A presidential decree to redistrict the Amazon jungle's conservation areas has environmental groups and Amazon state attorneys general up in arms.
For environmentalists, it’s possibly a deal with the devil. For government conservation groups with boots on the ground in the biggest jungle on Earth, it’s the only compromise to keep the Amazon safe, and expand Brazil’s reliance on clean energy.
The problem is, that in order to build that clean energy, thousands of acres of pristine Amazon rainforest will have to be cut up and inundated with river water to build hydroelectric dams like Belo Monte, currently the largest ongoing hydroelectric project in the world.
Who said women were stewards of the environment? Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff wants to eliminate more than 86,000 hectares of protected areas in the Amazon — the equivalent to the area of 161,000 Rio de Janeiro Flamenco, Manchester United and New York Giants stadiums. The immediate reason? To make way for at least two large hydroelectric dams being worked out on paper, including the Tapajos project — an 8,000 megawatt power station the government would like to see built on the border of Para and Amazonas states.
A new provisional measure, known as MP 558 in Brazil, has been challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court by Federal Public Prosecutors who allege that MP 558 signed by Rousseff on Jan. 5 violates the Brazilian Constitution and the country’s environmental laws. They say that the government’s two pet projects, including Tapajos, do not have environmental impact studies in hand. That means nothing can be built. But the government’s Ministry of the Environment says that the reason they don’t have an impact study is because the government’s Energy Ministry wants to build them in conservation areas. There can’t be an impact study done on a project to be build in a protected area because, by law, the project cannot be built. So in order to build them in those conservation areas, the government has to reduce that area. That is exactly what MP 558 does.
”This change signals a growing tendency within the federal government, already visible with Belo Monte, to blatantly disregard environmental legislation in the rush to construct over 60 large dams in the Amazon,” says Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director at International Rivers, a California-based NGO working with local indigenous groups in Para state to thwart hydroelectric dams whenever they can.
“The (Brazilian) President is backtracking on Brazil’s environmental commitments, and will use any means necessary to push through an agenda of expensive mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon, reminiscent of the military dictatorship in the 1970s,” Millikan says. “It begs the question, who will protect the Amazon…if not the government?”
What is the Amazon?
For people who have never been to Brazil, the Amazon is a massive jungle full of anacondas, howler monkeys and lost Indian tribes. To the Brazilian government, and to the Brazilian people, it is more than that. In Amazonas state, the largest state in the north Brazil, Manaus city is home to 1.8 million people, nearly half the state’s 3.4 million population, according to the Brazilian census bureau IBGE’s 2010 data. In Para, another large Amazon state, there are 7.5 million inhabitants. That doesn’t count the five other states, including parts of Mato Grosso, that constitute the Amazon biome, Brazil’s largest geographic area bar none. Over six million people live in those five states, and they need to work, they need to eat, and they need electricity. And, their numbers are growing. It is the one part of Brazil where the population is growing fastest. It is the emerging market within the emerging nation that is Brazil. To keep the lights on without burning fossil fuels, Brazil is committed to hydro power.
Hydroelectricity accounts for nearly 85% of Brazil’s electricity. The country currently has a surplus of energy, but that surplus is dwindling and will be in deficit mode by 2015 unless Brazil builds more power plants. Now, they can build more coal fired power plants like Forbes billionaire Eike Batista is doing on the northeastern coast with his Pecem I and Pecem II facilities; they can build more nuclear power plants south of Rio de Janeiro like government owned Angra I and Angra II; or they can do what Brazil has always done: build dams on its overabundance of rivers.
The only place left to build them, is in the Amazon.
Flying over the Amazon is like flying over the ocean…looking left to right doesn’t change the view: it’s green as far as the eye can see, with blue veins of rivers cutting through it. It’s amazing that anybody actually lives there. One look at the map of where Brazil power giant Eletrobras (EBR) hopes to one day build the Tapajos dam and it’s obvious: green and blue. No brown. No urban centers. This is the Garden of Eden. Yet, despite the sparsity of human life, millions still call this place home.