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Latest planned Amazon dam project threatens Indigenous lands, endemic species

  • A study led by an Indigenous organization has found inconsistencies in the planning and licensing processes of the Castanheira hydroelectric project that it warns could alter the course of the Arinos River, one of the last still flowing freely in the Juruena River Basin.
  • An area the size of 9,500 soccer fields would be flooded for the dam’s reservoir, affecting a region that’s home to Indigenous territories, small and medium-sized family farms, and the ancestral territory of the Tapayuna Indigenous people.
  • The federal government has still not released a statement defining a timeline for the dam’s construction, even though feasibility studies began in 2010; the project is currently awaiting its environmental licensing.

“They are going to flood the Tapayuna people’s history,” says Yaku Suya, a 43-year-old Indigenous leader from the village of Tyrykho, in Xingu Indigenous Park in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. This is where most of Suya’s people were transferred to during the 1970s after experiencing poisonings and flu and measles epidemics when their original home, along the banks of the Arinos River further west in Mato Grosso state, became a target of prospectors seeking diamonds, tropical hardwoods, and rubber.

For many years, the Tapayuna were hosted by villages of other Indigenous groups who offered to protect them. The situation led to a broad loss of Tapayuna culture as their language and traditions were absorbed into those of other ethnicities. Finally, in 2016 the group appealed to Funai, Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs, to reclaim their ancestral territory. But this land, as in the past, remains at threat today, this time from a different type of prospector: developers who plan to build the largest hydroelectric dam in the Juruena River Basin. Proposed for construction near the mouth of the Arinos River, where it flows into the Juruena, the dam’s licensing process has raised concerns due to a number of social and environmental irregularities.

If the Castanheira hydropower project, currently awaiting environmental licensing, finally goes into construction, the effects would be manifold, critics say. They could include damage to part of the territory claimed by the Tapayuna, alteration of the course of the river itself, and impacts that may represent an irreversible outcome to a story that includes several attempts at what researchers consider ethnocide: the systematic destruction of a people’s ways of life and thought.

For seven years, the Tapayuna people have been waiting for a response from Funai, which is responsible for analyzing their territorial claim. Mongabay requested information about the process from the agency, but received no response. In the plant’s licensing documentation, Funai stated that the undertaking wouldn’t result in flooding of the currently established Indigenous territories in the region, where other ethnicities live today, but didn’t provide any details regarding claimed territories and Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation in the region.

Meanwhile, nearby communities fear a series of impacts. “[The dam] will flood the riverbank’s entire history,” Yaku Suya says. “We won’t let this dam happen because we want the river to be free when we take back our land, to keep our traditions. If they block the river, the entire history changes.”

Tatuí, a village that’s home to the Kawaiwete/Kayabi people, one of the ethnicities living in the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Territory. It’s located near the confluence of the Dos Peixes River, pictured, and the Arinos, where the Castanheira hydropower plant is to be built. Image courtesy of MAB/MT Communications Collective.

Changing the course of waters and the threat to species and cultures

The construction of the Castanheira dam would be yet another project by the federal government, in this case the Ministry of Mines and Energy, to cement Brazil’s reliance on hydroelectric power. When periodical droughts began affecting reservoirs with greater frequency, and energy shortages worsened as demand increased, Brazil intensified its dam-building spree across the Amazon Basin. The idea was that the web of rivers that feed the mighty Amazon would be less susceptible to drought. But the strategy has become controversial due to the scope of the resulting social and environmental impacts.

The daily operation of a hydropower plant changes the natural habitats that occur downstream of the dam. Those responsible for managing the operation have control over the flow of water as they balance demand for electricity, impacting ecosystems.

In the case of the Castanheira dam, a study by Operation Native Amazon (OPAN), an Indigenous civil society organization, found a series of inconsistencies in the planning and licensing process. For starters, the developers make no acknowledgement of the pending Tapayuna claim to the affected area. OPAN also says the environmental studies for the project don’t take into account the accumulated impacts of hundreds of other hydropower dams of different sizes already planned for the region. In addition, researchers warn the project could be economically unfeasible while also posing a threat to the physical and cultural well-being of local Indigenous peoples. OPAN says all these questions should be analyzed by the Mato Grosso state environmental agency, or SEMA-MT, which is responsible for issuing the licenses for the project.

The proposed site for the plant is located 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the mouth of the Arinos and will, according to the researchers, affect the river’s connectivity, blocking some 600 km (370 mi) of its main channel, possibly threatening 97 species of migratory fish. “Impeding the Arinos, which is one of the last rivers to flow freely in this basin, is neither reasonable nor feasible,” says Simone Athayde, an associate professor at Florida International University and member of the study team.

‘We will no longer eat healthy fish’

Dineva Kayabi is 44 years old and lives in the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Territory, less than 20 km (12 mi) from the site where the Castanheira hydropower plant is planned for construction. The Indigenous territory’s Apiaká, Munduruku and Kawaiwete/Kayabi peoples say they’re worried about the impacts the dam would have on their food and their rituals. If the river is blocked, the fish they eat could disappear. The animals they hunt, their traditional remedies and the natural resources they use for their rituals could all be affected.

“The water level in the river will drop a lot,” says Dineva, a native Kawaiwete and member of Rede Juruena Vivo (Living Juruena Network), a collective that’s active in the Juruena Basin. “We will no longer eat healthy fish, healthy turtles,” she adds.

Just beyond the Kawaiwete territory live the Rikbaktsa people. Their traditional marriage rituals may also be compromised by the dam, which could affect the tutãra (Paxyodon syrmatophorus) mollusk that the Rikbaktsa use to make the necklaces worn by the bride and groom during their weddings. This mollusk is found only on the lower stretch of the Arinos.

Dineva says her community has already expressed its objections to construction of the dam, but it’s not clear whether the authorities with take any action in response. “For us, water is life. We don’t negotiate with our wealth, our history and our ancestry,” she says.

A wedding ornament made from the shells of the tutãra mollusk, a species found only on the lower stretch of the Arinos River. The Indigenous Rikbaktsa say they’re concerned that flooding for the Castanheira plant’s reservoir could affect this culturally important species. Image courtesy of Adriano Gambarini/Opan.

Farming communities may be flooded

Construction of the Castanheira’s reservoir would also involve flooding an area the size of 9,500 soccer fields. The flooding could affect the production of many agricultural communities like Pedreiras and Palmital, where 52 small and medium-sized family farms produce milk and beef cattle on the right bank of the Arinos.

In Pedreiras, 62-year-old Genir Piveta de Souza says he’s been losing sleep over worries that the land on which he’s lived for more than 40 years may be flooded. Originally from the state of Paraná, Souza built a life for his family here and never planned on having to sell his cattle and move on. “We are living in the dark here, not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says.

There are concerns that the Castanheira project will set a precedent for the construction of more such projects planned for the region. While hydroelectric power is considered renewable, its construction always has an impact, critics say. “The government says we have to protect nature. If I cut down a tree, they will make me pay a fine. Now here comes this dam that will destroy everything along the river, destroy the life of the people here, and nothing will happen?” Souza says.

Souza has worked together with his neighbors and researchers to try and show the authorities how much profit and how many jobs they generate for Juara, the municipality where their community lies. “It’s more than that plant will generate,” he says. According to a study carried out with Mato Grosso State University, the families living in the communities of Pedreiras and Palmital generate around 6.4 million reais ($1.3 million) a year; 98% of this amount stays in the municipality of Juara. The dam is expected to generate only half of this amount, according to the study.

Residents of the riverine community of Pedreiras hold a protest against the Castanheira hydropower project. Image courtesy of MAB/MT Communications Collective.

“What we are doing is trying to do is shed light on the situation and see what the contradictions are in these environmental impact studies,” says Jefferson Nascimento, from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), which is fighting to have the Castanheira project removed from the national energy plan.

The OPAN study also shows the dam could generate a loss of 589 million reais ($119 million) in the form of negative impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, economic loss from the flooding of productive areas, and lost fishing revenue.

Even the argument that the dam will generate jobs hasn’t persuaded those likely to be impacted by its construction. Project developer EPE, an agency under the energy ministry, says the project will create 1,500 jobs at the peak of construction; after the plant goes on stream, however, only 700 jobs will be maintained. As there are no guarantees that these jobs will go to people who already live in Juara, the local community fears the classic scenario that comes with large public works projects: more people coming in from outside the area, more crime, and overburdened basic services. “We won’t have the peace and tranquility that we have today,” says Souza, the cattle farmer.

The path to getting the dam off the drawing board

It’s not clear just how high a priority the Castanheira hydropower project is for the current government, but it remains on the list of ongoing projects listed in the federal Investment Partnerships Program (PPI). The feasibility studies were also part of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) at least from 2010 to 2018 — at the tail end of the previous term of the current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and during the subsequent administrations of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer.

The project is currently in the environmental licensing phase by SEMA-MT, the Mato Grosso environmental agency. If the preliminary license is granted, a call for tender will be made to select the company responsible for construction and operation of the dam, as well as the date of construction.

OPAN, the Indigenous CSO, presented its study to the state agency, saying the project is unfeasible in terms of culture, economics and the environment. In response to questions from Mongabay, SEMA-MT said the terms of reference provide for a study of cumulative and synergistic impacts. Regarding the impacts on river connectivity, it said these will be assessed during licensing. The agency added that the environmental aspect is compared with the economic aspect during the feasibility study. It also said that undertakings that may cause negative impacts on Indigenous groups are evaluated by Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, whose statement will be considered during the licensing phase.

The environmental impact studies presented to SEMA-MT for licensing were carried out by EPE, which told Mongabay that they had been elaborated in accordance with the legislation, that the Indigenous communities were heard, and that they had been delivered to SEMA-MT in 2017 for analysis and licensing. The latter didn’t issue any statement as to when this stage should be completed.

The Dos Peixes River, an affluent of the Arinos River, as it passes inside the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of MAB/MT Communications Collective.

The problem is that, as five years have passed since those studies were carried out, their findings are now outdated and fail to account for other newly proposed projects in the same region. Athayde, the Florida International University researcher, says a strategic regional evaluation must be made for the planning of new power projects in the region that articulates the many studies necessary during the environmental licensing process.

She says the scenario has changed due to climate change impacts that must be considered when analyzing the Castanheira dam’s lack of feasibility. “There are a number of decentralized power generation options available today. I don’t believe this is the time to centralize production in large dams, but rather to use other complementary sources such as solar power, which holds great potential in the region. It is possible for us to create micropower generative systems that work as a set and have less impact than the Castanheira dam would,” Athayde says.

However, EPE says large-scale hydropower offers operational flexibility while wind and solar systems only generate power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. “Reservoir storage capacity, even in run-of-the-river plants, allows hydroelectric plants to generate power at peak hours of demand. These plants provide so-called ancillary services to the national grid, which guarantee stability and safety to the system,” the developer says.

That hasn’t stopped Indigenous and riverine communities from continuing to worry, given the uncertain situation and lack of clear information about the government’s real intentions for going ahead with the project. EPE says the project remains part of the government’s PPI investment program, which is part of the federal energy policy and hence a major backer of the project obtaining its environmental licensing. According to the PPI press office, however, the Castanheira project isn’t on the list for the new Growth Acceleration Program. When asked about the inconsistencies raised by the researchers, the PPI said it would only release a statement after SEMA-MT’s evaluation.

Banner image: The Arinos River, where the Castanheira hydroelectric plant is to be built. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Perdigão/Secom-MT.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 6, 2023.

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