Brazil Deforests 5,300 km2 for Hydroelectric Plants

Most of the electricity consumed in Brazil is produced by hydroelectric plants. The world’s largest hydroelectric plant is Itaipu, on the Rio Parana in the south of Brazil on the border with Paraguay. The installed generation capacity of the plant is 14 GW.

The Brazilian government plans to clear 5,300 km ² of tropical rain forest, the equivalent of 2x Luxembourg, to build 61 hydroelectric dams and 7,700 km of transmission lines. Most of the projects are planned in the new ‘energy frontier of the country’, the Amazon region.

Although already shocking, the impact could be even higher, since the number only takes into account the area to be flooded by the dams, the hydroelectric plants themselves and the extension of transmission lines, and does not include the deforestation by the adjoining infrastructure. Even worse these ‘extras’ aren’t even included in the calculation of the construction works referred to in the second edition of the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC-2 – Acceleration Program for Growth), such as housing, roads, highways and railroads. The environmental impact isn’t estimated yet not even by the government.

Rio Madeira as it is. At the bottom-left the beginning of the construction site for the Santo Antônio dam. At the bottom-right a scale model of the Santo Antônio dam. When in full operation it will generate 3,150 MW. The construction of the Santo Antônio dam in Porto Velho is expected to generate 10 000 jobs

The goal is to install 61 new plants until 2019 to enlarge the power system with 42,000 megawatts (MW). The largest plants will be in the Amazon region. Costs, funding, schedule, need for labor and energy potential of the projects are thoroughly explained in the 330 pages of the Plano Decenal de Energia (Ten Year Plan for Energy) of the Empresa de Pesquisa Energética (EPE, the entity responsible for planning of the energy sector). But there is no deep analysis on the environmental impacts. The estimates of resources to be provided for compensation of the population involved is BRL 614 million (€285 million or USD 370 million), representing a poor and shameful 0.5% of the value of the construction works.

Construction company Odebrecht working at the Santo Antônio dam on the Rio Madeira. Going for clean energy is all right, the problem is that construction companies aren’t well-known for their interest in preserving the environment.

“Experience shows that an additional area is also cleared because of investments in that place. For example, projects attract people to work and another large number is spontaneously seeking opportunities. After the project is finished part of the population stays and generates an above-average population growth for several years.” evaluates Paulo Barreto of the Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon = Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon), remembering that in the region of Tucuruí, for example, population growth continued to be twice as high as in the rest of the country, even three decades after the project’s implementation.

Rio Xingu – Belo Monte/Pará

The uproar in the past, was directed to Tucuruí, today it’s turned to Belo Monte, which has taken eight judicial actions in court. Even the Conselho Nacional de Política Energética (National Energy Policy Council) decided to ban any new hydroelectric plant on the Xingu River in the federal state of Pará. Still, according to the EPE, of the 61 dams planned by the government, 15 intervene directly in conservation areas, 3 affect indirectly, and 13 projects interfere directly and indirectly in Indian reservations.

Eletrobras downplays the environmental impact, arguing that the new plants will have small water reservoirs and will clear only small areas. The planning of the new dams intends, according to the state-owned company, to maintain the reservoir within the area that the river occupies during the rain season.

Belo Monte will be the third largest dam in the world and its construction – along with the hydroelectric plants of Jirau and Santo Antônio – would prevent future blackouts in Brazil. The dam would divert the flow of the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon River to produce electricity for industrial mining operations in the region. The dam reservoir will inundate 668 km2 and more than 20,000 people have to be relocated.

“The official deforestation caused by the installation of these new plants in the Amazon is just one example of the liabilities of the government towards the environment,” argues Felicio Pontes Jr. prosecutor of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) of Pará, an outspoken critic of the Belo Monte project. “However, the electricity sector in this country is one of the largest black boxes of the government, nothing is discussed, and no public hearings are respected. Not to mention the fact that the values of the social-environmental compensations are calculated based on the value of the project and not on the generated social-environmental impact.