BRAZIL: Tapajós industrial waterway -- a potential environmental disaster

In early August, the Brazilian government unexpectedly cancelled the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric power station, the largest of a series of major dams planned along the Tapajós River and its tributaries. Indigenous groups and environmentalists celebrated that victory. But now comes a timely new book that evaluates the immense looming social and environmental challenges still facing the 1,500 mile-long Tapajós River valley in central Amazonia, reports Sue Branford.
Sue Branford

With the controversial Belo Monte dam finally going operational on the Xingu River in eastern Amazonia earlier this year — and with mining companies, loggers and cattle companies moving into that region — the battle to conserve the Amazon forest has now moved largely to the Tapajós.

The Tapajós River basin, the authors point out, links two great biomes — the Cerrrado scrubland and the Amazon rainforest. As a result, it contains enormous biological and social biodiversity. It is also amongst the least impacted and wildest remaining portions of the Brazilian Amazon.

The Tapajós River flows for hundreds of miles through the heart of the Amazon. Photo by Edinilson Barrozo Ramos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The authors contend that if the basin is incorporated into Brazil’s dominant economic development model — including timber harvesting, mining, and energy and transportation infrastructure — without stringent measures to protect its diversity, the remainder of the Amazon forest could be at risk. Once the Tapajós basin is industrialized, developers would likely move on to the Trombetas River valley (where large-scale mining is already under way) and then to large areas of western Amazonia.

The book makes clear that — despite the defeat of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam — the necessary measures to protect the Tapajós region’s environment, and its indigenous and traditional peoples, are not presently being taken. Instead, powerful economic interests are rapidly moving in on a potentially huge scale.

From wild river to industrial waterway

Developers have big plans for the Tapajós basin. As spelt out in the book, business interests want the Brazilian government to complete the building of a series of large dams along the Tapajós River and its tributaries, the Teles Pires and the Juruena, with two aims: first, to supply the mining industry with subsidized energy to exploit the area’s untapped mineral reserves; and second, to create a vast industrial waterway to move commodities cheaply from the nation’s interior to the coast.

In recent decades, Brazilian agribusiness developed extensive soy plantations in the state of Mato Grosso in central Brazil, but it presently has no easy means of bringing that commodity to market. For now, the soy crop must make a long detour south, then east to the Atlantic ports of Santos and Paranaguá. The Tapajós industrial waterway would create a more direct, less costly water route to the north, then east along the Amazon River to the Atlantic. Later, improved roads and perhaps even a railroad, would move some soy westward to Peru and then across the Pacific to key Asian markets.

The book, called Ocekadi, which is an indigenous term for “the river of our place”, is unashamedly opposed to the industrial future that the development lobby wants to impose on the Tapajós region. Edited by Daniela Fernandes Alarcon, Brent Millikan and Mauricio Torres, the book was published this August in Portuguese by International Rivers (an environmental NGO) and Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará (UFOPA).

Its 25 articles, largely written by biologists, sociologists and other academic researchers, provide the most comprehensive analysis of the Tapajós basin yet available. At its heart is a hard-headed analysis arguing why the kind of progress being imposed on the region by the development lobby will, at best, only bring short-term economic gain at huge long-term social and environmental cost.

Development doomed to fail?

Perhaps the most damning point, made by several contributors, is that an ever-increasing body of scientific studies suggests that the development vision is self-defeating and will not work, even on its own terms.

As Daniela Fernandes Alarcon, Natalia Ribas Guerrero and Mauricio Torres point out in their article, the construction of the dams and industrial waterway would most likely result in large-scale forest clearance of the Tapajós region — induced by rapidly introduced economic activity that would go largely unregulated due to inadequate government controls over deforestation.

“What the Teles Pires-Juruena-Tapajós waterway will lead to is an expansion of predatory economic activities which, as is well known, have already advanced on the territory and the way of life of Indians, fishing communities, peasant families and other groups”, they write. These “predatory” activities, they say, include poorly regulated logging, cattle ranching and soybean farming, which by their very nature require major forest clearance.

In its turn, major deforestation could then alter the regional climate, particularly rain patterns, bringing drought. In his article, Juan Doblas, a geo-processing specialist at ISA (Instituto Socioambiental), cites a scientific study which predicts that when 40 percent of the Amazon forest is cleared (something that would almost certainly happen if the Tapajós waterway goes forward), energy output from the dams would fall by up to 40 percent because of reduced rainfall.

A decline in energy production due to enhanced Amazonian drought would not only reduce energy industry profits, but also the dams’ usefulness to the mining industry. Meanwhile, decreases in river levels and flows could even prevent the industrial waterway from functioning.

Doblas says that such a scenario makes nonsense of the government’s claim that the benefits that Brazil will gain from the big Amazon development projects vastly outweigh any environmental and social costs.

He concludes: “So the lack of a strategic long-term vision for the Amazon basin, which takes into account both the effects of forest clearance and climate change, will lead to an irreversible loss of forest cover and, paradoxically, to the loss of profitability of the very mega-projects responsible for the degradation. Only a Copernican change in policy can prevent a catastrophe predicted by both Western science and traditional indigenous knowledge.”

Government and business moving ahead

Against the background of such dire warnings, environmentalists around the world welcomed the unexpected decision by Brazil’s government to halt the São Luiz do Tapajós dam. “It is a major setback for both the dam industry, accustomed to a status quo of steamrolling the rule of law, and the proponents of the industrial waterway”, said Brent Millikan, director of International Rivers’ Amazon Program.

That verdict was also hailed as a huge victory by the Munduruku Indians, who would have seen a portion of their lands and some communities flooded by the project.

Yet, as Ocekadi makes clear, the halting of this one dam will not by itself stop developers. It will be a serious inconvenience, which will entail changes in the route of the industrial waterway, but it will not put an end to the formidable development offensive, which the book notes, was launched five years ago.

In 2011, a National Council of Energy Policy (CNPE) resolution described the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós, Jatobá, and Chacorão dams on the Tapajós River, and the Jardim do Ouro dam on its Jamanxim tributary, as “strategic”. The resolution stated that these “priority” hydroelectric projects were expected to come on line between 2015 and 2020.

All of this was determined before any studies had been carried out into the projects’ environmental and social viability.

At this time too, measures were taken to smooth the way for the new dams, many of which would flood federal conservation areas. Brazilian laws make it difficult to expropriate land from a conservation unit for an infrastructure project. But it is far easier to redefine conservation area borders so that the problem doesn’t arise. Preventative action was duly taken: through a government decree (MP no. 588/2012), the borders of all conservation areas that would be affected by the dams were redrawn to exclude the problematic zones.

Agribusiness plans — in which the industrial waterway plays a key role — are also already well advanced. The Strategic Waterway Plan (PHE), announced in 2013, foresees public investment of R$3.4 billion (US$1.1 billion) from 2014 to 2024 to carry out the needed changes to make the rivers navigable (channel deepening and canals, for example, as distinct from dam construction, which is funded separately).

Private enterprise is expected to invest R$840 million (US$262 million) for the river barges and other vessels, plus commodities terminals to transport crops. Companies are quickly emerging to do that job: among many, is Amaggi, owned by the family of Blairo Maggi, who recently became Brazil’s agriculture minister under interim president Michel Temer. Amaggi has partnered with the multinational Bunge to set up Unitapajós — initially the company will operate 50 barges, transporting soy and other crops from Mato Grosso to Santarém.

In its pages, Ocekadi, records the excitement of one agri-businessman regarding the waterway project: “It is a gift from God to have rivers crossing the grain-producing region of the state [of Mato Grosso]”, the soy farmer told the economic journal, Valor. Our idea is to become like the Mississippi River, which transports 600 million tons a year, he explained.

The other big Tapajós economic opportunity comes from mining. The region is extremely rich in gold, and possesses sizeable reserves of bauxite, copper, diamonds and phosphate. Many of these minerals, however, are found on indigenous lands and within conservation units.

Thousands of requests for authorization to prospect have been made to the government already, even though mining is currently banned in conservation areas. Not surprisingly, big mining companies are lobbying in favor of a bill (PL no. 1.601/1996), currently languishing in Congress, which would open these areas to mineral exploration.

Local people not consulted

These industrial development plans, says the book, are moving forward as if the local population of peasant farmers, fishermen and indigenous people did not exist. “The National Logistics and Transport Plan (PNLT) in 2011 ignores the many uses of the river made by these populations and skates over the importance of the river in their way of life”, writes Alarcon, Guerrero and Torres.

Unfortunately for the region’s current inhabitants, consultation with local populations is not required under Brazilian legislation before such industrial waterways are built. The Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká peoples have not, to date, been consulted over the Tapajós waterway, even though it will pass through their lands.

The development lobby makes much of the environmental advantages of industrial waterways compared with highways, largely because they cause less direct forest clearance and use far less fuel than trucks. But, as researchers Philip Fearnside and William Laurance point out in an article quoted in the book: “Given that much of the infrastructure is being created to promote soy exports, a crop with minimal social benefits, it is difficult to imagine a large infrastructure network built to support soy cultivation being described as ‘sustainable development’”.

Fearnside and Laurance add that, “the main impact of infrastructure projects, which is the indirect harm caused by economic activities attracted and facilitated by the projects, is not covered in environmental impact studies and decision-making processes. The impacts of the activities of third parties — large scale farmers and loggers — which intensify when areas become more accessible, are not included in these reports.”

A better way forward

Tapajós basin development plans have faltered in recent months. Mauricio Torres, one of the book’s editors, told Mongabay: “The dam euphoria in the Amazon has lost steam because of the country’s political and economic crisis. This has affected their project in various ways. First, the country hasn’t any money [to invest in big projects] and since the end of 2105 the government has said it won’t put public money in energy infrastructure works. And Brazilian businessmen will never fund projects with their own capital.”

“Second, we have the impact of the Lava Jato Operation,” he adds, referring to the federal Car Wash corruption investigation. “We have known for a long time, and now know better than ever, that the main motive for the government’s pathological determination to license and build dams, riding roughshod over everything and everyone like a tractor, wasn’t energy generation, but to keep up the supply of illegal electoral funds.”

“And, third — and this is perhaps the least important reason — is the fact that the curve for the country’s projected energy demand has fallen precipitously. Brazil won’t have an energy shortage in the next few years,” concludes Torres.

Ocekadi makes a number of policy recommendations. Brent Millikan, another of the book’s editors, told Mongabay: “The socio-environmental conflicts linked to the planning, licensing and implementation of hydroelectric dam projects in the Tapajós basin — similar to other recent cases, such as Belo Monte on the Xingu river — have been closely associated with chronic violations of human rights and environmental legislation, the undermining of democratic institutions, authoritarianism and, ultimately, rampant corruption.“

“In terms of policy implications, the book points to needs for fundamental changes in such key areas as democratization of energy planning; strengthening of policy instruments related to prior analysis of socio-environmental impacts of proposed projects (including cumulative impacts of dam cascades, waterways, etc.); and their [more sustainable] alternative; river basin conservation; and ensuring respect for the rights, livelihoods and cultures of indigenous peoples and other traditional populations of the Amazon.”

It won’t be easy to make such sweeping policy changes, Millikan agrees. But a few years ago no one — except the Munduruku Indians — believed that people would be able to halt the São Luiz do Tapajós dam. Yet, through a combination of dogged determination and good luck, they pulled it off.

An Ocekadi article quotes the Munduruku teacher, Jairo Saw, who compares the Indians to the tiny da’uk ants prevalent in the region: through their persistent action, he says, they can take on and defeat jaguars. A lesson perhaps for future conservation battles in the Tapajós.

This article was first published by the Latin American Bureau. For more quality current affairs articles visit