Amazon in Peril

by Glenn Switkes
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Amazon Basin is well-known as a biological wonder. Its impressive statistics attest to its global importance: the river accounts for one-fifth of the world's freshwater flow, and its vast floodplain includes 60% of the planet's remaining tropical rainforests. The rich ecosystems support an equally diverse group of indigenous peoples who rely on its waters for sustenance and transport.

But to many in Brazil's energy sector, the mighty river is primarily a tool for industrial and urban expansion. With most of the country's future hydroelectric potential in the Amazon, the government is pressing for scores of dams to be built over the next 20 years.

At a recent public hearing, the head of energy planning for Brazil's Mines and Energy Ministry, Altino Ventura Filho, said, "Plans for Brazil's energy future are based on hydroelectricity from the Amazon - we're going to build all the dams we can given the current legislation, and then we'll revisit the other potential dam sites that would impact indigenous lands and protected areas and see how we can exploit those as well."

Ashaninka communties, led by Ruth Buendia, are fighting plans to build dams in the Peruvian Amazon.
Ashaninka communties, led by Ruth Buendia, are fighting plans to build dams in the Peruvian Amazon.
Jonathan McLeod
Under the guise of promoting "cheap, clean energy," Brazil's dam builders are planning more than 100 dams in the Amazon, setting their sights on rivers with almost a mystical resonance to their indigenous names - the Araguaia, Xingu and Tapajós. If unchecked, the country's projected growth in energy demand will have important implications for the Amazonian rainforests of surrounding countries, including Peru and Bolivia, where dams are being planned to export electricity to Brazil.

Along with global warming, the debate on the future of the Amazon is heating up. The rivers of Amazonia play a vital role in keeping the rainforest alive. The scores of dams being planned could disturb the fragile water balance of the Amazon, accelerating the drying of the forest. The projects would also expel more than 100,000 river-bank dwellers from their lands and seriously degrade dozens of indigenous lands and protected areas.

Brazil's electricity-sector bureaucrats say these will be kinder, gentler dams, with smaller reservoirs, designed to lessen social and environmental impacts. Even Brazil's Environment Minister, Carlos Minc, has become an ardent promoter of dams in the Amazon. Legislation has been introduced that would fast-track the licensing of new dams in Amazonia and allow projects to circumvent Brazil's tough environmental laws, under the pretext that they are of "strategic importance" to Brazil's future.

But dam projects under construction, such as the Santo Antonio and Jirau dams on the Madeira, the Amazon's principal tributary, have raised the possibility that individual dams could impact a huge area of the Amazon Basin. Scientists have pointed out that several valuable migratory fish species could suffer near-extinction as a result of the Madeira dams, affecting fisheries and fauna thousands of kilometers up and downstream. The fertility of the Amazon floodplain, utilized by agriculturalists and an important site for fish reproduction, would also be negatively affected.

Despite the weight of expert opinions critical of the projects and calls for additional studies, construction on the Madeira dams is now underway amid a flurry of legal challenges.

World's third largest dam in the Amazon

Belo Monte on the Xingu River, with an installed generating capacity of 11,300 MW, would be the world's third largest hydroelectric project, and the second largest in Brazil. Environmental studies have been completed, and the government says it is planning to offer the project to private investors by October.

Belo Monte would divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River through two huge artificial canals to the powerhouse, directly affecting an area of 1,552 square kilometers. A 130 km stretch of the Xingu, including its famous "Big Bend," would dry up. Independent studies question the economic feasibility of the US$9 billion project, given that the run-of-river dam would generate little or no electricity during the four-month low-water season.

The Belo Monte Dam would dry out over 100 km of the Xingu's famous
The Belo Monte Dam would dry out over 100 km of the Xingu's famous "Big Bend," leaving communities without fish, transportation, or a clean water supply.
Monti Aguirre

Impacts on indigenous peoples are likely to be a crucial issue in determining whether or not Belo Monte will be built. Last May, 800 indigenous peoples from throughout the Xingu Valley gathered in the city of Altamira to voice their opposition to the damming of the Xingu River. They danced, chanted and warned that if the projects were not halted, there would be "World War Three in the Amazon." For a warrior tribe, this was not a warning to be taken lightly.

Many of the other dams planned for the Amazon would also affect indigenous lands. Almost half of the planned dams would also directly impact protected areas. Some, like the Marabá or Serra Quebrada dams on the Tocantins River, would directly flood indigenous territories. Others would destroy fish stocks, which provide crucial sustenance to indigenous peoples. Seven dams being planned for the Tapajós River would affect indigenous lands and the Amazonia National Park, which has one of the world's greatest diversity of mammal species.

A changing climate

Amazonian dams are some of the dirtiest on the planet. Balbina – the worst Amazon Dam to date – emits ten times more greenhouse gases from rotting vegetation in the reservoir than a coal-fired plant of the same capacity. Recent revelations that Balbina's reservoir now covers 4,337 square kilometers, nearly twice its original size, mean these emissions may be seriously underestimated.

In the long run, the effects of global climate change on the Amazon are uncertain. The Hadley Centre in the UK predicts a greater probability of droughts, which could lead to a 13.4% decrease in the flow of the Amazon's rivers by the end of the century, making Amazon dams less likely to fulfill their stated energy-generating potential. Other studies show that the transformation of extensive areas of the Amazon into drier savannas would have effects in distant parts of the continent, and potentially in North America and Europe as well, causing havoc with regional climatic patterns.

Exporting disaster

With controversies raging over the damming of Amazonian rivers, Brazil is also looking to import electricity from neighboring countries with weaker environmental and indigenous protection laws. The Peruvian government has pushed through legislation opening indigenous lands to resource exploitation, provoking an uprising among Amazonian natives. Brazilian state electric company Eletrobrás says it plans to build at least six of the eighteen large dams currently being planned for the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon. The Ashaninka indigenous people of the Ene valley have already initiated an international campaign against the Eletrobrás-supported Paquitzango Dam, which would flood their ancestral lands.

Evo Morales' government, having protested the construction of dams on the Madeira River due to their probable impacts on Bolivia, has now contracted a Canadian consulting firm to study the feasibility of Cachuela Esperanza Dam on the Beni River. El Bala Dam has also recently resurfaced in discussions on Bolivia's future energy options, including exporting electricity to Brazil.

Brazil is not the only country looking to get energy from its Amazonian neighbors. Colombia would likely be the consumer of much of the electricity that would be generated by Ecuador's Coca Codo Sinclair project on the upper Napo River. The dam would affect the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve and the majestic San Rafael Falls, as well as ancestral lands of the Cofán indigenous people.

There is no doubt that meeting Brazil, and indeed Latin America's, future energy needs is of crucial importance. However, studies have indicated that alternative options exist – a study by the conservation group WWF showed that Brazil could meet a major part of its future energy needs at a lower social, environmental, and economic cost from investments in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy. Brazil's enormous wind-generating potential is attracting investors and the country's potential for generating electricity from biomass, such as sugar cane bagasse, rice husks, and sawmill scraps has been calculated to exceed the capacity of the massive Itaipu Dam.

Ultimately, the question facing Brazil, as with the rest of humanity, is whether our last precious ecosystems and climate-sustaining rainforests are worth sacrificing for electricity. Surely the Amazon is too precious a place to squander.