Power-Hungry Brazil Builds Dams, and More Dams, Across the Amazon
By Juan Forero, Washington Post
Saturday, February 9, 2013
MUTUM PARANA, Brazil ï¿½ When it is completed in 2015, the Jirau
hydroelectric dam will span five miles across the Madeira River,
feature more giant turbines than any other dam in the world and hold
as much concrete as 47 towers the size of the Empire State Building.
And then there are the power lines, draped along 1,400 miles of
forests and fields to carry electricity from here in the center of
South America to Brazilï¿½s urban nerve center, Sao Paulo.
Still, it wonï¿½t be enough.
The dam and the Santo Antonio complex that is being built a few miles
downstream will provide just 5 percent of what government energy
planners say the country will need in the next 10 years. So Brazil is
building more dams, many more, courting controversy by locating the
vast majority of them in the worldï¿½s largest and most biodiverse forest.
ï¿½The investment to build these plants is very high, and they are to be
put in a region which is an icon for environmental preservation, the
Amazon,ï¿½ said Paulo Domingues, energy planning director for the
Ministry of Mines and Energy. ï¿½So that has worldwide repercussions.ï¿½
Between now and 2021, the energy ministryï¿½s building schedule will be
feverish: Brazilian companies and foreign conglomerates will put up 34
sizable dams in an effort to increase the countryï¿½s capacity to
produce energy by more than 50 percent.
The Brazil projects have received less attention than Chinaï¿½s dam-
building spree, which has plugged up canyons and bankrolled
hydroelectric projects far from Asia.
But Brazil is undertaking one of the worldï¿½s largest public works
projects, one that will cost more than $150 billion and harness the
force of this continentï¿½s great rivers. The objective is to help the
country of 199 million people achieve what Brazilian leaders call its
destiny: becoming a modern and efficient world-class economy with an
ample supply of energy for office towers, assembly lines, refineries
and iron works.
ï¿½Brazil is a country thatï¿½s growing, developing, and it needs energy,ï¿½
said Eduardo de Melo Pinto, president of Santo Antonio Energia. ï¿½And
the potential in energy production in Brazil is located, for the most
part, in Amazonia. And thatï¿½s why this is important for this project
to be developed.ï¿½
Jirau, Santo Antonio and other projects, though, have until now
generated more tension than electricity, raising questions that range
from their environmental impact to whether future generations will be
saddled with gigantic debt.
International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental group that has
tracked government agencies involved in the dam building, says plans
call for 168 dams to be completed by 2021. Most are small dams that
will be used to regulate water or to power silos, mineral extraction
facilities or industrial complexes. But whether the dams are large or
small, homesteaders and Indian leaders say they will cause
irreversible changes in a forest that plays a vital role in absorbing
the worldï¿½s carbon emissions and regulating its climate.
Across Brazil, rivers are being diverted. Canals and dikes are being
built. Roads are being paved, and blocks of concrete are being laid
across a network of waterways that provides a fifth of the worldï¿½s
And the big dams will inundate at least 2,500 square miles of forests
and fields ï¿½ an area larger than the state of Delaware.
Environmentalists say the dams are a throwback, not the kind of
projects a modern, democratic country should be aggressively pursuing.
They say Brazil should focus instead on developing wind and solar
energy while overhauling existing plants and instituting other reforms
to reduce electrical demand.
ï¿½This is a sort of 1950s development mentality that often proceeds in
a very authoritarian way, in terms of not respecting human rights, not
respecting environmental law, not really looking at the alternatives,ï¿½
said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director in Brazil for
Lives torn asunder
In a swath of Rondonia state, along the BR-364 highway, several
residents said the dams had uprooted communities of subsistence
farmers and fishermen, unalterably changing their way of life for the
Telma Santos Pinto, 53, said she had to leave her home of 36 years,
receiving $18,000 as compensation from the companies building Jirau.
ï¿½The compensation was very, very low,ï¿½ she said. ï¿½And we were
obligated to accept that.ï¿½
Her town, Mutum Parana, was left underwater. Most of her neighbors
moved into Nova ï¿½Mutum ï¿½ or New Mutum ï¿½ a town of 1,600 homes,
schools, churches and stores put up by the builders of Jirau.
ï¿½We were a community, all of us united,ï¿½ she said. ï¿½All of us helped
Such laments come up against the hard economic realities that Brazil
By 2021, the economy is projected to expand by 63 percent, the energy
ministry says. Hundreds of thousands of people are receiving
electricity for the first time each year, and a ballooning middle
class is consuming more. Economic planners also predict that Brazil
could become the worldï¿½s fifth-largest economy in a few years.
No Brazilian leader is more focused on that objective than President
Dilma Rousseff, a former 1970s-era guerrilla who was energy minister
in her predecessorï¿½s government. She says that Brazil is ï¿½privilegedï¿½
to have so much water and that it is logical for the country to rely
heavily on hydropower.
She counters environmentalists by arguing that Brazilï¿½s energy mix ï¿½
the country also relies on solar, wind and biomass, all renewable
energy sources ï¿½ is among the worldï¿½s cleanest.
ï¿½Economic growth is not contrary to the best environmental practices,ï¿½
Rousseff said at the inauguration of one huge dam in October. ï¿½We are
proving that itï¿½s possible to increase electrical generation and at
the same time respect the environment.ï¿½
To be sure, the footprints of the new dams will be smaller than those
of the past.
The proposed Belo Monte project on the Xingu, a huge dam that has
galvanized environmentalists and Hollywood luminaries, will flood
fives times less land than the 29-year-old Tucurui dam, ï¿½Brazilï¿½s
second-biggest, said Domingues, the energy ministry planner.
The Jirau dam includes ladders to help migrating fish make it upstream
and conservation programs for animal and bird life.
Gil Maranhï¿½o, the Jirau damï¿½s communications and business development
director, said ï¿½the real deforestation is maybe zeroï¿½ because the
flooding has taken out cattle ranches and small subsistence farms
rather than large swaths of forest.
He said the $7.7 billion project has created jobs and prompted the
consortium building the dam to spend $600 million on social programs
and housing for the 350 families that had to be relocated.
ï¿½The impacted population move from slums without electricity, without
sewage, and we put them in new cities built for them,ï¿½ he said,
pointing to Nova Mutum.
Jose Gomes, a civil engineer who is the projectï¿½s institutional
director, said rigid requirements ensured that the environmental
impacts of Jirau and Santo Antonio were minimized. Building dams, he
said, here and elsewhere, is a major priority that will not be derailed.
ï¿½Brazil needs two hydroelectric dams like this to provide power each
and every year,ï¿½ Gomes said. ï¿½Weï¿½re going to have energy guaranteed.ï¿½
Cranes stretched into the sky and steel reinforcements were going up.
Although the turbines were not yet operating, the power houses were
firmly installed. Upriver, more than 100 square miles of land were
It was clear that the mighty Madeira, the biggest tributary of the
Amazon, had been tamed.
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