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Brazil. The mega-dam project threatening Brazil’s Amazon basin and its indigenous peoples.

According to the recent Greenpeace report ‘Damning the Amazon’, the area around the basin of the Tapajós river, a tributary of the Rio Amazon, is one of the most at risk.

The Brazilian government is planning to build more than 40 dams on this river and its tributary the Jamanxim. Five of them are a priority for the government, including the São Luiz do Tapajós, slated to be the largest of them all (it would be 53 meters high, 7.6 kilometres long and with an installed capacity of 8,000 megawatts). Its construction would flood nearly 400 square kilometres (154 square miles) of forest, with deforestation extending to 2,200 square kilometres (849 square miles), the report says.

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The dam is set to flood large areas of land belonging to the indigenous Munduruku people (including sacred sites) and to traditional riverside communities that have lived in the area since the 19th century. The Tapajos River, in fact, 800 kilometres long, is essential to the life of 14,500 indigenous peoples and to that of numerous local population. The Tapajos initiative could also risk the diverse animal and plant life in the region.
Greenpeace also asserts that several negative impacts would  follow the dam’s  construction: reservoirs would submerge tropical soil and vegetation – organic matter that emits significant greenhouse gases (much more powerful than CO2) as it decomposes. Dams power the extraction industry, whose mines bring more infrastructure development. And the industrial waterways made possible by the Tapajós dams would promote large-scale agribusiness and commerce, which would drive further deforestation.

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The Greenpeace report also says that dams not only contribute to both deforestation and climate change, but will themselves also suffer the consequences of these destabilizing forces. As droughts become more frequent and rainfall decreases due to climate change and large-scale Amazonian deforestation, river-flow will likely decrease significantly and become more variable. With dams unlikely to reach their installed capacity or provide reliable power-generation as a result, the economic case for investment in hydropower is significantly weakened.

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Greenpeace argues instead that solar, wind, and biomass generation, alongside efficiency improvements across the grid, could meet Brazil’s energy needs quickly and ethically. Given the likelihood of cost overruns in dam construction they argue that this would also be an economical choice.
The importance of their territory to the Munduruku people was recognized by  the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI), which, in a landmark victory for indigenous land rights in Brazil, has decided to proceed with the official demarcation and protection of the Munduruku Peoples 700-square-mile ancestral territory on the Tapajós River, in the Brazilian Amazon; and later the IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and Environmental) temporarily suspended the dam project. But it is too soon to say that the Tapajos River is out of the woods; in fact, previously, the Belo Monte dam project had also been suspended by IBAMA, which later, however, granted a partial installation license for the dam.

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The  Belo Monte dam will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam, after China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The dam, which is due be completed by 2019, is on the Xingu River, a major Amazon tributary, in the Altamira region, State of Parà, in the northern part of  Brazil. Its construction has already had a dramatic impact on 25 thousand indigenous peoples belonging to 18 ethnic groups: an environmental and humanitarian  disaster. Belo Monte’s future, however, is uncertain. The construction of the dam, in fact, is currently involved in a huge scandal. The government and big companies that planned and financed the structure are now facing charges for corruption and bribery.
The GET (Grupo de Estudios/ ‘Study Group’) is likely to carry out and implement the dam project on the Tapajos river. The GET groups together represent a diverse range of private firms (Eletronorte, Camargo Corrêa, Cemig, Copel, Engie, Électricité de France (EDF) and Neoenergia) under the authority of the state-owned electricity company Eletrobras.

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Endesa Brazil, acquired by Enel quit the consortia a few months ago. Enel, claiming the dam jarred with a fresh set of priorities introduced by new, environmentally friendly management, has informed Greenpeace that ‘the company officially communicated to the Brazilan Ministry of Mines and Energy that it is not interested in investing in the region of the Tapajos. Consequently Enel, even if currently interested in other investments in Brazil, will not participate in any further activities related to the project [Tapajós]’.
A joint venture between German firms Siemens and Voith, which previously participated in the controversial Belo Monte project, though not part of the construction consortia, is thought likely to manufacture the turbines used at the dam and to be an otherwise key player in the supply chain.

Pedro Santacruz

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