Legal decision gives a break for conservation of the Tapajos basin in the Brazilian Amazon

Posted on 26 November 2012    
Tapajós River, in the Brazilian Amazon. The free-flowing river is threatened by a hydropower complex.
© David Reeks / WWF Living Amazon Initiative
Debate over the construction of more dams in the Amazon heats up

A decision from the Federal Justice in the Brazilian State of Para that denied a preliminary environmental license to the construction of the newest giant dam in the Brazilian Amazon, the hydropower project Sao Luiz do Tapajos, represents an important step in the growing debate around the stakes, need and urgency of implementing large infrastructure projects in one of the more pristine areas of the Brazilian Amazon, affecting traditional communities and indigenous people.

The act, determined by Federal Judge José Airton de Aguiar Portela on November 19th, requires that an integrated environmental assessment to deal with cumulative social and environmental impacts be developed for the Tapajos and Jamanxin basins and that indigenous people living in the area be consulted.

According to the Federal Attorney of the State of Para, who has asked for this decision, the construction will affect the Munduruku territory where over 10,000 indigenous people live.

"The environmental assessments are very important and should be the result of detailed terms of reference as much as to the methodology, in order to enable a consistent study. More important is the implementation of the recommendations, as well as monitoring by society, "stated the WWF Brazil CEO, Maria Cecilia Wey de Brito.

The Tapajos basin represents almost 6% of the Brazilian territory and contains unique ecological, scenic and cultural value. Nevertheless, this basin has been subject to hasty measures aimed to bypass environmental safeguards in order to speed up the construction of the Tapajos complex, a compilation of 7 proposed dams in the ecoregion. Of these proposed dams, the two largest are the Sao Luiz (6.133 MW) and Jatoba (2.336 MW).

Among those measures, it is worth mentioning a government decision announced last January and later converted into law that reduces the protected status of four units of land set aside for conservation therefore allowing the massive undertaking of the Tapajos complex to proceed. By easing up on the law protecting these conservation areas, 2 more free-flowing rivers in the Amazon, the Tapajos and Jamanxin rivers, will be dammed, causing the flooding of an estimated 250,000 hectares and the fragmentation of ecosystems of social and ecological significance.

According to that legal decision that establishes a limit to the careless project pace, “the public interest cannot ignore rules imposed by itself, even under supposedly urgent demands from the country”.

WWF has been advocating the development of an integrated regional planning system that supports a serious national debate over how Brazilians want to see the Amazon conserved in the future. The identification of specific rivers designated as “no-go rivers” must be agreed upon before the piling-up of impacts from numerous hydropower projects, treated in an isolated pattern, produce disproportional impacts at the basin scale.

“With 150 dams in the Amazon horizon it is essential to define priority areas for fresh water conservation to guarantee the connectivity and integrity of the hydrological system, which represent the interest of life from those that depend on rivers that flow and pulse freely. And the tools to promote this national dialog are available”, says Pedro Bara, infrastructure strategy leader of WWF Living Amazon initiative.

(With information from Federal Justice of the Pará State)

Tapajós River, in the Brazilian Amazon. The free-flowing river is threatened by a hydropower complex.
© David Reeks / WWF Living Amazon Initiative Enlarge

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