Grand Dam Plans for the Amazon

Oswaldo Sevá
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Schemes for Dozens of Dams on Tributaries Would Choke River, Stifle Opposition

World Rivers Review, June 2006

The Amazon River, whose tributaries are formed in the Peruvian Andes, flows over a sedimentary flood plain hundreds of miles wide, with thousands of lagoons and seasonally flooded lakes – it is a river that is impossible to dam. However, the principal tributaries of the Amazon in its southern basin – the Madeira, Tapajós, Xingu, and to the east the Araguaia and Tocantins – descend steeply from crystalline rocks into the Amazon basin. From these heights rush enormous volumes of water, reaching volumes greater than 30,000 cubic meters of water per second. These numbers arouse the megalomaniac dreams of international dam builders and their Brazilian partners.

The Lula government, which took office in January 2003, has unfortunately also become stricken with this delirium, and damming the rivers of Amazonia has become a banner that will be waved widely by political candidates in this year's election campaign. Harping on the threat of energy blackouts by the year 2010 if large dams in the Amazon are delayed, the level of debate about Brazil's energy policy has fallen to a new low, and the Lula government appears more interested in hitting citizens in their guts with scare tactics about energy shortages, rather than in capturing their hearts and minds to advance the country toward a sustainable energy future.

As a response to this looming threat, 84 large dams with a total generating capacity of more than 30,000 MW are planned for construction – including 23 in the Amazon basin. Half of this energy generation would be provided by two huge dam complexes in the Amazon. Dozens of other dams being planned for the rainforest appear in the government's new energy plan for the year 2030, which will be released in coming months. [Editor's Note: This rash of dams would dangerously increase Brazil's excessive dependence on hydropower, which already accounts for 85.4% of the nation's electricity. Drought crippled the nation's electricity grids in 2001.]

Steamrolling the Opposition

A dangerous symptom of this dam fever is a rash of bold proposals to preemptively steamroll any opposition that could arise. Mines and Energy Minister Silas Rondeau, a Lula apointee, is introducing a bill in congress which would establish “energy reserves” – a new form of protected area – in the Amazon. These reserves would take precedence over any proposals to create conservation units or indigenous reserves, in the interest of avoiding conflicts that could restrict the dam-ability of Amazonian rapids. A Brazilian Congressman from the Xingu region has introduced a bill that would abolish constitutional guarantees of indigenous people to the exclusive use of natural resources in their territories, including their rivers. This constitutional right is viewed as an obstacle to the expansion of Brazil's hydroelectric network in the Amazon. Under Ribeiro's measure, indigenous peoples would receive a royalty when their territories are flooded by dams.

The hydroelectric potential of a dozen major Amazonian rivers is now being re-evaluated by the government, which insists dam projects will proceed with environmental safeguards. But environmentalists say that these “integrated analyses of river basins” are only a green veneer masking a plan to destroy the cultural and biodiversity of the Amazon.

First and foremost in the sights of the dam industry have been the twin rivers Araguaia and Tocantins, which flow from Brazil's central plateau, descending 1,000 meters to the delta of the Amazon River. The Araguaia still flows freely, and two proposals to dam the river have been rejected by the Brazilian environmental protection agency, Ibama. It is generally recognized that dams on the Araguaia, which has a wide floodplain, would have serious environmental consequences. However, energy planners have revived plans for damming the Araguaia in the new energy plan.

Dammed and Damned Again

The Tocantins has already been dammed at five sites – the first in its lower reaches was Tucuruí, built at the Itaboca rapids. Tucurui began operating in 1984, but its capacity is only now being expanded to reach its original design level of 8,000 MW. Some 2,860 km2 of the rainforest was flooded by Tucuruí, affecting more than 40,000 people.

Upstream are Lajeado(850 MW) and Peixe Angical (450 MW), whose reservoir is now being filled, as well as Serra da Mesa (1.275 MW), which began operating in 1998. One of the most controversial projects was Cana Brava (450 MW), which was financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, and is operated by Tractebel (a subsidiary of the French company Suez).

The river bank lands of the Tocantins are the site of some of the longest-lasting land conflicts in Brazil, and conflicts over dams being planned have accentuated these conflicts. São Salvador Dam is currently under construction, Estreito Dam is awaiting a construction license, and in all 80 dams are planned for the basin, including 33 large hydro projects, and 47 smaller dams.

As in many countries, Brazil's dam industry defies human rights laws and democratic principles, destroys fertile farm lands, and inundates river rapids and waterfalls which are truly natural monuments which should be conserved. To further compound the controversy over new dams in Brazil is the growing harassment of leaders of Brazil's Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB). MAB leaders have been beaten by the police and arrested as a measure to pre-empt protests against dams. By building strong ties with local political leaders and conservative interests in the countryside, dam builders create a parallel power structure based on promoting dams and violating the rights of dam-affected populations, helping limit the pace of Brazil's political recovery from 25 years of military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

Following the dismantling of many of Brazil's state electric companies during the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Lula government has emphasized a return to centralized state energy planning, and has halted the privatization process. Still, the building of large hydroelectric dams continues to be practically the only plan for strengthening Brazil's electrical energy security.

It appears that Amazonia's rivers face a tragic destiny. As electro-intensive mining and metals processing industries proliferate throughout the Amazon, the “barrageiros” (dam-building interests) are advancing on the world's last great rainforest, with a greedy plan to get their hands on huge amounts of electricity. It is a devil's bargain that could accelerate the destruction of Amazonia, and for which the planet will pay dearly.

Oswaldo Sevá is professor and researcher in Energy at the Mechanical
Engineering Faculty at São Paulo State University, Unicamp. He coordinated
the study "Tenotã Mõ: Alerts on the Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams on
the Xingu River," published by IRN in 2005 (see /en/latin-america/brazilian-dams/tenot-m-executive-summary). This article was translated by Glenn Switkes.