No-Go or Go-Go on the Araguaia?

Araguaia River
Araguaia River
  Margi Moss/Projeto Brasil das Águas

Brazil's Environment Minister Carlos Minc called opponents of dams in Brazil "eco-demagogues", even as he proposed making the Araguaia River a no-go zone for dams. Inconsistent? Not by Minc's standards.

First, at a seminar organized by Greenpeace to discuss global warming, Minc said he would work to promote wind energy in Brazil, but also strongly defended the licensing of new hydroelectric dams, especially those which he said would have a high generating potential compared with their reservoir size. Minc said those environmentalists who are against any dams do not consider that even if the country invests heavily in alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, it will not be able to reduce the production of polluting thermoelectric plants burning diesel oil or coal, unless it maintains its investments in "renewable energy based on hydroelectric dams".

Minc's second volley was to assert that new dams could come to be licensed by river basins. He said that he expects a vote in the National Water Resources Council meeting on Thursday which could be the initial step in keeping the Araguaia River dam-free. Speaking to environmentalists, he said "on the Araguaia, there are a lot of river beaches, many environmental reserves, and I personally think that it should be preserved". Indicating that he had already discussed the idea with President Lula and his chief-of-staff Dilma Rousseff, declaring the Araguaia off-limits to damming could mean abandoning the opportunity to exploit 3,100 MW of hydroelectric potential, including dams proposed by aluminum giants Alcoa, BhpBilliton, and CVRD.

The problem with all this is that the Lula government has made it clear that the Environment Ministry should not have a role in defining energy policy - it should merely concede licenses for the projects that the energy sector declares as priorities. Analyzing impacts of dams on the river basin level was a recommendation of the World Bank in its report on environmental licensing in Brazil, but no one except Minc and some environmental groups have talked about establishing no-go zones for dams.

But, a closer look at the documents for Thursday's Water Resources Council meeting shows that the council will be asked to approve the Strategic Plan for the Araguaia-Tocantins Basin. The plan, designed by the water regulatory agency, ANA, calls for action to preserve the middle Araguaia River, where the world's largest fluvial island, the Ilha do Bananal is located, but says nothing about the upper or lower stretches, where the Santa Isabel, Torixoréu, and Couto Magalhães dams are planned. The plan seeks to suspend action on construction of the Araguaia industrial waterway until the year 2025, but what would happen after then is anyone's guess. The only "no-go zone" actually mentioned in the plan would be the Sono River, a tributary of the Tocantins, whose planned dams would affect the Jalapão region, a hotbed of ecotourism.

Minc talks a lot, and floats a lot of ideas in the media which make it appear that he is taking new initiatives for environmental protection. However, it's clear that it's the Mines and Energy Ministry, and not Minc that will call the shots on deciding whether or not to keep the white-sand beaches of the Araguaia free from the impacts of dams.