The human cost of Brazil's energy policy
Dam construction underway at the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon. The federal government plans 30 large dams for the region. If they all are built, every major tributary to the Amazon River will be dammed. Photo courtesy International Rivers/flickr.
Jan. 23, 2013
Insisting that its policy of generating electricity from hydropower is emissions-free, Brazil is facing opposition from river communities threatened by its expansion. But is hydro really a green option?
By Jan Rocha
Climate News Network
SÃO PAULO – Jerky mobile phone footage shows men carrying the inert body of a young man, surrounded by distraught, weeping women. Their wailing is clearly audible, as are the shrieks of a pet monkey which scurries in and out of the crowd.
The body is finally laid at the feet of the young man's mother. She strokes away the hair over a bullet wound in his forehead, while others point to bullet holes in his legs.
Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku was shot during a federal police operation, purportedly to clear illegal gold miners from the Teles Pires river in the Brazilian Amazon. Dressed for jungle warfare, the police threw tear gas and fired rifles while a police helicopter flew low over the crowd.
But the Munduruku Indians believe the real aim of the operation last November was to intimidate the villagers who have been protesting against a dam being built on the river, which will flood their sacred places.
The Teles Pires dam is one of five planned for the Tapajos river system, a major tributary of the Amazon and the last undammed river running from Brazil's central plateau to the Amazon basin.
Every major river dammed
At least 30 large dams are planned for the Amazon region. If they all go ahead, every one of the major rivers feeding the mighty Amazon will be dammed. The Brazilian government claims to have one of the cleanest energy systems in the world, with more than 70 percent of the country's energy provided by hydroelectric power.
That claim is now being challenged as changes to Brazil's weather pattern produce lower rainfall and more frequent droughts, causing the levels of reservoirs and rivers to fall.
Earlier dams like Tucurui on the Tocantins river inundated vast areas of forest to form giant lakes, but the newer generation of dams like Belo Monte on the Xingu, and Jirau and Santo Antonio on the Madeira, use the "run-of-the river" (fio d'agua) system, with much smaller reservoirs dependent on abundant rains.
The Brazilian press is now full of stories about the possibility of electricity rationing, because of the fall in the level of the reservoirs. The government firmly denies this will happen.
But while environmentalists see this as an opportunity to invest more in other renewables, like wind and solar power, the government has preferred to fall back on the increasing use of coal, diesel or gas-fired plants to make up the shortfall.
Between October and December 2012 these plants produced 15.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a study by WayCarbon, an environmental consultancy company, published earlier this month in Rio de Janeiro's O Globo newspaper.
More emissions than deforestation
This position has drawn criticism from within the government itself. Tasso Azevedo, a Ministry of the Environment adviser, said that last year the annual total for emissions from these fossil fuel plants was higher than that caused by deforestation.
He said that it made no sense to dirty Brazil's energy mix with the use of thermal power "when the country has the greatest potential for wind, solar, hydro and biomass power in the world."
Yet instead of investing in wind or solar power, the government has doubled the number of fossil-fuel-fired thermal plants in the last 10 years, to over 1,100.
The idea that hydroelectric dams are emission-free is also being challenged. After reviewing a number of studies, Philip Fearnside, professor of ecology at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, found that "in all of these studies, their overall conclusion that tropical dams emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases in their first 10 years is clear and robust."
Reducing national parks
Fearnside, an American who has lived in Brazil for 30 years, is a widely cited global warming scientist. Referring to the Teles Pires dam which the Munduruku Indians are fighting, he said the government's claim that it will "generate greenhouse gas emission-free electricity cannot be substantiated."
The five dams on the Tapajos will together inundate an area of almost 2,000 square kilometers, or about 775 square miles, more than twice the size of New York City. To build them, the government has reduced the size of several national parks and conservation areas around the river.
Many riverine communities – not the Munduruku alone – will be dislodged from what until now has been a relatively unspoiled area of biodiversity.
Edison Lobão, the energy minister, is unapologetic: "Over the next ten years we have to meet the challenge of doubling our installed electrical energy capacity of 121,000 megawatts."
Jan Rocha is a freelance journalist living in Brazil and a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian.
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Still image of Munduruku child during a federal police raid of a village on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon courtesy Sergio Henrique Silva/YouTube.
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