- The Sinop hydroelectric plant on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon has been operating for more than a year, but residents affected by the project are still holding out for fair compensation for the environmental and social impacts.
- Independent appraisals indicate that operator Companhia Energética Sinop (CES) paid residents a sixth of the fair value of their land, with no room for negotiation.
- Low water levels in the river have resulted in mass fish die-offs and the flourishing of disease-bearing mosquitoes, posing health risks to the community.
- CES, majority-owned by French utility EDF, is being held up as an example of the type of overseas investment that should be monitored more closely by European regulators.
It’s been more than a year since the Sinop hydroelectric dam started operations in the northern part of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. But residents say the business consortium responsible for building the dam has still not met many of its social and environmental obligations. They’re fighting to make Companhia Energética Sinop (CES), majority-owned by French public-listed utility Electricité de France (EDF), pay fair compensation for the loss of their land and the protection of the natural resources in the region.
“Until the present time, the development company has not begun restoration of the permanent preserved areas around the plant’s reservoir,” says the group Movement of those Affected by Dams, or MAB. The area has been affected by a drought that has caused the level of the water in the reservoir to drop, compounded by a landslide on one of the riverbanks because of changes to the water table, and fires that razed most of the forest that had remained standing on the banks of the Teles Pires River.
The environmental damage to one of the main rivers in the Amazon Basin has had dramatic consequences for the rural, riverbank and Indigenous populations that depend on the Teles Pires River, which today is choked off by three other hydroelectric plants.
Dead fish and disease
“Before the dam, fishing was much better. Today, we don’t catch enough fish, even for us to eat,” says Irma Vicente Rodrigues, a resident of Gleba Mercedes, one of the communities affected by the dam’s construction. In exchange for a number of promises, many people were moved from their homes, lost their farms, and saw their water sources dry up.
“I have my cattle today, but I’m having a really hard time,” says José Moreira, who has lived in Gleba Mercedes for 23 years. He says he had a piece of land with a spring on it that produced plenty of water, but today he doesn’t know where to take his animals to drink. As he points to the dead plants at the edge of the reservoir, Moreira questions the idea that the landscape of this dry lake, where dead trees and fish abound, could be the product of “clean energy,” as the consortium had advertised. “Sinop could be making money for a half-dozen people, but for us, the little people, for us, no.”
The quality of the water in the reservoir has also become a public health problem. There have been four mass fish die-offs in the Teles Pires between February 2019 and August 2020. Dropping water levels in the reservoir have also allowed mosquitoes to flourish, some of them carrying malaria and leishmaniosis, only 500 meters (1,640 feet) from where families live.
The results of tests carried out by health experts point to the risk of outbreaks of these diseases. More than 20 people in Gleba Mercedes may already be infected with leishmaniosis, says João de Deus, a biologist who has worked at the Ministry of Health in the region for 40 years. He says the diagnosis is still imprecise and some people are not being treated for the disease because of difficulty in getting to the nearest city, which only multiplies the chain of transmission. “Our greatest challenge now is to implant a leishmaniosis and malaria treatment program as well as an environmental health prevention program to keep infectious breakouts from spreading.”
“Sinop Energia promised us heaven and earth, but none of the things they promised us were given,” says Mauro Freese, a Gleba Mercedes resident whose family was affected by the construction of the dam. “It was a negotiation in which we had no choice. They had an authoritarian system, the proposal was theirs, and no one could make a counterproposal. They gave us about five days to think and if we didn’t accept, we would lose out.”
As a result, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) filed a civil action suit (ACP) against CES in June 2018 to demand new a appraisal of the land and report the many irregularities in the definition of indemnities. The consortium had unilaterally calculated the amount to be paid each family, without an open appraisal of the land and under coercion.
“They said that if we didn’t accept [the amount they were offering] we would have to go to court and receive only 30%, without knowing if we would receive the rest,” says dairy farmer Carlos Becker, who has lived in the village for 17 years. “This for us was really unpleasant and today we keep hoping that we’ll get a fair price.”
Three appraisals were subsequently carried out to put a value on the properties affected by the project. The first was done by the National Institute of Rural Settlement and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) in August 2017, the second by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in 2018, and the third was a judicial appraisal resulting from the public action suit. That last appraisal was completed in 2019 and put the value of the land at an average 23,724 reais ($4,720) per hectare, instead of the average 3,900 reais ($776) per hectare that CES had paid the families.
The dispute could have ended at the conciliation hearing scheduled for December 2019, but the consortium refused to participate. On Aug. 10 this year, it filed a motion for an embargo against the experts responsible for the last appraisal, alleging bias.
In response, the families published an open letter together with MAB on Aug. 25, calling for “an urgent and fair decision or [to] correct and repair the damages caused.” In the letter, they said that “we understand that the professional appraiser followed all the technical norms in arriving at the said value, even though the market value of land in the region is higher than the appraisal value, keeping in mind that the price of land appraised is the price from two years ago. In other words, if any correction of values is made, it should be higher than the appraisal value, not lower.”
‘Shutdown of dialogue’
Given the difficulty in negotiating with CES, the Gleba Mercedes community mobilized itself at the beginning of 2018, taking its protests to the streets of the city of Sinop, at the state and federal prosecutors’ offices and outside the company’s offices. However CES responded with a restraining order in August 2018 against six leaders of the community and MAB, prohibiting them from protesting in front of the company offices or accessing areas of the plant.
“The treatment these families received from the consortium was a complete shutdown of dialogue,” says Jefferson Nascimento, who represented MAB in the online event “Defending Tomorrow: How to guarantee that European companies respect the planet and those who defend it.” The event was organized this past October by the NGO Global Witness together with representatives of the European Parliament, to support the preliminary project of Lara Wolters, a European member of parliament looking to regulate investments by European companies in other continents.
“There was a complete breach of what the company promised the communities, even the public agreements with the state and the secretariat of the environment,” Nascimento says. “That was what led the families to really organize themselves and carry out the protests.”
Still, the families have not given up, and, together with many other organizations, they held a new event on Nov. 22 in Sinop, called “The Amazon in debate — Teles Pires, the most impacted river in Amazonia.” It was meant to give affected people the opportunity to describe the difficulties they have undergone to hold the developers responsible for their actions. The event also featured artists like the graffiti artist Jessé de Souza, creating new ways to protest through art.
Companhia Energética Sinop did not respond to requests for reply sent by Mongabay by the time this article was originally published in Portuguese.
Banner image of the Sinop hydroelectric plant, courtesy of Sinop Energia.