Tapajós hydro plant cancelled on environmental grounds

Indigenous people who feared land could be assigned to megaproject welcome its cancellation

The controversial São Luiz do Tapajós megadam planned for construction in the state of Pará, northern Brazil, has been cancelled after the Brazilian government’s environment agency, Ibama, refused to grant the project an environmental license. Ibama cited the impacts of the dam’s construction on sensitive Amazonian ecosytems, which would be forbidden under Brazilian law.

“The government’s decision has established the importance of protecting the forest and its people,” said Danicley de Aguiar from Greenpeace Brazil, who worked on a campaign to halt the project. “Now we hope that the ministry of justice will recognise the primary rights of the Munduruku and, correspondingly, carry out the demarcation of the Sawré Muybu territory,” he added.

José Sarney Filho, Brazil’s new environment minister, told the press the 7,603-metre long, 53-metre high run-of-the-river project was “completely non-essential” as energy supposed to be generated by the project could equally be provided by other renewable sources including wind and solar. Tapajós was expected to have an installed capacity of 8,040 megawatts but would have required the creation of a 729-square kilometre reservoir in what would have been one of the last major dams to be built in Brazil.

But without an environmental permit, the tendering process for the construction contract cannot take place. One of the companies interested in the Brazilian project was China Three Gorges Corporation, which operates in the country through its stake in EDP energías de Brasil, the main shareholder in the Portuguese former state-owned utilities company since its privatisation in 2012.

Parting shot

On the eve of her departure from the presidency, Dilma Rousseff declared that 18,000 hectares of around the site of the propsed Tapajós dam, was indigenous territory. But environmentalists feared interim president Michel Temer would revoke Rousseff’s decision.

Following the approval of an anthropological study by Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (Funai), the area, equivalent in size to 180,000 football pitches, is due to be demarcated as belonging to the indigenous Munduruku people. According to the Brazilian constitution, no infrastructure projects can be built on indigenous lands, and indigenous villages on previously demarcated lands cannot be removed. Construction projects in areas where there is a risk that nearby lands may be affected require authorisation from Congress.

Green groups’ fears were based on a document they say had been delivered to Temer by members of congress sympathetic to the so-called ruralist faction (a powerful agribusiness lobby). The ruralists demanded “a review of recent demarcations of Indian lands/quilombola settlements, as well as expropriations for land reform purposes”.

According to Funai, construction of power plants on the Tapajós River would change its behaviour, and that of the Jamanxim river, and would alter the surrounding landscape. There would also be significant impacts to vegetation and fauna, especially insects, micro-organisms, and smaller species. Funai also warns of the risk of “social, economic, and infrastructure problems resulting from establishing the construction site”.

Border disputes

Licensing for the Tapajós plant has been tumultuous and met with much resistence. The situation is so complex that Indigenous Component Studies, part of the process for environmental licensing, were carried out using only prior studies and secondary data because the Tapajós Study Group, a consortium of companies responsible for the assessment, was not allowed to enter mapped villages whihc would have been affected by the project to study native people’s customs and behaviour.

The national network of indigenous peoples, Apib, emphasised that there is still a great risk from demarcation processes, which are decided by the executive branch. “It is the government’s responsibility to continue land reform of indigenous lands,” the organisation said.

A proposed constitutional amendment (PEC) is currently moving through Congress that would eliminate the need for environmental licensing for infrastructure projects, which has been generating increasing resistance from prosecutors, environmental protection organisations, and political leaders.

São Luiz do Tapajós is controversial because the area that has been declared indigenous territory was not officially considered so when environmental studies began, thereby indicating the project could go ahead. The interim government and the public prosecutor’s office have taken opposing stances, as prosecutors have asserted that the country would be breaking convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The convention establishes prior consultation with indigenous communities on projects that may affect their communities and surrounding areas.

Brazil is a signatory of Convention 169, but has not formally regulated the conditions for consultations.