Tag Archives: indigenous peoples and dams

Robots to the Rescue: Best Dams on Amazon River

Proposed hydropower dams at more than 350 sites throughout the Amazon require strategic evaluation of trade-offs between the production electricity and the protection of biodiversity. 

Researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify sites that simultaneously minimize impacts on river flow, river connectivity, sediment transport, fish diversity, and greenhouse gas emissions while achieving energy production goals. The researchers found that uncoordinated, dam-by-dam hydropower expansion has resulted in forgone environmental benefits from the river. Minimizing further damage from hydropower development requires considering diverse environmental impacts across the entire basin, as well as cooperation among Amazonian nations. 

Alexander Flecker et al., Reducing adverse impacts of Amazon hydropower expansion, Science, Feb. 17, 2022

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

Green Dams that Kill

A planned mega-dam in Guatemala, whose carbon credits will be tradable under the EU’s emissions trading system, has been linked to grave human rights abuses, including the killing of six indigenous people, two of them children.  Several European development banks and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) have provided funds for the $250m (£170m) Santa Rita dam.

But human rights groups back claims from the Mayan community that they were never consulted about the hydro project, which will forcibly displace thousands of people to generate 25MW of energy, mostly for export to neighbouring countries.  The issue has become a focus of indigenous protest in Guatemala – which has led to a march on the capital and severe political repression.

“At the moment our community is living under the same conditions as they did during the war,” Maximo Ba Tiul, a spokesman for the Peoples’ Council of Tezulutlán told the Guardian. “Our civilian population is once again being terrorised by armed thugs.”  Around 200,000 Mayans died or were “disappeared” during the civil war of the early 1980s, leading to the conviction of the country’s former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in 2013 on genocide charges.

Augusto Sandino Ponce, the son of a local landowner who community leaders allege worked as a contractor to Montt’s junta during the civil war, is at the centre of new accusations of human rights violations. Last April Ponce and his bodyguards allegedly opened fire on a Mayan community ceremony in which families asked the Earth for permission to plant their crops. One local man, Victor Juc, was killed and several were injured. Ponce reportedly claims he was acting in self defence…

In a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) clean development mechanism (CDM) executive board,  the People’s Council of Tezulutlán outlined a litany of human rights abuses in the region, including kidnappings, evictions, house burnings, attacks by men wielding machetes and guns, and the arrest of community leaders.  The council also says that an environmental impact assessment for the dam suggests that it would create a 40ft-high wall, flooding local communities and depriving them of access to water, food, transport and recreation.  In approving projects, the CDM board pursues a narrow remit focused on emissions reductions. The reign of terror in the Alta Verapaz region, falls outside it – as did similar events in Honduras….

Perhaps the most shocking incident took place on 23 August 2013, when two children were killed by an allegedly drunken Santa Rita hydroelectricity company worker looking for David Chen, a community leader in the Monte Olivo region.   Chen was meeting with the rapporteur of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights at the time. When the worker could not find him, he is said to have lined up two of Chen’s nephews, David Stuart Pacay Maaz, 11 and Haggai Isaac Guitz Maaz, 13, and killed them with a single bullet to one child’s head that continued through the throat of the other. The killer has since been killed himself.  The annual report of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights implicitly blamed the approval of the dam project for the killings….

Eva Filzmoser, the director of Carbon Market Watch said: “We want the CDM board to take responsibility and establish a grievance and redress mechanism for local communities to appeal, ask for problematic decisions to be rescinded and gain redress. We will be pushing for this at the Paris climate summit to apply to all forms of climate finance in the future.”Efforts to reform the CDM were boosted last month, when 18 countries signed a “Geneva declaration” calling for human rights norms to be integrated into UNFCCC climate decisions….Signatory countries to the declaration include France, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Uruguay and Peru.

Excerpts Green’ dam linked to killings of six indigenous people in Guatemala, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2015

Dams in Brazil

Some 20,000 labourers are working around the clock at Belo Monte on the Xingu river, the biggest hydropower plant under construction anywhere. When complete, its installed capacity, or theoretical maximum output, of 11,233MW will make it the world’s third-largest, behind China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.  Everything about Belo Monte is outsized, from the budget (28.9 billion reais, or $14.4 billion), to the earthworks—a Panama Canal-worth of soil and rock is being excavated—to the controversy surrounding it. In 2008 a public hearing in Altamira, the nearest town, saw a government engineer cut with a machete. In 2010 court orders threatened to stop the auction for the project. The private-sector bidders pulled out a week before. When officials from Norte Energia, the winning consortium of state-controlled firms and pension funds, left the auction room, they were greeted by protesters—and three tonnes of pig muck.

Since then construction has twice been halted briefly by legal challenges. Greens and Amerindians often stage protests. Xingu Vivo (“Living Xingu”), an anti-Belo Monte campaign group, displays notes from supporters all over the world in its Altamira office… But visit the site and Belo Monte now looks both unstoppable and much less damaging to the environment than some of its foes claim…

Brazil already generates 80% of its electricity from hydro plants—far more than other countries. But two-thirds of its hydro potential is untapped. The snag is that most of it lies in untouched rivers in the Amazon basin. Of 48 planned dams, 30 are in the rainforest. They include the almost completed Jirau and Santo Antônio on the Madeira river, which will add 6,600MW to installed capacity. But it is Belo Monte, the giant among them, that has become the prime target of anti-dams campaigners.Opponents say that dams only look cheap because the impact on locals is downplayed and the value of other uses of rivers—for fishing, transport and biodiversity—is not counted. They acknowledge that hydropower is low-carbon, but worry that reservoirs in tropical regions can release large amounts of methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas.

In the 20th century thousands of dams were built around the world. Some were disasters: Brazil’s Balbina dam near Manaus, put up in the 1980s, flooded 2,400 square km (930 square miles) of rainforest for a piffling capacity of 250MW. Its vast, stagnant reservoir makes it a “methane factory”, says Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Amazonian Research, a government body in Manaus. Proportionate to output, it emits far more greenhouse gases than even the most inefficient coal plant.

But many dams were worth it (though the losers rarely received fair compensation). Itaipu, built in the 1970s by Brazil’s military government, destroyed some of the world’s loveliest waterfalls, flooded 1,350 square km and displaced 10,000 families. But it now supplies 17% of Brazil’s electricity and 73% of Paraguay’s. It is highly efficient, producing more energy than the Three Gorges, despite being smaller.

Of Brazil’s total untapped hydropower potential of around 180,000MW, about 80,000MW lies in protected regions, mostly indigenous territories, for which there are no development plans. The government expects to use most of the remaining 100,000MW by 2030, says Mr Ventura. But it will minimise the social and environmental costs, he insists. The new dams will use “run of river” designs, eschewing large reservoirs and relying on the water’s natural flow to power the turbines. And they will not flood any Indian reserves.,,,

The protesters’ legal challenge to Belo Monte is based on the claim that they have not been properly consulted, something the government denies. The constitution says that before exploiting any resource on Amerindian lands, the government must consult the inhabitants. But it is silent on how this should be done. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a similar clause in its Convention 169 on indigenous rights, to which Brazil is a signatory.  The government says that since no demarcated territories will be flooded, such formal protections do not apply. “We hold consultations about the projects we’re doing not because we have to, but because it is right,” says Mr Ventura. Between 2007 and 2010 there were four public hearings and 12 public consultations about Belo Monte, as well as explanatory workshops and 30 visits to Indian villages.

In 2011, in response to a complaint filed by Indian groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a halt to construction pending further consultation. That was “precipitate and unjustified”, said the government, refusing the request. The ILO has asked Brazil’s government for more information on how it intends to fulfil its legal obligations.

The legal uncertainty surrounding Belo Monte is bad for both the Indians and contractors, says Mr Sales—not to mention Brazil as a whole. A draft law detailing how to consult indigenous people is expected by the end of the year. But before Congress legislates, ground is likely to have been broken on most of the new dams….

Belo Monte was given an initial budget of 16 billion reais, which had risen to 19 billion reais by the time of the auction. Norte Energia’s winning bid for Belo Monte offered a price of 77.97 reais/MWh. Since then, its budget has risen by a third.  Officials insist that the costs are Norte Energia’s problem. That looks disingenuous. The group is almost wholly state-owned. In November, the national development bank gave Norte Energia a loan of 22.5 billion reais—its largest-ever credit. If Belo Monte turns out to be a white elephant, the bill will fall on the taxpayer.

Dams in the Amazon: the Rights and Wrongs of Belo Monte, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 37

The War on Dams

An Amazonian community has threatened to “go to war” with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders.  The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.  Public prosecutors, human rights groups, environmental organisations and Christian missionaries have condemned what they call the government’s strong-arm tactics.

According to witnesses in the area, helicopters, soldiers and armed police have been involved in Operation Tapajós, which aims to conduct an environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed construction of the 6,133MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam.  The facility, to be built by the Norte Energia consortium, is the biggest of two planned dams on the Tapajós, the fifth-largest river in the Amazon basin. The government’s 10-year plan includes the construction of four larger hydroelectric plants on its tributary, the Jamanxim.

Under Brazilian law, major infrastructure projects require prior consultation with indigenous communities. Federal prosecutors say this has not happened and urge the courts to block the scheme which, they fear, could lead to bloodshed.  “The Munduruku have already stated on several occasions that they do not support studies for hydroelectric plants on their land unless there is full prior consultation,” the prosecutors noted in a statement.

However, a court ruling last week gave the go-ahead for the survey. Government officials say that neither researchers nor logistical and support teams will enter indigenous villages. The closest they will get is about 30 miles from the nearest village, Sawré Maybu.  The ministry of mines and energy noted on its website that 80 researchers, including biologists and foresters, would undertake a study of flora and fauna. The army escort was made possible by President Dilma Rousseff, who decreed this year that military personnel could be used for survey operations. Officials say the security is for the safety of the scientists and the local population.

Missionaries said the presence of armed troops near Sawré Maybu village, Itaituba, was intimidating, degrading and an unacceptable violation of the rights of the residents.  “In this operation, the federal government has been threatening the lives of the people,” the Indigenous Missionary Council said. “It is unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to impose dialogue at the tip of a bayonet.”

The group added that Munduruku leaders ended a phone call with representatives of the president with a declaration of war. They have also issued open letters calling for an end to the military operation. “We are not bandits. We feel betrayed, humiliated and disrespected by all this,” a letter states.  One of the community’s leaders, Valdenir Munduruku, has warned that locals will take action if the government does not withdraw its taskforce by 10 April, when the two sides are set to talk. He has called for support from other indigenous groups, such as the Xingu, facing similar threats from hydroelectric dams.

Environmental groups have expressed concern. The 1,200-mile waterway is home to more than 300 fish species and provides sustenance to some of the most biodiverse forest habitats on Earth. Ten indigenous groups inhabit the basin, along with several tribes in voluntary isolation.  With similar conflicts over other proposed dams in the Amazon, such as those at Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antônio and Jirau, some compare the use of force to the last great expansion of hydropower during the military dictatorship. “The Brazilian government is making political decisions about the dams before the environmental impact assessment is done,” said Brent Millikan of the International Rivers environmental group.  “The recent military operations illustrate that the federal government is willing to disregard existing legal instruments intended to foster dialogue between government and civil society.”

Jonathan Watts, Amazon tribe threatens to declare war amid row over Brazilian dam project, Guardian, Aprl. 3, 2013