Conservation news

Amazon’s Belo Monte dam cuts Xingu River flow 85%; a crime, Indigenous say

  • In February, IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency permitted Belo Monte mega-dam operator Norte Energia to drastically reduce flows to the Volta Grande (Big Bend) of the Xingu River for at least a year. That decision reversed an earlier ruling to maintain much higher Xingu River flows and the fishery — as legally required.
  • The flow reduction will leave 70% of usually-flooded forest dry this season, causing massive fish mortality and diminished reproduction, experts say. Community group Xingu Vivo Para Sempre denounced the decision as “a death sentence for the Xingu” and demanded IBAMA’s and Norte Energia’s presidents be “criminally prosecuted.”
  • Norte Energia has funded projects to mitigate the reduced flow, collecting and dropping fruit into the river for fish to feed on, and releasing captive-bred fish. But scientists say these approaches are unscientific and will likely be ineffective, and can’t make up for the loss of the river’s seasonal flood pulse, upon which fish depend.
  • Residents say the government has spread misinformation, telling Brazilian consumers that their electricity bills would go up if Belo Monte released more water to maintain the Xingu’s ecosystem — something Norte Energia is obligated to do. At present, water levels on the Volta Grande have not been restored.

Bel Juruna, of the Juruna (Yudjá) Indigenous people, points her camera at the Xingu River, beside which she lives in Mïratu village in the Paciçamba Indigenous Territory on the 130-kilometer (81-mile) Volta Grande (Big Bend), in Pará state, Brazil.

The video shows a shoulder-high, light-colored waterline streaking a dark exposed boulder. Just days before, that boulder was mostly submerged and the river ran at a much higher level, but its flow has been drastically, suddenly, intentionally, and possibly illegally, reduced — threatening the Xingu’s fishery and the people who depend on it for food and livelihoods.

On February 8, Belo Monte mega-dam operator Norte Energia received permission from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, to immediately reduce river flows to less than 13% of normal — shifting the water to the dam’s electricity-producing turbines. This dramatic flow reduction was completely unanticipated by riverine Indigenous and traditional peoples, Bel’s video shows the effects: canoes with outboard motors stranded on dry rocks, aquatic vegetation exposed to the air.

“These plants are usually on the bottom [of the river]; they are water plants. And because the water won’t come [here] any more, they’re all going to die,” Bel says.

Norte Energia’s action comes during the piracema, a time of year when fish should be traveling on seasonally rising waters, deep into the flooded forest to feed and spawn. The government’s water reduction decision effectively closes the door on this reproductive window — an opportunity that comes but once a year.

“The Volta Grande will turn into a cemetery. A cemetery of fish, a cemetery of dead trees,” Bel says.

On February 13, 2021, drone footage over the Xingu River’s Volta Grande shows exposed beaches and land spits. In February’s flood season these areas would normally be inundated, offering fish and turtles access to food and spawning areas in the flooded forest. Image courtesy of Rafael (last name withheld).

Norte Energia’s Hydrogram B permitted

In the second week of February, Norte Energia diverted more than 85% of the Xingu’s normal flow away from the Volta Grande, where thousands of Indigenous and traditional fisherfolk live. The company’s diversion to the Belo Monte dam reduced river flow abruptly from early-February speeds of 10,900 cubic meters per second (m3/s) to 1,600 m3/s. (The historical average flows before the dam was built were 12,736 m3/s.)

On February 8, IBAMA president Eduardo Fortunato Bim signed an agreement allowing Norte Energia to implement the company’s so-called Hydrogram B, an artificial hydrological regime that will remove 73% of normal annual Xingu River flows from the Volta Grande.

The socio-environmental consequences, say experts, will be catastrophic. Hydrogram B “will cause the end of the cyclical, ecological phenomenon of the [annual] flood pulse, which guarantees fishes’ and turtles’ access to their feeding areas. There will be high amounts of mortality and, in those [aquatic animals] who survive, loss of nutritional condition,” Juarez Pezzuti from the Federal University of Pará wrote in an email to Mongabay,

Turtles, of “extremely high cultural significance” to the Juruna and other riverine people, “will no longer be able to accumulate the energy necessary to produce eggs. The number of times they lay eggs and the number of eggs per nest will be drastically reduced.”

In a note to Mongabay on Hydrogram B’s effects, Norte Energia states, “There is no technical-scientific proof, nor any indications at present, that the flow [regime] practiced by Belo Monte can cause mortality of fish or turtles,” citing “robust monitoring.” Independent scientists allege Norte Energia’s monitoring studies are flawed.

Lorena Curuaia, a leader of the Curuaia people, of Iawá village on the Volta Grande, walks with children in 2020. Image courtesy of Todd Southgate.

Lorena Curuaia, a leader of the Curuaia people, of Iawá village, sent Mongabay audio commenting on IBAMA’s decision: “This is absurd. Once again, we see the fauna, the flora, totally threatened, especially all the biodiversity. We know that the normal flow of water on the Volta Grande and the whole Xingu Basin doesn’t work that way.

“So they are assaulting nature again. To do what?,” she asks. “To generate energy, to generate financial gain for them, unfortunately leaving biodiversity to the wayside? We are indignant.”

The leader demands, “We want a response from IBAMA itself, saying why they accepted this from Belo Monte.” IBAMA did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Chart showing Hydrogram B vs. historical flows.

Norte Energia’s studies on Hydrogram B rejected as faulty

In 2009, IBAMA’s technical team rejected Norte Energia’s extreme low flow Hydrogram B proposal as being unable to maintain life on the Volta Grande, something the Belo Monte dam operator is legally mandated to do. In December 2019, IBAMA ordered Norte Energia to study alternative hydrological regimes.

But when IBAMA reviewed the new studies, submitted in December 2020, they found that Norte Energia had only presented an analysis of Hydrogram B versus the historical natural flow, and had offered no alternative flow plans. This limited comparison made it impossible for experts to analyze alternative hydrological regimes, says Pezzuti. Agreeing with that assessment is Camila Ribas of the National Institute for Amazon Research and the American Museum of Natural History, after she had access to the studies.

Consequently, on February 2, 2021 IBAMA’s technical team rejected Norte Energia’s studies as “faulty” and incomplete.

What should have happened next, says Ribas, is Norte Energia should have had to redo its studies, addressing IBAMA’s critiques, and then resubmit. Until then, IBAMA’s “provisional hydrogram,” with higher river flows — in place since April 2019 — should have continued.

In October 2020 on the Volta Grande of the Xingu River, low river flows uncover rocks, making navigation more challenging. Norte Energia’s newly implemented “Hydrogram B,” implemented in February 2021, will bring yearly average flows even lower. Image by Verena Glass.

Political pressure on IBAMA and misinformation

But IBAMA allegedly received intense pressure from other ministries within the Jair Bolsonaro administration, lobbying it to reverse its expected upcoming decision to maintain provisional hydrogram water releases to the Volta Grande. For two months, IBAMA had signaled that Norte Energia would have to return significant amounts of water to the river to prevent further ecosystem harm.

Meanwhile, Ribas recalls that the Mines and Energy department and the electricity agency ANEEL “leaked supposedly internal documents” to the press, claiming that if IBAMA ordered Norte Energia to divert less water from the Volta Grande, then Brazilian consumers’ electricity bills would jump dramatically in cost.

That claim, according to Ribas and Pezzuti, is false.

According to Pezzuti, “The company claimed [Belo Monte’s] non-production of energy would make it necessary to produce energy by activating thermoelectric plants” to make up an energy shortfall, which would supposedly greatly raise costs. But, he says, Norte Energia had presented outdated data on Brazil’s hydroelectric reserves, giving a false picture of Brazil’s current hydroelectric energy potential.

In fact, in the current rainy season, Amazon hydroelectric reservoirs are full. “The majority of hydroelectric plants [in Brazil] have a good level and flows, and so less energy [coming from] Belo Monte won’t generate the [electricity] deficit that’s being threatened by the press and the government,” says Pezzuti. Norte Energia did not respond to Mongabay’s question on this matter.

A protest held against Belo Monte dam operator Norte Energia for its role in reducing the flow of the Xingu River and its tributaries, held on October 24, 2020 in the city of Altamira. The members of the Youth Collective for Social and Environmental Justice on the Middle Xingu hold signs reading: “Release the Future,” and “Norte Energia, the river is our doorway, the water is our life,” and “Where is IBAMA? and the Justice Department, that doesn’t see?” Image courtesy of Xingu Vivo Para Sempre.

Political interference and an environmental crime?

Apparently, IBAMA president Bim contradicted his own technical team’s conclusions to strike the February 8 agreement with Norte Energia’s president, Paulo Roberto Pinto, allowing the company to immediately implement Hydrogram B.

Bim is thought to have circumvented IBAMA organizational procedures and overruled his own director of licensing Jônatas Souza da Trindade, who should have made the decision, notes Pezzuti. In a note to Mongabay, Licensing General Coordinator Régis Fontana Pinto stated, “The decisions pertinent to the application of the Belo Monte [dam] hydrogram are taken in the purview of IBAMA’s president, though supplied with information by the technical team, by me as General Coordinator, and by the Environmental Licensing director.”

This agreement directly violates Article 231 of Brazil’s 1988 constitution, Pezzuti says, which states that hydroelectric plants can’t impact Indigenous lands. It also appears to violate international conventions such as ILO 169, ratified in Brazil as Decree 5,051, which protects traditional activities such as fishing as essential for cultural preservation. Further infringed regulations may include Law 11,346 ensuring Nutritional and Food Security, Law 9,985 protecting “the natural resources necessary for traditional populations’ subsistence,” and Decree 6,040 guaranteeing “traditional peoples’ access to natural resources for their physical, economic, and cultural reproduction.”

Concerning projected losses to the diets of Amazon fisherfolk, Lorena Curuaia told Mongabay, “No company has the right to take away another’s dietary sustenance. The fisher people’s culture is fish. To remove their food, is to remove their life.”

On February 18, dozens of fisherfolk organizations, all members of the Xingu Vivo Para Sempre association, formally demanded Eduardo Fortunato Bim and Paulo Roberto Pinto be “criminally prosecuted” for environmental damages resulting from IBAMA’s decision.

“In my understanding, if the president of the environmental organ takes a decision that contradicts the technical position of the institution itself, he is failing in his duty. He is committing a crime in failing to act in accordance with his function, which is to protect the environment,” Pezzuti states.

In a note to Mongabay, Norte Energia states, “There is no crime practiced — since there do not exist any environmental damages, but rather impacts [already] predicted” in the environmental licensing stage. In 2020, federal judges and IBAMA’s team documented that impacts of the dam, characterized by IBAMA as “grave and irreversible,” were greater than projected during licensing.

On March 2, 2021, Cleison Juruna, of the Juruna people, picks up ripe fruit from the golosa tree (Chrysophyllum sanguinolentum). By March in the seasonally rainy season, the ground should be flooded, and the golosa’s fruits should have dropped into the water, supplying fish with calories needed to spawn. Image courtesy of Cleison Juruna.
Cleison Juruna documents golosa fruit fallen on dry ground in March 2021. The forest would normally be flooded this time of year, so fish could eat the fruit. Cleison, a young Juruna leader who lives in the Paciçamba Indigenous Territory, directs the Juruna people’s team that is conducting independent scientific monitoring of ecological impacts of Norte Energia’s low hydrological regime. Image courtesy of Cleison Juruna.

Norte Energia offers mitigation plans

In its February 8 IBAMA agreement, Norte Energia also committed $R 157 million (US$ 28 million) to river flow mitigation plans. Three projects were approved: to send teams to collect fruit and leaves from the forests that should have been flooded, then throw these into the reduced area of the river where fish are trapped; to build floating platforms with bushes for fish to feed from; and to breed fish in captivity and then release them into the Xingu.

Pezzuti rejects the plan as scientifically unproven: “It’s an absurd pseudo-project, impossible to be executed on a scale that compensates for the [absence of] flooding of tens of thousands of hectares.” He notes, “The first two [projects] aren’t based on any kind of precedent,” and the raising of fish in captivity in the hopes of repopulating the river “already has proven to be ineffective in several studies.”

Alexander Lees, of England’s Manchester Metropolitan University, concurs that these are unworkable solutions, “a waste of money” better spent on maintaining the ecosystem.

“Messing around with chucking fruit into rivers or floating trees is just throwing money away,” says Lees. “It just looks like good publicity,”

Bel Juruna says Norte Energia’s present efforts are ineffectual. “There are lots of companies [contracted by Norte Energia] here that go around, visit, hold meetings, but despite that, there aren’t any projects from the [original] Basic Environmental Plan that are working here.”

Pezzuti explains that Norte Energia’s fisheries mitigation plan was “signed off on by professors employed by public research universities, contributing to this scientific makeup, as if there were a solution for the tragedy that Hydrogram [B] will cause.” However, he adds, independent researchers, not paid by Norte Energia, “experts in fish ecology and aquatic turtles… vehemently protested… this bizarre proposal,” as did “IBAMA’s analysts, who rejected it” on February 2.

Ribas adds, “The research Norte Energia and its consultants do is already directed toward a certain end goal.” She believes that the company-contracted researchers’ finding that Hydrogram B is viable resulted from a conflict of interest which, she says, might explain why the firm’s experts didn’t present analysis of alternatives. “That’s not science,” she says, but Ribas is concerned the Brazilian public will accept the flawed research as valid.

What’s needed, she concludes, is independent monitoring. Ribas and her fellow scientists are seeking funding to monitor the effects of Norte Energia’s Hydrogram B on the Volta Grande in 2021.

As for the Juruna people, Bel Juruna says they will endure: “We will be here. We want to resist in this place, fighting so that we, too, won’t turn into a cemetery in our village.”

Banner image: Bel Juruna of the Juruna indigenous people in March 2021 in shallow water in the Xingu River’s Volta Grande (Big Bend) near her home of Mïratu village in Paciçamba Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Bel Juruna.

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