In a surprise move, the Brazilian government has announced that the era of building big hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin, long criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups, is ending.
“We are not prejudiced against big [hydroelectric] projects, but we have to respect the views of society, which views them with restrictions,” Paulo Pedrosa, the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told O'Globo.
According to Pedrosa, Brazil has the potential to generate an additional 50 gigawatts of energy by 2050 through the building of new dams but, of this total, only 23% would not affect in some way indigenous land, quilombolas (communities set up by runaway slaves) and federally protected areas. The government, he says, doesn’t have the stomach to take on the battles.
Pedrosa went on: “Nor are we disposed to take actions that mask the costs and the risks [of hydroelectric projects].” This statement seems to refer to the actions of previous governments, particularly under President Dilma Rousseff and the Workers’ Party (PT), which made it difficult to evaluate the real expense and environmental impact of large dams, such as Belo Monte on the Xingu river. It was only after construction of this particular dam that the huge cost – financial, social and environmental – was fully revealed.
That’s one reason such mega-projects began meeting with a rising storm of protest. For example, in 2016, after many indigenous demonstrations, IBAMA, the environmental agency, suspended the building of a large dam on the Tapajós River – São Luiz do Tapajós – which would have flooded part of the Munduruku indigenous territory of Sawre-Muybu. However, because the government never officially cancelled the dam, Indians and environmentalists have long feared that the project could be re-launched at any moment. However, according to O Globo, the Ministry of Mines and Energy has announced that it will “no longer fight for the [São Luiz do Tapajós] project.”
“I don’t think any more big hydro dams will be built,” said Mauro Maura Severino, a lecturer in electric energy at the University of Brasilia. ”Brazil should move towards clean energy, like solar and wind.”
João Carlos Mello, from Thymos Energia, a consulting company, agreed: “The future lies with renewable energy, such as wind, and much smaller dams. The tendency will be to generate the energy much nearer to where it will be consumed.”
While the Temer administration hasn’t said so, experts say there is no doubt that hard economic realities played a chief role in the government’s turnabout. In the past, the huge Brazilian Development bank, BNDES (National Bank of Economic and Social Development), subsidized mega-dams to the tune of billions of dollars, funneling the money through state companies, which became powerful as a result.
For example, Eletrobrás, Latin America’s biggest utility company, owns 49.98% of Belo Monte. Furnas, a regional power utility and Eletrobras subsidiary, owns 39% of the Santo Antônio hydroelectric project and, through its subsidiaries, 40% of the Jirau dams – both large, controversial projects built on the Madeira River.