The Next Big Threat to Amazonian Rivers: Dams and Industrial Waterways on the Tapajós

Brent Millikan

We are proud to indroduce you to our new campaign page on the Tapajós River and its main tributaries in the Brazilian Amazon. The Tapajós is a region of breathtaking beauty, amazing biodiversity and a diversified population of indigenous peoples, riverbank communities, fisherfolk, small farmers, artisanal miners, and a variety of other social groups. Yet the Tapajós and its principal tributaries – the Teles Pires, Jamanxim and Juruena rivers – are currently threatened by an unprecedented series of dams and industrial waterways (hidrovias) that would cause immense social and environmental damage to the Amazon.

The ambitious plans of President Dilma Rousseff's administration for dam construction in the next five to 10 years include 3 major dams on the mainstream of the Tapajós River and a series of additional large and medium-sized dams on its tributaries. This would include four large dams on the Jamanxim River in the state of Pará and five large dams on the Teles Pires River along the border of Mato Grosso and Pará – two of which are already under construction. Moreover, as many as 17 large dams and 63 smaller dams may be constructed on the Juruena River.  

The dams are part of a larger mega-project called the Tapajós Complex, which would develop the basin into one giant industrial waterway to increase the profits of agribusinesses such as the Maggi Group and JBS who want to ship soy, corn and other agricultural goods to market. Much of the electricity from the proposed dams would power huge mining companies, such as Vale, Gerdau and Alcoa, which own shares of massive mineral reserves in the area.

No serious analysis of the individual and combined impacts of this cascade of dams has been carried out, especially with regard to the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and other traditional populations, environmental flows, and biodiversity. The reckless process of dam planning and licensing on the Tapajós is highlighted by two recent events:

  1. President Dilma’s signing of a provisional law in January 2012, illegally eliminating over 75,000 hectares from national parks, and other protected areas hectares in five conservation units to make way for the reservoirs of two large proposed dams on the Tapajós river: São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá;
  2. Plans of the Rousseff administration to build the huge Chacorão Dam on the Tapajós River, that would floods 18,721 hectares of the indigenous territory of the Mundurucu people, who recently described the project as a “criminal act” that demonstrates an “absolute lack of concern of the federal government with the rights of the indigenous people of Brazil.”

The good news is that many Brazilians are fighting back at this assault on  their livelihoods and rights, defending the natural and cultural heritage of the Amazon. A growing movement of indigenous communities, riverbank dwellers and other local groups is mobilizing to protest and mount legal challenges and actions against the planned dams and industrial waterways in the Tapajós Basin, with support from partners that include public prosecutors, the Movement of Dam-Affected Peoples (MAB), and the progressive Catholic Church, as well as human rights and environmental NGOs.

An inspiring example is this week’s decision by a federal judge to suspend the construction license of the Teles Pires hydroelectric dam, citing violations of the rights of the Kayabi, Apiaká and Mundurucu indigenous peoples, based on a lawsuit filed by state and federal public prosecutors.

Visit our new campaign page on the Tapajós Basin, where you will find the latest news, press releases, project updates, technical reports, testimonies and declarations from civil society and affected peoples, and other supporting material. 


Stay tuned as we roll out more information about critical events in the Tapajós Basin, a jewel in the heart of the Amazon.