Brazilian Firm Wants To Build New Dams in Amazon's Aripuanã Basin

Photo credit: Mongabay

A Brazilian company, Intertechne Consultores, has asked Aneel, the federal Agency for Electric Energy, to authorize viability studies to build three new dams in the Aripuanã river basin – the Sumaúma and Quebra Remo dams along the Aripuanã River itself and the Inferninho dam along its tributary, the Roosevelt River. The company provides consulting, engineering and construction management services for hydroelectric dams and has worked on several dams in the Amazon, including the controversial Belo Monte dam.

The Aripuanã basin is considered one of the best-preserved regions in Amazonia with a high level of endemic plants and animals. While there are, as yet, no dams on the Roosevelt River, there are already four on the Aripuana, which is a tributary of the Madeira river, which flows north from Bolivia to join the Amazon at Itacoatiara.

One of these existing dams – Dardanelos – has been controversial. In 2010, its builders dynamited a cemetery belonging to the Arara indigenous group, providing a foretaste of the controversy that erupted a few years later when a river rapids sacred to the Munduruku was blasted away to construct the Teles Pires dam in the Tapajós watershed.

Arara leader, Aldeci Arara, said at the time: "This was a big cemetery, which contained all our ancestors, many generations of our tribe, in the middle of the construction site. It is a sacred place for us." Today, it is gone – something equivalent to blowing up the Vatican to build a road, indigenous experts say.

The Brazilian government has been talking about expanding the hydropower network in the Aripuanã basin for some time. In April 2012, it said it was planning seven more dams there – four along the Aripuanã River, including Quebra Remo and Sumaúma, and three along the Roosevelt River, including Inferninho.

However, the projects didn't go ahead due to widespread criticism from environmentalists and indigenous supporters. Marcelo Cortez, WWF-Brazil's conservation analyst at the time, said that the dams would impact the Mosaic of Southern Amazonia, created in 2011, which includes 40 conservation units covering seven million hectares (2,703 square miles).

Indigenous reserves would also have been significantly affected.

Energy experts, including Anderson Bittencourt, who worked then for the Department of Environment and Sustainable Development in the Amazonas state government, were critical of the large amount of forest that would be flooded in return for fairly modest quantities of energy. He said that Brazilian hydroelectric dams on average need to flood 0.5 square kilometers to generate 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity, but that the new dams would flood much more forest than this.

Anxious to reassure critics, the president of Intertechne, Antonio Fernando Krempel, told the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper that it would be different this time. "We intend to carry out new studies. We will have a different approach … We know there are viable alternatives," he said.

Even so, Bittencourt's concerns still seem relevant. The three new dams in question would flood 1,085 square kilometers (419 square miles) of forest, while generating just 1,035 MWs. In other words, about 1 square kilometer would need to be flooded to generate 1 MW – twice the average for Brazilian dams.

Moreover, large areas of vegetation would be left to rot in the water, raising concerns about emissions of greenhouse gases. It is now understood by scientists that tropical dams contribute significantly to methane release, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

Perhaps the worst impact would be felt by the Cinta Larga Indians, who have suffered greatly from the arrival of outsiders on their land. Their territory would be directly impacted by the Inferninho dam on the Roosevelt River.

These Indians first came to public notice when they shadowed the famed Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition, without ever making contact. The journey was undertaken in 1913-14 by Cândido Rondon, a military officer and explorer, renowned for his lifelong support of indigenous communities, and by former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit. Together, they worked out the route taken by the river to reach the Amazon. The near disastrous expedition attracted attention in the press, and even resulted in the river's renaming, from Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt) to the Roosevelt River.

Although no violent incidents occurred during the expedition, the indians' subsequent contacts with outsiders were far less peaceful. In subsequent years, the Cinta Larga were involved in a series of violent contacts with outsiders who entered their land to tap rubber, extract timber or mine for gold and diamonds.

The most notorious incident occurred in the 1960s when an unknown number of Cinta Larga, probably over three thousand, were killed. According to Ulisses Capozzoli, who worked with the Indians then, they were given food mixed with arsenic by local landowners, in cooperation with employees from Brazil's Indigenous Protection Service (SPI), precursor of today's indigenous agency, Funai. "They also flew over villages, throwing down toys contaminated with flu, measles and chickenpox viruses," he recalled. It is widely considered one of the worst incidents of genocide in the history of indigenous contact in the Amazon.

Toward the end of the century, the Cinta Larga began mining for diamonds themselves. In 2004, they murdered 29 non-indigenous miners who illegally entered their land to extract diamonds. The deaths caused a furore. A year of negotiations followed until federal authorities got the Indians to agree to close the mine in exchange for a government grant.

However, with diamonds still in the ground, it seems unlikely these mineral conflicts have come to a permanent end. According to the Brazilian government's Company for Research and Mineral Resources (CPRM), the Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve contains one of the world's five largest diamond reserves.

At present, it is illegal to mine on indigenous land, but this could change. In 1996 Senator Romero Jucá, a leading member of the rural caucus that today controls over half the votes in Congress, presented a bill (PL 160/1996) to allow private companies to mine indigenous land. The bill, approved by the Senate then, has been languishing in the Lower Chamber ever since. Recent reports say that the measure has moved up the political agenda.

If the bill is approved, there will undoubtedly be a new flurry of interest by mining companies in the diamonds lying beneath the Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve. It also seems logical that electricity generated by the new Inferninho dam on the Roosevelt River would be utilized to power any new mines in the area. All of this would open up this remote region for settlement, as new roads and transmission lines are built.

With the Temer government and bancada ruralista, rural caucus in power, events could align quickly in the Aripuanã basin for a new rush by industry and government to profit from the Amazon's mineral wealth and its hydroelectric potential. Observers also fear that the pieces are falling into place for renewed indigenous conflict: with the federal agencies dealing with indigenous and environmental affairs reeling from severe budget cuts, and with indigenous communities and their supporters, along with environmentalists, ready to resist big new infrastructure projects in this isolated, culturally and biodiversity rich Amazon region.

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