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Belo Monte dam’s water demands imperil Amazon communities, environment

  • Norte Energia, the builder and operator of the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam is pushing for implementation of a much disputed “consensus hydrogram” — a plan to annually manipulate water releases into the Xingu River’s Volta Grande (Big Bend), with estimated peak April releases ranging from a mere 4,000 – 8,000 m3/s.
  • Noting that April average historical river flows in the Volta Grande before the dam was built were 19,985 m3/s, analysts say this dearth of water flow will prevent and imperil annual fish reproduction. One Volta Grande expert estimates that, using the so-called consensus hydrogram plan, at least 80% of Volta Grande fish will die.
  • Documents from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, which first came to light publicly on December 3, acknowledge “grave and irreparable impacts” from the Belo Monte dam, and signal an urgent need to revise Norte Energia’s planned consensus hydrogram.
  • Two recent studies say fish are decreasing dramatically in diets within Belo Monte’s influence area, causing food insecurity. Norte Energia claims fish quantities sold locally remain the same, but their data may mask significantly increased fishing effort, and the need to fish more widely, beyond previous fishing areas.
Lorena Curuaia tries to rescue fish trapped in the mud at the confluence of Ambê Creek and the Xingu River on the Belo Monte dam reservoir. Lorena, a leader of the Curuaia Indigenous people of Iawá village on the Volta Grande of the Xingu, who’s studying medicine in Altamira, can’t reach her village by boat as she once did because river flows controlled by Norte Energia have been too low. Image courtesy of Lilo Clareto.

ALTAMIRA, PARÁ STATE— Fish gasp, gills working furiously, as they lie stranded in mere inches of muddy water, trapped in the isolated pools of Xingu River tributaries within the influence area of the Belo Monte dam and its reservoirs.

That was the scene at the end of October and start of November 2020, as the Trindade, Ambê, and Altamira creeks all dwindled to a trickle, preventing fisherfolk from getting their boats to the Xingu River to fish, even as uncounted thousands of fish died.

Lorena Curuaia, of the Curuaia Indigenous people, went to Ambê Creek with friends to try to rescue fish — scooping up the stranded and moving them to the Xingu. “But where was Norte Energia?” she asked, referring to the absence of the dam’s owner and operator. Teams from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, appeared in some stream stretches to save fish. “But it wasn’t sufficient. There are 130 kilometers [81 miles of impacted river]. How many fish died?”

Both Lorena and Bel Juruna, of the Juruna (Yudjá) Indigenous people, told Mongabay that Norte Energia did no ecological monitoring in 2020 as its operating license requires, coronavirus precautions notwithstanding. Norte Energia did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

On November 2, 2020, as flows in the Belo Monte dam reservoir dipped to historic lows and fish were stranded, Lorena Curuaia went with friends to rescue stranded fish and return them to the Xingu River. She holds a dead acará fish. Image courtesy of Lorena Curuaia.

Low water a chronic Belo Monte problem

Authorities have documented major fish kills on the Xingu River near the mega-dam since 2016, with residents there linking repeated episodes of fish death to Norte Energia’s meager year-round low water releases — creating conditions experts say have hindered fish reproduction, reduced fish and turtle populations, and negatively impacted the once vibrant commercial and subsistence fishery in the river’s Volta Grande (Big Bend).

“Norte Energia controls not just water but people. We’re the most impacted. There’s no more [fish] reproduction. We’re fighting for that to occur in 2021,” Lorena Curuaia told Mongabay via phone on December 6.

Riverine people have reacted to Norte Energia’s actions with anger and protest: From November 9-12, Lorena and 150 residents — Juruna, Curuaia and Xipaya Indigenous peoples and traditional non-Indigenous fisherfolk — blocked the nationally vital Transamazonian highway near Altamira.

Their demands to IBAMA include a Xingu Basin Committee of independent scientists and residents to review and make dam water release decisions, and “the definitive determination of a ‘hydrogram’ to guarantee the survival of the river, fauna, flora, and riverside residents.” Riverine residents have urged IBAMA to suspend the dam’s operation license due to its “violation of human and environmental rights.”

The Xingu River hasn’t flowed freely here since 2015; instead the stream has been dependent on Norte Energia’s artificial hydrological regime. The term “consensus hydrogram” (hidrograma de consenso) refers to Norte Energia’s controversial proposed plan to drastically reduce the rate of Xingu River flow (expressed in cubic meters per second; m3/s).

That artificial hydrogram was crafted by the National Water Agency; then Norte Energia adopted it, despite IBAMA’s technical team recommending against implementation in 2009, assessing the so-called consensus hydrogram as incompatible with maintaining the ecosystem.

Federal University of Pará professor Juarez Pezzuti recalls, “The hydrogram that the company calls the ‘consensus hydrogram’ never involved any consent. [The company] called it that because it sounds good. But there never was consent from anyone — not the Federal Prosecutor, not the academic community following Belo Monte, and especially not from the fisher[folk] populations.”

The sign reads: “WATER FOR THE VOLTA GRANDE!!! #PIRACEMA2021.” Piracema refers to the annual fish migration into seasonally flooded riverside forests along the Xingu River’s Volta Grande (Big Bend). In mid-November 150 residents — Juruna, Curuaia and Xipaya Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous fisherfolk — blocked the Transamazonian highway near Altamira to demand Norte Energia release sufficient water for fish to reproduce in March-May 2021. Image courtesy of Xingu Vivo Para Sempre.


Last month, protestors blocked the Transamazonian highway and paraded banners reading: “FOR TWO YEARS, FISH HAVEN’T DONE THE PIRACEMA,” a word referring to the annual period during which fish migrate — a time when the seasonally swelling Xingu River flows out into the alluvial forest, rich with guava, fig, and other just-ripening fruits, supplying essential calories that help fish with spawning and the raising of fry sheltered amid the inundated forest.

Hashtagging #Piracema2021, the protestors demanded Norte Energia release flows of at least 16,000 m3/s from November-April of every year to ensure fish and turtle survival. In a November 2019 scientific paper, lead author Jansen Zuanon of Brazil’s National Institute for Amazon Research and his team determined that at least 15,000 m3/s from March-May is required to maintain the river fishery and turtle stock. But Norte Energia wants to release far less water, as little as 4,000 to 8,000 m3/s.

Local protestors block the Transamazonian highway near Altamira. The demonstrators reject Norte Energia’s so-called “consensus hydrogram” and demand a new hydrological regime for the Xingu River’s 130-kilometer Volta Grande that will guarantee life for “fauna, flora and riverside residents.” Image courtesy of Xingu Vivo Para Sempre.

In October, Bel Juruna sent Mongabay an audio, asking, “How can you live in the low-water season with the river diverted?” The Belo Monte mega-dam diverts water that otherwise would be bound for the 130-kilometer (81 mile) Volta Grande (Big Bend) of the Xingu River, along which she lives. As a result, November 6 flows released by Norte Energia to the Volta Grande slowed to 643 m3/s, remaining below the mandated 700 m3/s from Nov. 4-9, according to the National Water Agency.

“We are suffering many negative consequences. In the form that [Norte Energia’s hydrogram] is being proposed, the conditions don’t exist to have life on the Volta Grande. It’s a violation of [our] rights. It’s an extermination of the Volta Grande by Norte Energia,” said Bel Juruna.

The Juruna Indigenous group is demanding consultation on the dam’s water regime within the Volta Grande’s two Indigenous territories, and for neighboring river communities — as required, they say, by the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, an international agreement to which Brazil is a signatory.

“It’s our water. We must be consulted,” explains Bel Juruna, who adds that Indigenous people were never given prior consultation regarding the dam’s construction, as was also required by ILO 169.

Dead fish in October 2020 on Trindade Creek, a tributary of the Xingu River, where they were stranded by low flows in the Belo Monte dam reservoir. Bel Juruna declared, “We need the Xingu River. But the Xingu River also needs us.” Image courtesy of Raimunda Gomes da Silva.

Belo Monte already threatens fish population collapse

Meanwhile, Norte Energia has sued IBAMA in order to be allowed to draw down Xingu flows even further than current levels, and implement the consensus hydrogram, diverting 80% of the river to feed Belo Monte’s turbines, to meet customers’ contracted energy needs, and make a profit for the company.

The dam operator has argued that not doing so would make Norte Energia lose money and “scare investors.” Stockholders, including majority stockholder Eletrobras, have responded anxiously to uncertainty on dam flows. Norte Energia has alleged financial losses, sending a letter to the National Electric Energy Agency on December 2, blaming “revenue frustration” totaling R $168 million (USD $33.5 million) on a missing transmission line, writing that the problems “could even make Belo Monte’s economic-financial equilibrium inviable.”

Norte Energia’s suit claims the right to test the hydrogram for six years, stating that the Volta Grande’s fish populations are stable.

However, IBAMA has submitted technical reports to the court showing the dam to have had severe impacts, even before and without the consensus hydrogram’s enactment. On November 25, Norte Energia’s lawsuit was dismissed for the second time. A federal judge reminded the company that IBAMA, upon granting an operating license, stipulated its right to modify conditions should unexpected environmental or social impacts occur.

They’ve occurred: IBAMA’s October report describes “a quantitative reduction in fish samples in 2018; a significant alteration in the abundance, richness, composition, body size, reproductive activities, trophic structure… of ictiofauna species in the area of influence of UHE Belo Monte in 2018 [and, significantly, beyond]; diminution in size and weight of pacu,” a fish that used to be riverine residents’ primary protein source.

The court found that “The mitigation procedures [carried out by Norte Energia] for fishing aren’t reducing impacts as required, much less compensating for them.”

Internal documents from IBAMA, surfacing December 3, recorded “grave and irreversible impacts” on the Xingu ecosystem, with worse underway. IBAMA’s directorship signaled that Norte Energia would need to revise the consensus hydrogram, though details weren’t given.

Chart by Tiffany Higgins; data from IBAMA and Norte Energia.

IBAMA’s document states: “The survival and maintenance of the whole ecosystem of the Volta Grande and all the lifeways of communities can’t be the object of tests when there is clear and overwhelming evidence and indications of grave and irreversible impacts that already happened and are underway.”

At Least 80% of fish could perish

Researcher Zuanon has been studying the Volta Grande since 1996, long before the dam was built. Writing to Mongabay, he notes that Norte Energia’s proposed hydrogram would be ecologically catastrophic: “[W]ater volume reflects the quantity of habitats available for the fishes, [so] the planned [hydrogram] reduction in around 80% of the quantity of water in the Volta Grande during the low water period must cause a proportional reduction in fish populations, an 80% population reduction.”

It’s not even certain that the 20% remaining water volume could guarantee 20% of aquatic habitat survival, he says: For example, without now present vegetation that offers shelter for fish, the Volta Grande may see “population losses much larger than those predicted by the reduction in water volume.” Likewise, the riverside forest, no longer flooded seasonally, would experience its “functional death,” explains Zuanon.

In December 2019, when Norte Energia’s consensus hydrogram was first supposed to go into effect, IBAMA suspended it. Noting a lack of scientific evidence to support the company’s claim that an 80% flow reduction could maintain animal populations, IBAMA ordered Norte Energia to do more studies. IBAMA allowed Hydrogram B (8,000 m3/s in March 2020), then specified a provisional hydrogram, whose peak is 13,400 m3/s in April, until further studies are submitted.

Zuanon says that Norte Energia’s consensus hydrogram “means the passage of a water volume on the Volta Grande that is much smaller than that normally observed in that area.… Hydrogram A is especially dramatic, as the quantity of water planned to pass through that stretch [of river] could then be much smaller than the smallest historic low-water levels.” The hydrogram’s highest yearly level is 4,000 m3/s during April’s reproductive period, i.e., a cut to 1/5 of the historical average flows of 19,985 m3/s. In December 2019, IBAMA declared Hydrogram A to be inviable.

What’s required for fish and turtle survival is adequate flow levels and continuous inundation times, which are both essential for reproduction, says Pezzuti. Historical flows maintained an average minimum 15,500 m3/s from March through May. But Norte Energia’s highest Hydrogram B provides for a peak of just 8,000 m3/s in April, dipping to March’s 4,000 m3/s, and May’s 5,200 m3/s. Under that flow regime, turtles and fish couldn’t enter the forests to spawn or feed, as they wouldn’t be flooded, allowing fruits to fall onto dry soil as occurred in 2016, a particularly dry El Niño year.

Bel Juruna says that what riverine peoples are currently experiencing due to the dam “is already a very drastic change in our environment, in our ecosystem here. And with this proposed hydrogram, this will be a complete extermination of the Volta Grande.”

“Who will speak for the river? Who will speak for the fish, if not us?”

Bel Juruna and her brother, Giliarde Juruna, during a March 2016 meeting with UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Bel says that the consensus hydrogram — the low water hydrological regime proposed by Belo Monte dam operator Norte Energia — is a human rights violation. Image courtesy of Todd Southgate.

2016: Nature’s test case for the consensus hydrogram

Starting in 2014, before the dam became operational, the nonprofit Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) collaborated on an independent fishing monitoring project with the Juruna in Mïratu village within the Paquiçamba Indigenous Territory. As part of the study, Bel and other villagers weighed all animal protein consumed in meals, hours spent fishing, fishing implements used, and fish species caught.

The results: In 2014, 53% of the Juruna diet came from fish, with 26% from purchased commercial meat products. By 2017, after the dam began operating, these percentages nearly reversed, with just 32% of the Indigenous diet coming from fish and 60% being purchased meat. Bel Juruna, a nurse, reports diet shifts led to more illnesses and medication use.

Juarez Pezzuti, lead author of “Xingu, The River That Pulses in Us,” a report summarizing Juruna fish monitoring, recalls how a strong El Niño affected 2016 river flows, lowering “them from an average of 20,000 m3/s in April over the last 89 years, to just 10,000 m3/s,” but still above proposed hydrogram levels. Unable to enter the flooded forest to eat fruits, fish became sickly and small, and in some cases inedible. Fish like curimatã were discovered with “eggs reabsorbed into their bodies.”

A turtle specialist, Pezzuti notes that the Juruna in 2016 saw “many dead tracajás, very sick, thin.” Tracajás, or yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are listed as vulnerable. “Tracajás mostly didn’t spawn because they didn’t have enough energy” due to lack of food access.

“It was like a message from nature about how Belo Monte would be in the future,” a devastating simulation of the “consensus hydrogram” flows, which would be far lower than in 2016. It was “a tragedy, and with 8,000 m3/s, it would be even more of a tragedy. Deforestation in the Xingu headwaters in the Cerrado [savanna biome] is already negatively affecting water levels. This weak flow couldn’t flood the floodplains at 10,000 m3/s [in 2016]. It caused a huge dystopia in aquatic fauna and in people who live from these animals as their diet and income source,” concluded Pezzuti.

The dam’s effects on fish went beyond 2016. Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte professor Priscila Lopes analyzed data on around 22,000 meals eaten by fisherfolk living along the shores of Belo Monte’s reservoirs from 2012 to 2019 and found food insecurity there as well. The numbers reflect a dramatic drop in fish consumed. Whereas in 2012, before the dam, the ribeirinhos (riverine people) ate a diet consisting of 62% fish, by 2019 fish represented only 34% of their diet. Consumption of river-caught pacu and tucanaré fell, while amounts of pescada, predominant in dam reservoirs, grew.

The average number of people eating at each meal also fell from 4.8 in 2012 to 4.2 in 2019. “We’re not exactly sure why,” Lopes said. “But the literature on food scarcity suggests an advanced stage response [to food shortages] is sending away less productive [family] members, such as children or non-working adults.”

Seen here in October, 2020, low flows on Altamira Creek in the reservoir of Belo Monte dam have fallen to a trickle, preventing fisherfolk from launching and using their boats to fish on the Xingu River, exacerbating food insecurity. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Salm.

Norte Energia’s flawed studies on Volta Grande fishing

Norte Energia’s consultants have studied fish sales, not fishing, achieving results that some independent scientists consider flawed. A March 2020 report by Norte Energia consultants Victoria Isaac and Tommaso Giarrizzo maintained that fish landings have remained steady.

Pezzuti disputes the study methods, “based on fish landings, where fishers take fish to sell at certain ports. Usually a study works with fish yields by studying the catch per unit of effort (CPUE). Norte Energia’s consultants adopt, as the CPUE indicator, kilograms of fish divided by days each fisher spent fishing, rather than dividing by hours spent fishing.”

The problem, says Pezzuti, is that “the method masks fishers’ real effort. They discount whether the fishing lasted 12 or 14 hours. They don’t know how many hours it took, they don’t refer to the fishing method. So if a fisher uses one little rod or if they used twenty nets to get a kilogram of fish, if they spent one hour fishing, or the whole day, it’s the same in their eyes.

“The methodology limits the capacity of Norte Energia’s monitoring to detect any drops in fish yields,” notes Pezzuti. “Fisherfolk could be using more and more nets to get the same amount of fish. But the [consultants’] data aren’t going to show that.” When contacted for comment, Isaac did not reply. Giarrizzo replied that only Norte Energia can speak for him.

As fisherfolk, formerly accustomed to using fishing rods, find fish disappearing, they now must travel further afield, using boats and nets in a desperate search for food, spreading environmental impacts over a wider geographical area. Professor Lopes elaborates: “Norte Energia gives [fisherfolk] fuel, motorboats and hundreds of fishing nets for them to fish farther from where they [previously worked]. This doesn’t solve the problem, but will only make the ecosystem impacts worse over the longer term.”

No ports in Indigenous territories were included in the company’s study, notes Pezzuti, and “there’s no precision on areas being exploited for fishing.” However, dissertations by consultants’ students, using consultants’ data, show fisherfolk “are selling lower value fishes now.”

Pezzuti questions the company consultants only studying fish sold, since fisherfolk struggling to find enough fish for personal consumption might never sell fish at ports.

Exposed rocks on November 7, 2020 illustrate the historically low flows and low water levels on the Volta Grande of the Xingu River. On this day, flows released by Norte Energia to the Volta Grande slowed to 650.1 m3/s and remained below the mandated 700 m3/s from Nov. 4-9, according to authorities. Image courtesy of Lafayette Nunes.

Decline of unique, rapids-adapted, biodiverse fish

The lower Xingu Basin boasts 367 fish species, Fernando Dagosta of the Federal University of Grande Dourados confirmed via email. This extraordinary biodiversity, along with crystalline warm river waters, made fish observation on the Volta Grande an enchanting experience, comparable only to coral reefs, says Zuanon.

But that’s changed. Rapids-adapted fish are those most impacted by extended habitat over-flooding, or under-flooding. Zuanon sent Mongabay a list of fifteen endangered fish species on the Volta Grande, including five critically endangered species — Hypancistrus zebra, Paratrygon aiereba, Pituna xinguensis, Plesiolebias altamira, and Simpsonichthys reticulatus; along with the endangered Rhynchodoras xingui and Teleocichla centisquama.

“The most threatened species are those that depend on rapids and submerged rock environments to survive,” Zuanon explains. Fish endemic to the Volta Grande include critically endangered imperial zebra acari (Hypancistrus zebra; cute and vulnerable to aquarium trade smuggling), brown zebra acari (Hypancistrus sp. L 174), white-spotted three-horned pleco (Hypancistrus sp. L 17) and three vulnerable electric knife fishes, Sternarchogiton zuanoni, Sternarchorhynchus kokraimoro, and Sternarchorhynchus villasboasi, only recorded in the Volta Grande’s rapids and waterfalls.

Should Norte Energia implement its consensus hydrogram, “The local and regional [environmental] effects within the whole Xingu basin will be dramatic, because they rupture the structure of ecological relationships of organisms that depend on this interface between terrestrial and aquatic environments,” says Zuanon. “We stand to lose a stunning area of continuous rapids, riverine rocky environments, and vegetation present in the Volta Grande that has no equal in any other place on the planet.”

“The plants don’t have a way to speak, the fish don’t have a way to speak. The water doesn’t have a way to speak,” Bel Juruna said.

“But we can speak for them.”

Banner image: Lorena Curuaia, leader of the Curuaia people, stands at the confluence of Ambê Creek and the Xingu River in November when flows dropped to historic lows and uncounted thousands of fish died. Image courtesy of Lilo Clareto.

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