” concludes Ronaldo Barros Macena, president of the Tauiry association.

A fisherman at dawn on the Tocantins River near the Lourencão Rocks. Should Brazil’s plan go forward, mid-river vegetation and boulders will be dynamited and dug up for the industrial waterway, eliminating habitat and food sources for birds, bats, lizards, endemic fish, turtles, and dolphins — and disrupting traditional communities. Image by Tiffany Higgins.

Reverberations of a destructive history

The fisherfolk nearest the Lourencão Rocks argue that they have been overlooked in the environmental impact studies as traditional communities whose sustenance, subsistence-based economy, and uniquely sustainable culture depends on these 45 kilometers of midriver rocks. They worry that, no matter what DTA researchers say in the revised impact assessment, the government will still demolish their homeland, their livelihood, and the rocky fish nursery with which their life stories are entwined.

Past Amazon infrastructure projects underline their peril. Cristiano Silva de Bento, a doctoral researcher in Anthropology and Sociology at UFPA, the Federal University of Pará, said, “This risks becoming another Belo Monte,” referring to the mega-dam 385 kilometers to the northwest, “with a collapse of fish populations and devastating impacts on fisher people.” A unique, self-sustaining culture may be lost, and along with it, the knowledge of how to live sustainably in this part of the Amazon basin.

The local community associations have demanded safeguards in the face of the potential collapse of their fishery, such as funds to develop aquaculture projects and to train young people to develop ecotourism projects.

But the fisherfolk remember with despair another infrastructure project, one that ignored their forebears. In 1984, during Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Tucuruí dam forced removals of traditional people and most residents were not indemnified. Larger fish, turtles, and Brazil nut trees were lost, along with traditional livelihoods. Fisherfolk told me that substantial payments that the project operator, Eletronorte, pays in reparation for Tucuruí go to local municipal governments and aren’t distributed to the villages that still go without trash collection, sanitation, sewage treatment, bus service, paved roads, health clinics, or proper wells.

Children play near the shore of Volta Redonda village, north of Marabá, in Pará state. Image by Tiffany Higgins.

The question of consultation

Not everyone agrees the traditional fisherfolk have a legal right to consultation. Regis Fontana Pinto, IBAMA’s director of environmental licensing of river construction projects, explained that though quilombos (communities of slave descendants) and indigenous people who will be impacted by the industrial waterway must be consulted as part of the environmental review process, there is no such protocol for traditional fisherfolk (ribeirinhos).

However, in September 2019, Pará State’s Public Defender office in Marabá sent IBAMA, DNIT, and DTA a letter urging them to follow ILO 169 and conduct formal consultation of the fishermen, noting that the convention explicitly states that traditional fisherfolk shouldn’t be treated differently than other peoples. Siqueira also cites Brazil’s Law #9,985/ 2000, which states that such traditional peoples are important because they contribute to the conservation of the ecosystems where they reside.

Despite the Public Defender’s urging, Ronaldo Barros Macena, president of the Tauiry community association, says of the government: “They never consulted with us. They passed over us like a steamroller.”

Still, fisherfolk resistance remains strong. Teenagers I met — Ruan, Gleiciane and her sisters — sent me a video they made of themselves atop a section of the Lourencão Rocks. They sing and clap, joyfully and defiantly: “They want to destroy our Pedral! But our communities are traditional! We have our rights… to be protagonists in our own history.”

Vila Belém leader Rafael Cabral talks with Volta Redonda village residents, ahead of the public hearings in the first week of July 2019. Image by Tiffiany Higgins.

DTA criticized for lack of technical expertise

In 2016, DNIT hired DTA Engenharia to develop the shipping channel without any environmental review — which, according to Brent Millikan of NGO International Rivers, isn’t required for industrial waterway channels, despite their length and potential to affect hundreds of human, plant and animal communities. DTA won the contract because it came in lowest among the five bidders, even below DNIT’s cost projections.

Constran, the company that came in second place in the bidding process, along with Brazil’s leading financial newspaper Valor Econômico have questioned DTA’s ability to pull off a project of this size and complexity. Constran recorded that DTA parent company O’Martin had gotten itself into $R4.2 million debt by 2014. Valor Econômico posed questions about DTA’s fitness, contending it lacked the technical expertise to do demolition and excavation of the midriver rock environment, as well as the financial resources to perform the work. DTA, contacted for this story, said it is contractually prohibited from giving interviews, so all information presented here has come from DNIT.

In a January 2020 email, DNIT said it wouldn’t discontinue use of DTA in this or future projects as each bidding process is separate. IBAMA’s Regis Fontana Pinto said not approving the project is highly unlikely given DNIT’s prioritization of it as “necessary.”

Now, the fisherfolk of the Lourencão Rocks await the new studies, and hope to be protagonists in their own history.

Banner image: A mother and calf Araguaian river dolphin swim near Mocajuba on the Araguaia River. Image courtesy of Gabriel Melo dos Santos.

Video credit: Leandro Sousa.

Update: When this story was published on 2 July, the DTA Engineering (DTA Engenharia) company link presented in this article was active. However, since then, clicking on the link results in an error message. Mongabay has reached out to the company regarding access to its website, but had received no response as of 13 July.

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