Washington Post: Doubt, Anger Over Brazil Dams

Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 14, 2008


As Work Begins Along Amazon Tributary, Many Question Human, Environmental Costs

PORTO VELHO, Brazil -- It is quiet here on the wrong side of progress. Hot wind blows dust across the dry bluffs. The brown river runs wide and placid.

In his painted wooden skiff, Francisco Evangelista de Abreu, a fisherman, motors up-current. Two river dolphins crest and submerge. His mind is elsewhere. The dam is coming.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I don't have any experience outside of this."

The task he and his neighbors are undertaking is to re-imagine their lives. They cannot stop the dam now. Once the waters rise, Jose da Silva Machado, 45, will no longer ferry schoolchildren across the river, nor fish in its rapids, nor live on its banks. Leonel Pereira de Souza, 61, insisted that his vegetable farm, where he was born, raised his children and grandchildren, is not for sale. Period. Yet he knows that conviction will dissolve in the flood.

"We are peasants. We live off the soil," he said. "They are offering houses in the village. There is no place to plant or fish."

Construction began late last month on one of two massive hydroelectric dams that are to span the Madeira River, a main tributary of the Amazon River and a major waterway that runs from the Andes across the rain forests of South America.

For the Brazilian government, this is prudent preparation, more than six years in planning, for a burgeoning economy's appetite for electricity. The two dams, the $5 billion Santo Antonio and the planned Jirau dam, will eventually produce 6,450 megawatts of electricity, according to the state electric company participating in the project.

"We don't have any problems now. By the year 2012, considering the growth, the economic growth, we will need more energy, and this dam was made exactly to supply this future demand," said Marcio Porto, director of construction at Furnas Centrais Eléctricas, the state company.

But the prospect of damming the Madeira has been widely criticized by social and environmental groups for its potential damage to the environment, river residents and nearby indigenous tribes. The Brazilian company working with Furnas on the Santo Antonio dam, Odebrecht, was recently expelled from Ecuador by the government for problems with a dam built there, which has raised further concern among critics of the projects in Brazil.

"It's extremely depressing to think that they're going to be able to build this dam," said Glenn Switkes, the Brazil-based Latin America program director for the environmental organization International Rivers, which has studied the Madeira dams. "This is an area that is one of the world's hotbeds of biodiversity."

The dam builders say that the reservoir created by the Santo Antonio will encompass 89 square miles, a relatively small area for a dam of its size, and that no more than 300 families will have to move. Organizations protesting the project, such as the local environmental group Ada Acai, estimate that 1,500 families will be displaced. The environmental impact study for the project put the number at 3,000.

In the Igarape Laje indigenous territory, a 265,000-acre area that is home to 400 people, the dam is a source of great worry. Indigenous leaders say the project will bring an influx of people to the area, harming hunting and fishing grounds and possibly turning the stilled waters into a breeding ground for diseases such as malaria, already common in this part of the western Amazon.

"Many people say the Indians are in favor of this project. This is a myth, a lie," said Arao Waram Xijein, 34, a teacher and local leader at the reserve. "We ask for the support of the world that they do not build these dams."

Ivaneide Bandeira, coordinator of Kaninde, a nonprofit group involved in indigenous issues in the Amazon, said traces of at least three uncontacted Indian tribes have been found in the lands along the Madeira River that could be flooded.

"How can the government give the license for a project without knowing if there are Indians there that might be flooded?" she said. "If these indigenous are not excellent swimmers, they're going to be killed. If this happens, it will be a genocide."

Porto, the Furnas official, as well as federal environmental officials, disputed that any such tribes exist in this area. "There is no Indian reservation directly affected by the project," he said. "We did not find any isolated Indians in these studies."

There are at least four large hydroelectric dams already operating in the Brazilian Amazon, Switkes said, and the Madeira dams are two of at least 70 planned in the Amazon basin through 2030. The Brazilian government is finishing an environmental impact study on the Belo Monte dam, which would be the third-largest in the world, spanning the Xingu River in the central Amazon.

Damming the Madeira, in one of the world's most ecologically diverse areas, could affect more than 450 species of fish, according to environmental studies of the project. These species provide millions of dollars of income for the area's fishing industry.

"Brazil's energy planning is all about hydroelectricity, and most of that opportunity is in the Amazon," Switkes said. "These are huge, massive projects, and they're being pushed forward at this point because the government feels the Environment Ministry has totally caved in."

Environment Minister Carlos Minc said the companies building the dams have agreed to pay for the creation of two forest reserves and two Indian reservations, as well as giving $30 million to improve the sanitation system in Porto Velho, which expects an influx of thousands of job seekers, and $6 million for environmental police in the area.

"The hydroelectric plants have an environmental impact -- there's no such thing as zero impact -- but if you don't do hydroelectric plants, you'll have to do thermo-electric plants with carbon and oil," Minc said in an interview.

Some residents along the Madeira River have already moved out and razed their old homes, while others are contemplating the companies' offers of compensation. Several residents said they were concerned that the payments would not last indefinitely and not amount to what they were earning now as farmers and fishermen. Many felt they were not fully informed about what was about to happen to them.

"I live here. My children go to school here," said Abreu, the fisherman. "But if the state doesn't displace us, the water will. We don't know what to do."