Mega-Dams in the Amazon: Brazil's Three Gorges?

The Madeira River in western Brazil is the Amazon's longest tributary and one of the best-preserved tropical waterways and jungle corridors in the world. A project for two massive dams on its remote upper reaches has long been a matter of controversy, not only among environmentalists, but also among Brazilian technocrats unsure of the risks.

September 4, 2007

The Madeira River in western Brazil is the Amazon's longest tributary and one of the best-preserved tropical waterways and jungle corridors in the world. A project for two massive dams on its remote upper reaches has long been a matter of controversy, not only among environmentalists, but also among Brazilian technocrats unsure of the risks.

Nonetheless, faced with an energy squeeze and intent on faster economic growth, the Brazilian government this month gave preliminary approval to the Madeira dams project.The cry of opposition to the project has been immediate—and one of the loudest complaints has come from neighboring Bolivia, concerned about spillover effects.

Aerial view of the Madeira River, the largest tributary of the Amazon River. (Wilson Dias/ABr)

Environmentalists, indigenous activists and clean energy advocates also are incensed. The Madeira River dams may become for Brazil what the Three Gorges Dam project became for China—a referendum on what human and environmental sacrifices (if any) should be made in the energy-intensive race to compete in the global economy.

Brazil's government is prepared to spend a huge sum of money on the Madeira dams. The estimated cost of the project is around $13 billion. The Brazilian government would like to complete them by 2012 and says they could supply up to 8% of the country's total energy needs.

There are some conditions attached to Brazil's decision to go ahead with the dams. Any proposals for construction or logistics will have to clear the hurdle of meeting 33 environmental standards before they are adopted. However, it's clear that the starting gates have been raised on contracts related to the dams, and firms already have begun lobbying the government for inclusion in the multibillion dollar intitiative.

In Bolivia's opinion, the existing safeguards are not sufficient and the entire project needs to be rethought.

Immediately after hearing of Brazil's green-lighting of the Madeira project, David Choquehuanca, Bolivia's foreign minister, immediately sent a protest letter to his Brazilian counterparts, demanding an immediate binational meeting on the proposed dams, which would be within 200 kilometers of the border between the two countries. According to Brazilian eco-news website, Choquehuanca's letter cites concerns over sedimentation, mercury contamination, malarial infections, and impacts on fishing stocks.

In the past, Bolivia's government has expressed its opposition to the project, although Brazilian authorities have implied that the position is a strategic posture meant to elicit financial support for Bolivian hydroelectric projects in Amazonia.

The Amazon River Basin

In his July 13 reply to Choquehuanca, Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim gave assurances that the dams' effects would not spill over into Bolivian territory. He also enumerated the long list of environmental conditions that contractors would have to meet if their project to build the dams is selected. "These projects are of fundamental importance for the energy needs of Brazil," Amorim said in the letter.

Choquehuanca later informed Brazilian and Bolivian media that his counterparts in Brasília had agreed to a meeting.

Phillip Fearnside, an expert in Amazonian ecology and development who works at the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA), says flooding from one of the dams could in fact extend much further into Bolivia than claimed by the Brazilian government.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and activists point to the project as an example of everything that is wrong with Brazil's response to its energy problems. "The energy crisis argument is only an excuse to legitimize a proposal without much-needed discussions," writes Luis Fernando Novoa Garzón, in an op-ed published by A Tribuna, a daily newspaper in Rio Branco, capital of Acre state. "The truth of the matter is that this is the beginning of a cycle of massive infrastructure projects that submit the Amazon region to a new use of its territory, a vision linked to international financial institutions and the raw materials export sector."

The writer, a social activist and university professor in Rondônia state, notes that state-run enterprises already have been discouraged from competing for contracts linked to the dam project, and that Brazil's federal environmental watchdog agency, IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais), was pushed by the government into giving its stamp of approval after initial reluctance.

"Mega-dams like the ones they want to build on the Madeira," writes Novoa Garzón, "dramatically modify hydrology, generate greenhouse gases, worsen water quality, squeeze the aquatic food chain, encourage malaria as well as mercury pollution, displace thousands of people, suppress traditional cultures and contribute to the chaos of nearby urban centers."

The mega-dams, he says, will only benefit "exporters of commodities who demand more energy to expand the scale of their extraction of raw materials for outside markets." He says the energy, which will have to be transported thousands of kilometers to industrial and population centers, will end up costing far more than energy that could be produced by remodeling power plants or older dams, improving energy conservation and pursuing alternative sources such as wind and solar power.

According to the op-ed, IBAMA's initial March 21 assessment of the Madeira dams red-flagged the project because of ecological risks and questions about preparations to mitigate negative effects on human populations. However, the government pressured the agency to issue a more favorable opinion. "The Madeira Complex project is a private, corporate and transnational initiative, which, if contracted, dismantles the already fragile structure of socio-environmental regulations in this country," writes Garzón.

In fact, Brazilian media says President Lula's recent decision to split IBAMA in two was linked to his frustration over delays in gaining approval for the Madeira dams, which along with other hydroelectric projects he sees as key to his plan to accelerate Brazil's economic growth to 5% a year. Three months ago, upset about the delays with the dams project, Lula pushed Environment Minister Marina Silva to clear away the obstacles put up by IBAMA, which is part of her ministry. Soon, IBAMA's top officials were pushed out and replaced by close collaborators of Silva's who were seen as more flexible. Then, a provisional presidential decree split the agency into two—creating one agency devoted to approving projects and another focused on conservation tasks. The Brazilian Senate still has to approve the measure, which caused deep anger within IBAMA and led to an employee strike.

Before splitting IBAMA, President Lula was quoted in many media reports venting his frustration about the delays with the Maderia River project. He even went as far as to speak sarcastically about the agency's concerns about the dams' impact on a large migratory catfish: "We can't do this because of a catfish?" Lula asked.

According to the Brazilian Icthyology Society (fish biologists), the dams may have irreversible harmful effects on migratory fish species such as the large dourada catfish (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii), which is at the top of the riverine food chain and is of a biological importance comparable to that of a predatory land mammal. These catfish also provide sustenance for human populations all along the Amazon and Madeira rivers. They migrate thousands of miles from the Amazon's Atlantic estuary to the Andean sources of the river.

If completed, the dams—to be called Santo Antonio and Jirau—would produce some 6,500 megawatts of electricity, roughly one-third of the projected capacity of China's Three Gorges Dam project, but three times as much as the U.S. Hoover Dam.

Marcelo Ballvé is a writer based in Buenos Aires. He writes on cultural and ecological topics. His essay "Copacabana Beach" was featured in a 2003 anthology of young writers published by Penguin Putnam.

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