Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The human cost of Brazil's energy policy

Wednesday, January 23 2013
The human cost of Brazil's energy policy

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

S�O 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.
At least 30 large dams are planned for the Amazon region. If they all
go ahead, every one of the major rivers feeding the Amazon will be

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

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

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.

Munduruku-400Earlier 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

Many riverine communities � not the Munduruku alone � will be
dislodged from what until now has been a relatively unspoiled area of

Edison Lob�o, 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.

Climate News Network is a journalism news service started by four
veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers
news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets

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.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service
covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer

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