Published On: January 5, 2018

Government Suspends Mega-Dams

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The Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River. Credit: Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento)

In a surprise move, the Brazilian government has announced that the era of building big hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin, long criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups, is ending. “We are not prejudiced against big [hydroelectric] projects, but we have to respect the views of society, which views them with restrictions,” Paulo Pedrosa, the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told Globo.

According to Pedrosa, Brazil has the potential to generate an additional 50 gigawatts of energy by 2050 through the building of new dams but of this total, only 23 percent would not affect in some way indigenous land, quilombolas (communities originally established by escaped slaves), and federally protected areas. The government, Pedrosa says, doesn’t have the energy to take on the battles against the rights of the indigenous, not to mention the constant pressure from environmentalists.

Pedrosa went on: “Nor are we going to take actions that hide the costs and the risks [of hydroelectric projects].” This statement refers to the actions of previous governments, particularly under former President Dilma Rousseff, which made it difficult to evaluate the real expense and environmental impact of large dams such as Belo Monte. It was only after construction of Belo Monte that the huge cost – financial, social, and environmental – was fully revealed.

An indigenous leader at the São Manoel dam construction site on the Teles Pires River in the Tapajós basin. Credit: Midia Ninja courtesy of International Rivers.

An indigenous leader at the São Manoel dam construction site on the Teles Pires River in the Tapajós basin. Credit: Midia Ninja courtesy of International Rivers.

In 2016, after many indigenous demonstrations, the Rousseff administration suspended the building of a large dam on the Tapajós River, which would have flooded part of the Munduruku indigenous territory of Sawre-Muybu. However, because the government never officially canceled the dam, Indians and environmentalists have long feared that the project could be relaunched at any moment by the Temer administration. However, according to O Globo, the Ministry of Mines and Energy has announced that it will no longer fight for this project.

“I don’t think any more big hydro dams will be built,” said Mauro Maura Severino, a lecturer in electric energy at the University of Brasilia. “Brazil should move towards clean energy, like solar and wind.” João Carlos Mello from Thymos Energia, a consulting company, agreed: “The future lies with renewable energy, such as wind, and much smaller dams. The direction should be to generate the energy much nearer to where it will be consumed.”

While the Temer administration hasn’t said this, experts believe that rather than bowing to pressure from environmentalists or shifting the government’s focus to solar and wind, it’s hard economic and political realities that are playing the chief role in the government’s turnabout. In the past, the huge Brazilian development bank, BNDES (National Bank of Economic and Social Development), subsidized mega-dams for billions of dollars, funneling the money through state companies that became powerful as a result. For example, Eletrobrás, Latin America’s biggest utility company, owns 49.98 percent of Belo Monte. Furnas, a regional power utility and Eletrobras subsidiary, owns 39 percent of the Santo Antônio hydroelectric project and, through its subsidiaries, 40 percent of the Jirau dams – both large, controversial projects built on the Madeira River.

The Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River. Credit: Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento)

The Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River. Credit: Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento)

However, in August of 2017, President Temer stunned the market by announcing the privatization of Eletrobrás. Edvaldo Santana, the former director of ANEEL (the National Agency of Electric Energy), said: “The privatization of Eletrobrás is a relevant factor [in the change of policy regarding mega-dams]. Neither Belo Monte nor Santo Antônio nor Jirau would have existed without Eletrobrás and the infusion of cash from BNDES.”

Brazil’s political climate has also changed since the heyday of mega-dam construction under presidents Lula and Rousseff. Some observers agree that the only reason Belo Monte was built was that the PT government needed a big construction project through which PT could ‘pay back’ big construction companies like Odebrecht for the huge sums in campaign contributions the firms had provided to PT. Such deals are no longer possible thanks to Lava-Jato, whose investigations are still ongoing.

Back in 2016, Felício Pontes, a MPF prosecutor in the state of Pará, said: “The factor that explains the irrational option for hydroelectric stations in the Amazon is corruption. In other words, energy planning in Brazil is not treated as a strategic issue involving the future of the nation but, at least since the time of the military dictatorship, as a source of money for construction companies and politicians.”

Teles Pires River dam

In 2015, an indigenous alliance demanded that Brazil halt Amazon dam construction. Photo: Amazon Watch

 

The government’s hydroelectric dams policy change announced this week will surely be greeted as a hopeful sign by environmentalists and indigenous groups. However, experts warn that a much bigger strategic policy shift is needed regarding infrastructure planning and agribusiness before the Amazon can be deemed safe from major deforestation.

Over the last 18 months, the Bancada Ruralista, the rural lobby in Congress, has won victory after victory, leading to policies meant to benefit agribusiness while threatening conservation units and indigenous territories. That drive seems likely to intensify in the months leading up to October’s presidential election. There is, for example, still talk of a hugely environmentally harmful project that would turn the Tapajos river basin into an industrial waterway, with its tributaries and main stem dredged and rapids dynamited.

Hydroelectric dams have caused great damage to indigenous and traditional communities and the environment, but they are only one of many serious Amazon threats – new roads, railways, waterways, mines, and other infrastructure all result in great destruction.

Belo Monte mega-dam under construction. Belo Monte displaced somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people and did tremendous damage to the Xingu River fishery, along with other environmental harm. Its construction was cloaked in charges of government and construction company corruption. Photo courtesy of Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress.

Belo Monte mega-dam under construction. Belo Monte displaced somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people and did tremendous damage to the Xingu River fishery along with other environmental harm. Its construction was cloaked in charges of government and construction company corruption. Photo: Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress.

“The Brazilian government’s announcement validates what scientists, indigenous activists, and economists have long known: that these costly, corrupt hydropower projects are destroying lives, livelihoods, and the vibrant ecosystem of the Amazon, the lungs of the planet,” Kate Horner, executive director of International Rivers, said. “Brazil can meet its energy needs without mega-dams, and now it will finally get the chance.”

“Current hydroelectric projects when priced appropriately – including transmission costs, risks associated with the seasonality of energy and the possible delay of works – show them to be much less competitive than in previous assessments,” the Ministry of Mines and Energy wrote in an email response to British newspaper The Guardian.

[This article appeared in a slightly different form on the Mongabay website and includes research from The Guardian.]

 

 

 

 

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  1. Erik says:

    The article at Mongabay.com that this feature relies upon is here, https://news.mongabay.com/2018/01/brazil-announces-end-to-amazon-mega-dam-building-policy/ — please include the link and credit author Sue Branford.

    Thank you,

    Mongabay.com

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