Auctioning off the Amazon: Brazil's Madeira River Auction Sparks Anger, Protests, Lawsuits

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Brazilian government’s auction of the Santo Antonio Dam project on the Madeira River today was met by demonstrations in Brazil, international protests and environmental lawsuits. Two dams and an industrial waterway are planned for the Madeira River, the Amazon’s principle tributary, but social, indigenous, and environmental activists as well as independent experts have criticized the project’s potential impact on rainforest ecosystems and communities.

Last week, Friends of the Earth, Brazilian Amazon filed a lawsuit to stop the auction. Friends of the Earth argued that the environmental studies were too narrowly focused in scope to adequately assess the impacts of the Madeira Dams. The lawsuit also alleged that Brazil´s environmental protection service, Ibama, improperly handled the process for provisional licensing of the project. While the lawsuit failed to obtain a restraining order, it will be judged at a later date, and Friends of the Earth will proceed with legal challenges to highlight inconsistencies and illegalities in the ill-conceived project.

Early this morning, 300 members of the Brazilian Movement of Dam-Affected Peoples (MAB) and the farmers´ organization Via Campesina occupied Brazil´s National Electrical Energy Agency in Brasília, delaying the start of the auction, before being forcibly removed by police. Meanwhile, in the city of Porto Velho, a few miles from the Santo Antonio Dam site, hundreds of people - including some that would be displaced by the Madeira Dams - rallied to call for the cancellation of the auction. At the international level, activists barraged Brazilian embassies and consulates in the United States, Argentina, Holland, Belgium, and other countries with phone calls and faxes, and e-mailed President Lula protesting the auction.

“Around the world, people are appalled by the cynical and dishonest manner in which the Brazilian government has side-stepped due process and pushed through the Madeira Dams, despite evidence that they will have massive impacts on the Amazon Basin ecology”, said Glenn Switkes, Latin America Program Director of International Rivers.

As expected, a consortium led by Brazilian state electric utility Furnas and construction company Odebrecht won the right to build the dam by offering the electricity to the national grid at a lower price than competitors. The Madeira Dams obtained an environmental license in July, 2007 from Brazil’s environmental protection service Ibama despite recommendations by the agency´s technical staff that new studies with a broader scope were needed.

“There is no reason why the Brazilian government should rush to approve these projects without carrying out adequate studies so that the public can assess whether or not the Madeira Dams´ benefits outweigh their negative impacts,” said Switkes.

The winning companies must now meet 33 conditions placed on the project by Ibama before starting construction, which they expect to begin in late 2008. Brazil wants to offer a second project on the Madeira, Jirau Dam, early next year. Brazil plans to build more than 70 new dams in the Amazon by 2030 with nearly 100,000 MW of hydroelectric capacity.