Tuesday, September 26, 2017

How a Dam Building Boom Is Transforming the Brazilian Amazon

Brazil is in the midst of a hydropower construction boom that is inundating large areas of rainforest and driving indigenous people from their lands — all while failing to fully develop the country’s vast potential for solar and wind energy.}

Brazil is in the midst of a dam-building spree in the Amazon basin that is changing the face of the world’s largest tropical forest region.  The boom is driven by the country’s agricultural and heavy industrial interests, is being carried out with little regard to the impacts on indigenous people and the environment, is proceeding with little effort to capitalize on the nation’s vast renewable energy potential, and is often fueled by corruption.

The Belo Monte Dam under construction on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, in 2015. (Credit: Fábio Nascimento/Greenpeace) Click to Enlarge.
The most notable example is the massive Belo Monte Dam, the world’s fourth-largest hydroelectric project.  The dam itself has already blocked the 1,000-mile Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Belo Monte’s reservoir, filled at the end of 2015, flooded 260 square miles of lowlands and forest, displaced more than 20,000 people, and caused extensive damage to a river ecosystem that contains more than 500 fish species, many of them found nowhere else.  When the turbine installation is complete, 80 percent of the river’s flow will be detoured from the river’s natural channel, which – among other impacts – will leave three indigenous groups without the fish and turtles on which they depend.

Now, the Brazilian government has set its sights on the Tapajós River, another major tributary of the Amazon River that drains an area larger than California and that stretches from the soy fields of Mato Grosso northward across the Amazon forest in the vast state of Pará before joining the Amazon at Santarém.  Planned Tapajós Basin dams total 43 with at least 30 megawatts of installed capacity, plus many more with less.  Of the 43, two have already had their reservoirs filled, two more are approaching this stage, and several of the largest ones are high on the list of future plans.

Should Brazil’s unfettered dam construction continue at the current pace, the country will essentially take all of the major free-flowing Amazon tributaries east of the Madeira River — in effect, half of the Amazon basin — and turn them into continuous chains of reservoirs.  This would mean expelling all of the traditional residents from two-thirds of Brazilian Amazonia.

The construction of these hydroelectric projects is occurring at a time when Brazil is both weakening its environmental laws and regulations and ignoring those already on the books.   In one key case — the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam — the environmental impact study was “archived” in 2016 by IBAMA, the Ministry of the Environment’s agency in charge of licensing.  However, this highly controversial dam, which would flood indigenous land, remains in the plans of the Ministry of Mines and Energy and it could be “de-archived” at some future date.

Read more at How a Dam Building Boom Is Transforming the Brazilian Amazon

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