By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Brazilian government is planning to build at least 23 new hydroelectric dams in the country’s Amazon region, of which seven are set to be installed in the heart of the region, in previously untouched areas of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, O Globo newspaper reports. After the long-running dispute over the Belo Monte dam, environment activists have expressed incredulity at the plans.
Along with the six hydroelectric power stations already under construction, the government hopes these new dams will generate over 38,000 megawatts of power – half the nearly 78,900 megawatts currently generated by 201 operational power stations across Brazil.
Two plants are already in operation in the region: the Estreito plant on the Tocantins River, and the Santo Antônio plant on the Madeira River, the Amazon’s biggest tributary.
Funding for half the projects – around R$78 billion (US$38.5 billion) – is expected to come from the government’s Growth Acceleration Program or PAC (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento). Together, the existing and planned sites would increase Brazil’s energy capacity by 54 percent.
Yet opponents are concerned that seven of the new plants will be built in extremely sensitive parts of the Amazon, including a string of seven dams planned for the Aripuanã and Roosevelt Rivers that would directly affect land officially deemed to require “extremely high conservation protection.”
The work would also come into contact with indigenous peoples’ land. If constructed, the reservoirs for the two largest new plants on the basin would flood an area of land the size of São Paulo city.
“We are planning with the greatest care and seeking to minimalize the impact [the building of the dams might cause],” reassured Energy Development Secretary Altino Ventura, who said the Amazon basin should account for around half of new energy sources by 2020.
However others, including João Gilberto Lotufo, director of the Agência National de Águas (National Water Agency, ANA), have said that Brazil should stop apologizing for what it has done and focus on the need to get ahead of future energy problems.
The local government in Manaus, Amazonas state capital, is clearly aware of the environmental impact the plants could have on the region and its peoples; it wants Brasília to consider other options, such as solar power.
The news comes as environmental campaigners, who had been celebrating that work on the controversial Belo Monte dam had been halted, were dealt a setback after builders were given the green light to restart.
Biologists have said that Brazil should be looking for alternatives now, rather than later regretting losses to the Amazon’s unique ecosystems. Christian Poirier, Brazil Campaigner at Amazon Watch, had stronger words over the government’s plans:
“The Brazilian government’s reckless quest to dam the Amazon’s wild rivers has demonstrated a disquieting level of authoritarianism, quashing human rights while stripping any semblance of environmental sustainability,” he said in an interview with The Rio Times.
“The Brazilian government’s overdependence on hydroelectric power is wreaking an incalculable human and environmental toll in the Amazon,” he concluded.
The best solution to fuel Brazil’s economic development without further harming the Amazon, in Mr. Poirier’s opinion, would be to move from centralized to distributed renewable power generation, promoting new investments in solar and wind energy, and increasing the efficiency of existing power plants through smart technology.
Brazil’s biggest hydroelectric power station is Itaipu on the Brazil-Paraguay border, capable of generating 14,000 megawatts of power. It is currently the world’s largest such operating facility, but is expected to be overtaken by China’s Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River, in the future.