Damming The Amazon  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

Plenty Magazine has a look at efforts to expand hydro-electric capacity in Brazil and the opposition this is meeting from the native inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest.

Tensions are so high over a proposed dam in the Brazilian Amazon that violence broke out at a May meeting in the city of Altamira to discuss the project. A thousand indigenous people from 26 ethnic tribes crowded into a high school gymnasium. Members of the the Kayapó, Juruna, Arara, Xipaia, Kuruaia, and other tribes that live along the mighty river’s second longest tributary, the Xingu, don’t get together in Altamira very often. But the $6.6 billion dam, called the Belo Monte, that Brazil’s electric utility, Electronorte, plans to build along the 1,200-mile Xingu River will affect them all. It would be the world’s third largest dam, with a potential installed capacity of 11,181 MW—and its reservoir would flood 100,000 acres, putting many tribal lands underwater.

Given this projection, what happened during the gathering may not have been all that surprising. Paulo Fernando Rezende, an Electronorte representative, gave a PowerPoint presentation touting the benefits of the dam, and telling the tribes that "the National Indian Foundation will fully participate in the studies affecting the indigenous lands,” according to a report by National Public Radio. But coming from a notoriously corrupt agency, the offer was interpreted as little more than a paper dove. A leader of the Movement of Dam Affected People of Brazil, Roquivan Alves Silva, took Rezende’s microphone, saying he would go to war if necessary. The tribes proceeded to rush the stage and physically attack Rezende.

“The indigenous people decided to send a clear message to the government. They were incensed, especially at Rezende´s smugness and arrogance in portraying the dams as not being a problem to the indigenous peoples,” says Glenn Switkes, of International Rivers Network, a California-based water policy nonprofit. “Brazilian tribes are guaranteed, under the Brazilian constitution, exclusive rights to the natural resources on their lands. When hydroelectric dams are proposed that affect indigenous lands, the constitution guarantees them the right ‘to be heard’ which courts have interpreted in many cases as ‘prior consent’.”

The Belo Monte Dam is just one of hundreds of dams planned on multiple tributaries of the Amazon like the Madeira, Tapajós, and the Tocantins. While building these structures will help Brazil meet its rapidly expanding energy needs, critics say the country should instead invest in alternative energy sources like biomass and wind that won’t endanger the riparian ecosystems and fisheries that native peoples rely on. ...

Brazil’s focus on developing new sources of power began with the Blackout Crisis, which stretched from June 2001 to February 2002, when Brazil experienced its worst drought in 70 years. Reservoir levels dropped so low electricity could not be consistently produced by hydropower, forcing the so-called “Blackout Ministry” to ration power use, slashing it to one-fifth. Politicians concluded they should increase the hydropower infrastructure, and by 2006 it was the source of more than 75 percent of the nation’s power.


I think that the indigenous people should not be blamed for being somewhat distrustful regarding Brazilian government plans for the Xingu River. For an update on this story, please see my blog posting http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/glenn-switkes/with-rings-their-fingers

I think you are right.

Interesting post of yours by the way - part of the general trend to put aluminium smelters near cheap geothermal or hydro power sources.

Brazil´s latest hydroelectric inventory for the Xingu had indicated the feasibility of three upstream dams - São Felix (906 MW), Pombal (600 MW), and Altamira (1848 MW), but the author of the inventory, state holding company Eletrobrás chose to conclude that the 11,181 MW Belo Monte would serve just fine as a sole dam on the Xingu, since the upstream dams would impact indigenous reserves and conservation units even more.

So, who´s behind the pressure for Belo Monte to be built? The Amazon´s most prominent independent journalist, Lúcio Flávio Pinto pointed out that aluminum smelters in the Amazon have slowed down expansion plans to the point where Companhia Vale do Rio Doce is now planning to import coal from China for a 600 MW thermoelectric plant to provide energy for its Albrás foundry. The only other potential source of energy in the short run is Belo Monte.

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