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BRAZIL: Mitigating Impacts of Progress in Amazon Jungle

Mario Osava

PORTO VELHO, Brazil, Dec 6 2010 (IPS) - “We want real compensation,” said Luis Nascimento de Freitas, a fisherman from Vila Teotonio, a ramshackle town on the banks of the Madeira River that will be flooded when the Santo Antonio hydroelectric plant is completed.

Vila Teotonio, to be flooded by the Santo Antonio dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Vila Teotonio, to be flooded by the Santo Antonio dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The consortium that built the dam is offering better housing to the relocated families, or a lump sum in cash, he acknowledged. But he complained that they will not receive sufficient indemnification for “the loss of our sources of income,” which are fishing and tourism.

“We natives are the only people who will be affected by this; we’ll live in a beautiful house, but without any money in our pockets,” he said.

Freitas’s complaints reflect the conflicts generated by the various dams under construction in the Amazon jungle in Brazil and Peru. Progress, which demands a steady increase in energy, is destroying the traditional way of life and habitat of indigenous people, small fisherfolk and other riverbank peoples, and thus undermining biological and cultural diversity.

But the Santo Antonio Energía (SAE) consortium made up of seven companies and investment funds, which won the contract to build the hydroelectric plant, claims it is ushering in a new socially responsible way of doing things in Brazil by combining a huge infrastructure project with a boost to social development and respect for the environment.

The 104 families who lived on the banks of the river near the Teotonio waterfalls were given the choice of a payment of 69,000 dollars, on average, to buy a new house elsewhere and make the transition to a new livelihood, or a home in a new town built for them two kilometres away.

The Vila Nova de Teotonio or “New Teotonio Town” has 72 solid, colourfully painted prefabricated homes with large yards, as well as a school, sports and recreational facilities, and buildings where people who ran restaurants and other businesses in the old community of rustic wooden shacks can set up shop.

But only 42 families moved in November to the new town, where the idea is to replicate the fishing and culinary traditions of the original Vila Teotonio, because in three or four years, when the reservoir is full, its edge will be near the new town. Most of the families chose the cash payment, and bought a home in the nearest city.

“But those who leave end up returning. They spend the money and then go back to fishing; they don’t know how to do anything else,” said José dos Santos who, due to “family pressure,” bought a house in Porto Velho, the nearby capital of the western Brazilian Amazon jungle state of Rondonia.

“I was born here and I have always lived here; now I’ll have to find another business,” said the fisherman, who owns two boats he uses to take tourists out fishing.

The dam will affect a total of 1,175 rural and 504 urban families, who are in the process of resettlement and indemnification. Nearly one-quarter of them are demanding more compensation and are still negotiating, organised in the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB).

MAB, which was just recently recognised as a valid interlocutor in the relocation process, estimates that more than one million families have been forced from their homes as a result of the construction of dams in Brazil and that in the case of 70 percent of the families, their rights were not respected.

But things have changed, as treatment of families displaced by dams has improved. The disregard of their rights that was rampant in the past is inconceivable today, because the process of environmental approval of infrastructure projects requires adequate resettlement and compensation for people who are relocated, and the costs are factored into the budget from the start.

The Santo Antonio hydroelectric plant has to carry out 28 programmes to mitigate or compensate for environmental and social impacts, as a requisite for its construction and future operation. Critics of the strict environmental and social requirements complain that they have helped drive up the price of energy in Brazil.

Despite fears that construction of Santo Antonio and Jirau, another large dam being built 120 km upstream on the Madeira River, would cause major problems among local residents, there have been no outbreaks of malaria, and no major influx of people into the city of Porto Velho, 10 km from Santo Antonio, has occurred since the two dams began to be built two years ago. (Construction is one-third complete.)

On the contrary, “there has been a major reduction in malaria cases” in the Santo Antonio dam’s areas of direct impact, said Jose Carlos de Sá, an institutional relations analyst in the company. He attributed that to the hydroelectric firm’s prevention programme, which included the distribution of more than 14,000 insecticide-treated mosquito nets to local residents and other equipment to the municipal government.

Last year, 19,950 cases of malaria were diagnosed in Porto Velho, 13 percent down from the number of cases registered in 2008, according to the municipal health secretariat. And preliminary data from this year point to a continued downward trend.

But “it cannot be claimed that this result was due to the work on Santo Antonio,” said Tony Katsuragawa, head of epidemiology in the Tropical Pathologies Research Institute (IPEPATRO).

In fact, the prevalence of malaria has been declining throughout the Amazon jungle region since 2005, the biologist said. Although the cause of that decline has not been proven, it apparently includes a combination of factors such as deforestation and longer periods of low water, he added.

Furthermore, the month-to-month figures kept by the Health Ministry’s epidemiological surveillance system show that the number of cases in some parts of the municipality of Porto Velho has actually risen since 2008, when construction of the Santo Antonio dam began, he said.

It’s true that the “explosion of cases” predicted as a result of a growing conglomeration of people along the banks of the river did not occur, Katsuragawa acknowledged. While researchers had predicted that as many as 100,000 people would be drawn to Porto Velho, which has a population of 425,000, by the construction of the hydroelectric plant, only 40,000 people came, according to the municipal government.

But the prevalence of malaria has changed all around the country, and the real test will come when the reservoir is filled, which will increase the areas suitable for the breeding of the mosquito that carries the disease.

The effects of the arrival of tens of thousands of people in the area have been felt in the rise in rents and home prices and in the shortage of schools. But with the hydroelectric project offering nearly 30,000 direct jobs and drawing large companies to the city, unemployment has not gone up.

Around 85 percent of those hired for the Santo Antonio project are long-time local residents, said Eduardo Bezerra, an institutional relations officer at Odebrecht, the construction company that leads the consortium. The initial goal had been to hire 30 percent local labour.

To train local workers, Odebrecht set up the Acreditar (Believe) programme in Porto Velho, which has now been expanded to other cities and has provided free training in trades like bricklayer, carpenter, electrician, welder and plumber to 54,000 adults and young people around Brazil.

The Santo Antonio plant will also be the first large Brazilian dam to use bulb turbines, which need a smaller reservoir and thus reduce the area flooded, causing fewer environmental impacts.

But advances like the training programme and the use of bulb turbines do not redeem the “sins” of blocking a major Amazon rainforest river: destroying ecosystems, biodiversity and the lives of thousands of people to enrich construction companies and energy-guzzling industries, according to environmentalists like Telma Monteiro, head of the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defence Association.

The activist said the company’s claims of hiring such a high proportion of local workers “are not true,” because the consortiums subcontract companies that bring their own employees in from outside. She also said the firms building the two dams on the Madeira River violate laws by modifying the projects after they have been approved, without carrying out new environmental impact studies.

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