Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Indians Close Ranks Against Dams in the Amazon

Bernarda Claure* - Tierramérica

LA PAZ, Jul 10 2008 (IPS) - Indigenous communities in Bolivia and Brazil have declared an emergency in response to the construction of the Madera River Hydroelectric Complex, which Brasilia is pursuing even as independent research efforts try to measure the impacts of what will be one of South America's largest energy projects.

The town of Porto Velho on the Madeira River. Credit: Agencia Brasil

The town of Porto Velho on the Madeira River. Credit: Agencia Brasil

The government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this year has proposed construction of the Jirau and San Antonio dams, the first part of the complex in Brazilian territory. But Bolivian residents of the northern Amazon fear it will unleash environmental harm and devastate their lands.

The organisations representing them met Jun. 29 in the northern city of Riberalta and declared an emergency. A declaration by seven labour groups and the Movement of People Affected by Dams of the western Brazilian state of Rondonia, seen by Tierramérica, called on the Bolivian government "not to negotiate or sign any type of agreement" with Brazil.

The Madera, the Spanish name of the river where it begins in Bolivia, or the Madeira, its Portuguese name in Brazil, originates in the Andes Mountains, formed by the Beni and Madre de Dios rivers, and ultimately flows into the Amazon River.

The Madera crosses a biodiverse region, with a binational path of rapids and "cachuelas", or low cascades. This geography is not suitable for river navigation, but has hydroelectric potential.

Researchers at the Institute of Hydrology and Hydraulics of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) and of the Research for Development Institute, along with experts supported by the non-governmental Bolivian Forum for Environment and Development (Fobomade) are trying to determine the risks Bolivia faces in the construction of the dams.

Although the dam is to be built in Brazilian territory, there will be impacts in Bolivia as well, UMSA researcher Jorge Molina told Tierramérica.

The preliminary results of the study indicate that there would be blockage of rivers and tributaries, with subsequent flooding, severe losses of aquatic diversity and of farmable land, as well as displacement of indigenous communities.

The central project of the hydroelectric complex is located near the Brazilian city of Porto Velho, in Rondonia, near the border. The original plan consisted of a 4,200-kilometre waterway and four hydroelectric dams with locks for navigation, two in Brazil (San Antonio and Jirau), the third in binational waters, and the fourth in Bolivia, in the Amazonian region of Cachuela Esperanza.

But Brasilia ruled out the last two, as long as no agreement is reached with La Paz.

If it is finalised, the project could generate up to 17,000 megawatts, mostly destined for industries in southern Brazil, according to a Tierramérica interview with Brazilian environmental engineer David Melendres, who is researching the issue in northern Bolivia.

The environmental costs could outweigh the benefits, he said.

The Riberalta pronouncement by the coalition demands the presence of Bolivia's President Evo Morales at the Union of Campesinos (peasant farmers) of the city of Guayaramerín, near the border, to meet with Indians, farmers and trade unionists.

"They don't listen to us when we warn about the increase in disease, displacement of entire towns, and flooding of tributaries," said Rabi Ortiz, president of the Bolivian Indigenous Union of the Amazon Region.

The Morales government has repeated that it does not intend to take action without consulting the native communities.

In early June, energy minister Carlos Villegas said Bolivia will insist on an agreement with Brazil based on "a binational analysis of the economic, social and environmental effects" of the hydroelectric project.

But construction of the San Antonio dam was already granted in bidding to the consortium led by the government-owned company Furnas de Brasil and the construction giant Odebrecht. The Jirau dam has been receiving proposals since May.

The complex will cost more than 9 billion dollars and would be the second largest in Brazil, after Itaipú, which is located on the Paraná River, shared with Paraguay.

In April 2004, Odebrecht requested two provisional licenses from Bolivia's Electrical Superintendence to conduct feasibility studies for hydroelectric dams on the Mamoré, Madera and Beni rivers. The request was denied.

However, although Bolivia has so far upheld that decision, "its official position is not clear," Fobomade vice-president Elizabeth Mamani told Tierramérica.

The Bolivian government lacks official studies of the project, admitted Iván Castellón, general superintendent of the Renewable Resources Regulation System.

Meanwhile, Brazil has shown its determination by starting construction this year. The river communities were notified that they have until Aug. 30 to relocate, according to a government communiqué to which Tierramérica had access.

The greatest concern of the Indians is that at least 3,000 people will be displaced in Brazil. And in Bolivia, a Fobomade study indicates that about 300 entire communities will be forced to move.

The Forum published an environmental impact study of the dams that warns about an increase in diseases – yellow fever, malaria, dengue and others – related to the lack of sanitation and urbanisation for the displaced.

"It will be necessary to multiply the health teams in Brazil. The situation will be complicated in Bolivia by the fact that the government simply doesn't reach the northern Amazonian areas," said Mamani, an environmental lawyer.

Bolivia is one of the few countries that still has unknown and uncontacted peoples, "who are now in danger," added the Fobomade vice-president. The little-known Pacahuara would be affected – they move between the Río Negro in the eastern department of Santa Cruz and the Pacahuara, in the northern Pando.

According to Melendres' research, "These groups would have to emigrate to other regions in search of food and inhabitable space, leading to the invasion of territories of other indigenous populations."

This information is sufficient to halt the project, based on the principle of caution, says Mamani.

But because "Brazil lives with the fear of the blackouts it suffered in 2001 due to an energy crisis," it is unlikely that it will stop the project, Patricio Sorbera de los Ríos, a former professor at Brazil's Federal University of Acre, told Tierramérica.

"It is known that construction like this creates diverse types of impacts. We can hope that they are not as great as those predicted by the environmentalists," he added.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

born darkly epub