Rubber tappers, fishermen and Indians in western Brazil have joined environmental groups in battling a planned $9 billion hydroelectric project that will flood one of the Amazon's main tributaries.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Rubber tappers, fishermen and Indians in western Brazil have joined environmental groups in battling a planned $9 billion hydroelectric project that will flood one of the Amazon's main tributaries.
At two public hearings last week, opponents of the plan to build two dams on the Madeira river near Bolivia clashed with the government and construction companies.
A spokeswoman for government environment regulator Ibama would not give a target date for issuing a preliminary environmental license to allow construction tenders. Energy officials said the government is aiming for next May or June.
At hearings near Porto Velho, capital of the remote western Brazilian state of Rondonia, the government said the project would help avert a possible energy shortage, bolster the sluggish economy and allow barges to carry soybeans, timber and minerals on the 4,200 kilometer (2,800 miles) river network.
But environmental activists warned the dams would flood vast areas, including parts of Bolivia and Peru; spread malaria and other water-borne diseases; and destroy migrating fish, bird and animal wildlife and swathes of rainforest.
Officials in nearby Bolivia have grown concerned, demanding full details and vowing to seek compensation for any flood damage. Satisfying their concerns could take months.
Brazil's government has tried to address the concerns, scaling down the five-year project to an initial two power stations, instead of four, with combined capacity of 6,450 megawatts near the Bolivian border at Jirau and Santo Antonio.
"This project will redeem the region from backwardness," said Aldo Rebelo, a leading congressional ally of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who is seeking reelection as president of the lower chamber.
Rebelo told a seminar in Brasilia last month that rich foreign countries, which had already destroyed their own forests, were using environmental protection as a weapon to slow agricultural expansion in countries like Brazil.
He said opposition from foreign-financed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made it hard for Brazil to carry out infrastructure projects.
"Farmers shouldn't be treated like criminals," he said, complaining about groups that oppose clearing rainforests to plant soybeans in Brazil, the world's No.2 soy exporter after the United States.
The Ibama spokeswoman said people at public hearings asked about compensation for thousands forced to relocate by the dam project, and how authorities would handle the influx of outsiders seeking work while providing jobs for locals.
Other concerns included how the project would affect fishing, health and sanitation.
One opponent, Glenn Switkes, Latin America program director for the U.S.-based International Rivers Network, conceded that the Madeira project would create a waterway for soy and other farm products.
He said the project's backers estimated Brazil could raise soybean output by 25 million tonnes a year, or nearly 50 per cent, by farming the Amazon and the surrounding savanna.
But Switkes warned that the Madeira is one of the world's muddiest rivers, carrying four times as much mud as the Mississippi. He said a build-up of sediment could clog the hydroelectric turbines, causing the Jirau dam to overflow and flood part of Bolivia.
HEAD IN THE SAND?
Other environmental activists complained that the hearings ignored key components of the project, notably commercial river transport and power transmission lines, and involved only people near Porto Velho.
"It's a schizophrenic approach in which the project was reduced to a fragment in a bid to speed things up," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth, Brazilian Amazon. "Leaving out the power lines is like opening a restaurant without a kitchen."
National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) scientist Bruce Forsberg estimated that the flooded area could be double the initially envisaged 530 square kilometers and stretch across the border into Bolivia.
Smeraldi said the government was like an ostrich, burying its head in the sand and refusing to consider the full economic, social and legal implications for a huge area including northeast Bolivia, eastern Peru, western Mato Grosso and southern Amazonas.
Uncertainty about the project could discourage private investors the government is counting on for financing and management expertise.
"We first need greater access to the feasibility and environmental studies to see the operating and transmission costs," said Mario Menel, director of the Brazilian Association of Electrical Energy Producers (ABIAPE).
Construction companies say the Madeira dams will be built.
"We're confident that our environmental impact study meets the licensing conditions," said Sergio Leao, environment director at Construtora Norberto Odebrecht. His company is working on the project with power company Furnas, part of the government's Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras S.A..
Leao said Bolivian flooding fears were mistaken and exaggerated. The river normally floods during the wet season but won't double in area or burst the dam.
"An overflow is a 1 in 10,000 years possibility," he said.