Eye on the Amazon

A Raging River

Waves engulf homes and fish turn up dead, while fishermen go hungry. The Santo Antônio hydroelectric dam changed the river and life in Rondônia.

Francisco Souza on the banks of the Madeira river. Photo: Marcelo Min / Agência Pública

As the Brazil government pursues its reckless plans to build mega-dams on major Amazonian rivers like the Xingu and Madeira, we can expect to see their catastrophic social and environmental consequences continue to befall local communities. This article highlights how the construction of the Santo Antônio dam of Brazil's Madeira River Complex in the Amazonian state of Rondônia has unleashed the river's destructive powers, swallowing a riverside community in the city of Porto Velho. It also shows how these dams decimate the abundant fish species that are so crucial to local food security and livelihoods while uprooting thousands of people from their homes.

This is sadly just one of the stories emerging from dam-ravaged communities in the Amazon, one we will see repeated many times over if Brazil continues to pursue its disastrous plans for the region's rivers. 


Two days before the start of tests on the first turbine of the Santo Antônio hydroelectric dam [on the Madeira River] in Rondônia, the phone rang in the home of fisherwoman Maria Iêsa Reis Lima. "It's going to start", warned a friend who worked on the dam's construction. Iêsa sat on the porch, poised to observe the waters, awaiting what she knew would be an irreversible change. "The Madeira River is dangerous, it demands respect. The engineers say that they have all the technology, but nothing controls the reaction of this river."

Weeks later, in early 2012, the waters that bathe the capital Porto Velho began to get rough. The waves grew daily, digging into the riverbanks and uprooting trees. The deck of the municipal port was torn apart. The river lashed the houses, until the first of them collapsed together with the riverbank into the waters.

Iêsa's forecast was correct. What she couldn't imagine was how quickly river would respond to the opening of the dam's floodgates, altering the course of her life, her neighborhood, and the history of Porto Velho. The waves attacked the historic neighborhood of Triângulo, where the capital was founded. The neighborhood is named for the place where the Madeira-Mamore railroad makes a curve to its station. Iêsa's house was between the banks of the Madeira river and the abandoned rails, about seven miles downstream from the dam.

The river also swallowed the Rondon monument, an historic obelisk older than the state itself. Built in 1911 by the staff of Marshal Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, it commemorates the frontiersman who razed the forest to install the first telegraph line to connect the Amazon. When the waves hit the monument, the media immediately alerted the public. But the Santo Antônio Energia S.A. consortium, responsible for building the dam, denied having anything to do with the problem. Within two weeks, the waters undermined the base of the obelisk and dragged it to the bottom of the river. Only after the consortium was found to be at fault did it try to rescue the obelisk, but only two blocks were recovered.

The people of Rondônia refer to the phenomenon of waves on the river as "Banzeiro". According to the Houaiss dictionary: "a series of waves caused by the passage of a tidal bore or a vessel, which breaks violently on a beach or the banks of a river." Or: "lurching, unsteady" "a sense of banzo [fatal longing], melancholy, sorrowful."

In the room of an apartment leased by the dam [to replace her destroyed house], sitting on a porch chair between moving boxes, Iêsa lives out the various definitions of the word. "My history is lost, it's now all under the water," she says. Daughter of a soldier from the rubber era, she learned to fish with her father and brothers and that was how she lived until the beginning of the year. She misses the fresh fish and food gathered in her backyard: cassava, beans, açaí, mango and the star fruits of her carambola tree.

For the time being, someone who still enjoys the shade of Iêsa's trees is her neighbor Francisco Batista Souza. He also lived on the riverbank, in the Triângulo neighborhood, and has also been moved into a [company] apartment. Yet he spends the day in Iêsa's backyard building small boats. The waters took the tract of land where he had worked before. Souza hangs onto the photos of the former shipyard and is fighting in court to get the consortium to compensate him for the [loss of] his work site. "I'm 59 and have built boats since I was 15. What am I going to do for a living now?" he asks.

With the value of the indemnification (between US$ 45,00 and US$75,000), the 120 affected families temporarily housed in hotels and apartments will be unable to return to their tracts of land on the edge of the river, which is now highly prized land in Porto Velho. Nor are they permitted to return to the Triângulo neighborhood, which will be totally razed for the construction of a scenically landscaped tourist complex along the river.

The oldest residents refuse to leave. There is José Oliveira, who had worked on the railroad from 1950, when he was 16, until it was shut down in 1972. "I was a lineman, I cut the forest back when it grew near the lines. I went down the tracks alone, pedaling a velocipede built to fit the rails. I was even shot by an Indian arrow," he recalls. When he arrived in Porto Velho, the life of the city revolved around the train. Once the railway line was deactivated, the rail ties were used to strengthen the foundation of his home. "I was satisfied here near the tracks and the river. Nobody is going to throw me into the city as they did with these families who left running, crying, as if they were worthless."

It is difficult to understand the impact of the move for those who grew up on the banks of the river. Iêsa is concerned about her 12 year old grandson, who has spent more than a month shut in a room of the apartment. When asked what has changed since his family had to leave their house, the boy said after a long silence: "It messes with your mind."

The families are unable to forget the night on which, while the waves bore down, Santo Antônio Energia, the dam operator, denied responsibility for the 'banzeiros' seen on TV. Iêsa slept with her suitcase ready by the door of the house. "At night the waves grew stronger," she recalls. "We heard a loud noise that came from the dam."

For two weeks, no one knew what to do. The families received no guidance from the officials responsible for monitoring the project's social and environmental impacts including the city and state government as well as IBAMA (Brazil's Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). It took the intervention of a prosecutor from the state's Public Ministry, calling on the company to sign a Term of Adjustment of Conduct, where they settled on assistance provided to affected families and the dispute over the riverbanks.

Warnings Ignored

This occurred because the phenomenon was not anticipated in the Environmental Impact Study (EIA-Estudo de Impacto Ambiental) of the project - drawn up by Furnas and Odebrecht, the companies responsible for Santo Antônio, and certified by IBAMA prior to the licensing. It is this study that indicates the damages possibly generated by the construction and the actions taken to contain the damage.

"It was a failure," admits Thomas Miazaki de Toledo, coordinator of Electrical Energy Infrastructure at the IBAMA. "If these impacts had been foreseen, preventive measures could have been adopted. But we do not have a crystal ball," he adds. Santo Antônio Energia did not respond to requests for an interview, which were extended for more than a month.

At least two experts paid by Santo Antonio Energia specified the high probability of erosion. These warning are in reports that comprise the project's Environmental Impact Study. "In-depth analyses were carried out, as demanded by public prosecutors of the Public Ministry of Rondônia, but were later forgotten during the licensing," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of the NGO Friends of the Earth-Amazon.

This erosion is detailed in studies by biologist José Galizia Tundisi, a retired professor from the University of São Paulo and a consultant in the environmental field. He writes that the phenomenon could occur at various points along the Madeira, due to the disequilibrium in the movements of sediments.

To understand this process, one must understand that the Madeira is one of the three rivers with the highest concentrations of sediments in the world. It is second only to rivers that originate in the Himalayas. The river takes its name Madeira ["wood"] because, after descending from the Andes mountains, its waters tear out trees and riverbanks along some stretches. Every day, these river-borne trees and more than 500 tons of sediment are carried past the shores of Porto Velho.

The manner through which this material deposits throughout the length of the river is what gives balance along its riverbed. There are stretches where erosion occurs naturally, and the riverbanks collapse. In others, there is sedimentation, and formations like sandbars appear. The Porto Velho stretch was an area of sedimentation. But as Tundisi had already warned in a study published in 2007: when hydroelectric dams are built, their reservoirs retain sediments, and this change of equilibrium could create new erosion zones, especially in the stretch of river below the dam.

This is one of the theories for explaining the problem cited by Rondônia's Federal Public Ministry (MPE-RO). In its explanation to IBAMA, the consortium has attributed this phenomenon to a specific phase of the project. Because all turbines are not yet functional (there will be 44, 6 of which are now in operation), the water comes through with greater velocity, generating waves.

"We respect this explanation, but consider it to not be the only cause [of the waves]. We have technicians working on an independent study," said Aluildo de Oliveira Leite, of the MPE-RO. The consortium's explanation aids in understanding the violence of the waves in Porto Velho, but the Public Ministry has already noted the occurrence of this phenomenon in at least two more communities located 150 and 200 kilometers downstream from the capital.

A worrisome precedent is the case of the Aswam dam in Egypt. Though less torrential than the Madeira, the Nile is also rich in sediments. The concentration of nutrients in its waters supplied the Nile Delta, celebrated for its abundance in middle of the desert. With the dam, completed in 1970, erosions swallowed entire villages downriver and altered the morphology of the Delta, where today its crops are dependent on fertilizers.

Only with complete studies will it be possible to establish preventive actions on the Madeira river. This also depends on the good faith of the company. After the disasters in the Triângulo neighborhood, Santo Antonio Energia was forced to build seven kilometers of rock embankments to contain the waves. "Now it is starting to wash away other stretches directly below this strip. And the company does not acknowledge it, saying there is no causal relationship," said prosecutor Renata Ribeiro Baptista, who is monitoring the case for the Federal Public Ministry.

"Water Black as Coffee"

While rebel waves bore their way along the Madeira downstream from the dam, those who live above the dam saw their lives transformed by another loss of equilibrium: the death of fish.

It was anticipated that the quantity of fish would diminish. But fisherfolk have made it peacefully known the quantity of fish in the river has dropped drastically. In the immediate vicinity of the dam they reports that it is possible to catch only enough to eat, not enough to sell.

Foreseeing the problems that would arise with the closure of the dam, a group of 30 fishermen from Jaci Paraná, a village 90 kilometers from Porto Velho, organized and mounted a project to raise tambaquis fish, before their scarcity became a fait accompli. They did everything right: gaining Petrobras support, they mounted a structure with 26 tanks in Madalena lake, which is on the Jaci Paraná river, where they raised more than 35 thousand fish.

After two years, when the tambaqui were nearly ready for sale, the Santo Antônio dam began to flood the riverbanks as they filled its reservoir. In October 2011, the fishermen closely followed the rise of lake water levels with concern, doubling the monitoring of the fish stocks. In December, José dos Santos, fisherman and project field coordinator, received a call from the fisherman who was on duty: some of the fish were dying. "I ran down here and saw that the water was different, black as coffee," he recalls. "There was no time for anything, that same night he called. All the fish were dead, floating. It was hopeless".

The group sought out Santo Antônio Energia, the consortium responsible for the dam. "And they told us that the fish died of hunger", says José, with a nervous smile. "We, who had been struggling for five years, full stocks of rations stored, would starve the fish?"

In front of the project headquarters, José points out the hundreds of dead trees in the lake. They were part of the floodplain vegetation, which survived in the water a few months per year, during the rainy season, but did not survive definitive flooding. Returning to Jaci, we came across hundreds of logs abandoned on the riverbank, all with the seal of Fox - the deforestation company hired by the dam builders. According to the fishermen, the majority of the vegetation cut down for the dam had not been removed before the flooding and remained in the water. They suspect that this is the cause of the fish die-off: decomposition of flooded vegetation.

The theory makes sense to biologist Philip Fearnside, a researcher at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA). "The environmental reports indicate the floodplain vegetation as part of the riverbed. But, if you fill these areas and leave them flooded the entire year, the trees will decompose, the leaves will rot and release CO²," he says.

The same error could have been committed when calculating the total area to be flooded to create the Santo Antônio and Jirau dam reservoirs, another hydroelectric complex still under construction in the region, further upriver. For these dams, 230 km² of lands are to be flooded. According to Fearnside, the actual extent of the flooding, including floodplain forest, could be double, totaling 529 km ².

Aided by the NGO Instituto Madeira Vivo, which helped coordinate the aquaculture project, the group took samples of both the water and the dead fish and sent them for analysis at the Federal University of Rondônia. According to Iremar Antônio Ferreira, director of the Institute, the analysis indicated an absence of oxygen in the water. "We took it to court," he says. "We wanted to negotiate with the company, to immediately resume the project. But Santo Antônio Energia says there is no agreement."

While the case proceeds, José remains without income. His solution was to become a security guard at the Jirau dam.

The lack of control of water quality by the Santo Antônio dam had already been detected in late 2008, when the smell of dead fish reached the capital. IBAMA estimated that 11 metric tons of fish were lost, but members of the inspection team suspect that it was more. The deaths occurred on a stretch near the construction site over five days and when the inspectors arrived, employees of the plant were already burying the fish.

The plant was fined R$ 7.7 million (US$ 3.8 million). The IBAMA report indicates that the company acted with negligence and recklessness, because it had not monitored the water quality every day and there was no qualified staff on site. The company was reprimanded for not having notified the agency about the problem, not having investigated the cause of the fish die-off and using buckets inadequate for transport of the fish that were still alive, which arrived dead at the release site.

Take the Stick and the Fish

Considering the best-case scenario, in which the dams would rigorously adhere to environmental control standards, the estimate was that the fish of the Madeira River would diminish by 50% in the first years. But the fishermen guarantee that today it is almost impossible to find the largest and most valuable species - such as the dourada (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii), a catfish that was the butt of a joke made by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In 2007, Lula had mocked the fact of "a catfish" preventing the approval of licenses for the construction of the Madeira dams. The dourada, the catfish most common in the region, is a fish that can reach 1.8 meters in length and journeys 5000 kilometers from Marajó Island [at the mouth of the Amazon River] to the foot of the Andes mountains to reproduce. At spawning time, it was possible to see them, by the hundreds, leaping up the waterfalls [on the Madeira] that are today under water.

The disappearance of the catfish has disrupted the lives of thousands of fishermen who depend on fishing as a source of income. According to a survey done by the Federal University of Rondônia, in a study paid for by the hydroelectric dam companies, over the period of one month in 2004, 219 fishermen caught 40 metric tons of dourada catfish in locations near the dam sites. Including all species fished in that month, the survey totals nearly 460 metric tons fished. The study has not yet repeated the survey to verify how these numbers have diminished. The same group discovered that the Madeira is the river with greatest biodiversity in the world, with 957 species of fish.

The primary action of the company hired to mitigate the impact on the reproductive cycle of the fish was to construct two channels through which they, theoretically, can pass. But it is difficult to reproduce the exact conditions of a waterfall. "The big catfish are not finding the entrance to the passage, not observed going up the channel," says Fearnside, who closely followed the construction of the channel and verified its being functional this year. "In the case of Santo Antônio, the employees were catching the catfish with nets and dropping them into the channel to swim upstream."

Fisherman Mário Ferreira dos Santos never again saw a dourada. With the arrival of the dam, he lost his livelihood and his home. Mario's house was one of those flooded by the dam. It stood 60 meters from the Teotônio waterfall, where stories are told of an abundant past. "We continue to talk about it because people don't believe it," says Mario. "There was fishing from the river bank: you could just stand on the rocks, throw the net and pull fish in. If someone went out by boat at dusk, they'd come back with 600 kilos in the morning."

Today, he lives off welfare granted by Santo Antônio Energia as does his entire community of fishermen: 45 families were removed from their homes and placed in a settlement built by the dam-building consortium. They succeeded in getting the help with living costs after staging a protest in front of the dam. "In meetings before the flooding, they only talked about good things," says Marcelo Gonçalves da Silva, 32, one of the leaders of the community. "We could choose between getting a house, or money. The people asked if they were going to be able to fish and they said yes. They simply failed to warn us that there weren't going to be any fish."

In the first year after the move, deprived of their source of income, Marcelo tells of families beginning to despair. "We remain without ground to stand on," he says. "I have a hungry family, a house with the lights cut off because the bill wasn't paid."

He sought the Movement of Dam Affected People, who helped arrange meetings with the company. In doing so, the community secured help with monthly costs and a promise that the company will invest in a fish farming project. One of the company guidelines is that the group raise the fish in a tank excavated on land, out of the river. "It's to not risk the fish because of the quality of the water," explains Marcelo.

Ironically, one dispute yet to be resolved entails the dam's electricity supply to the community. To maintain a fish tank out of the river they need to pump oxygen into the water - for that they need power. Yet in the community built by Santo Antônio Energia, there is a nearly constant energy shortage. While this reporter was there, for example, the light was shut off. "You can sit and wait, and a day or two could pass before it comes back on," said Marcelo. "Now, imagine if you can, after all we've been through, building a tank to raise fish, and they die without oxygen for lack of energy?"

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