WWF wants to unite development and conservation in the Tapajos basin

Posted on April, 30 2016

Interview/Mário Barroso, WWF-Brazil´s Conservation Director
by Jaime Gesisky, WWF-Brazil

The best example of how not to carry out big works in the Amazon is already fully operational. Belo Monte dam shows the country how the lack of proper planning and of a broader view when installing a new venture in the region can generate disastrous impacts on the forest and the riverside populations. To avoid repeating the same mistake in the basin of the Tapajos river (Para state) currently being targeted for the installation of hydropower plants, ports and highways, it is essential to view the region as a whole and consider the cumulative impacts of the infrastructure works. “Examining them separately is mere short-sightedness”, warns WWF-Brazil’s Conservation Director, Mario Barroso. In this interview he defends the adoption of a more systemic vision for the Tapajos on which to base planning for the region. The arguments can be found in the study A conservation vision for the Tapajos basin, released by WWF-Brazil with the support of WWF Living Amazon Initiative. It is a scientific endeavour to ally development and conservation in one of the largest remaining stands of tropical forest on the planet. Read the main highlights of the interview.

What is the lesson Brazil can learn from Belo Monte?
The great lesson to be learned from Belo Monte is that before embarking on a construction project of that magnitude in the Amazon, it is essential to assess the cumulative impacts on the forest of all the human interference. And that is not just in regard to the infrastructure projects, which need to be analysed in much broader framework; livestock production and mining activities which are increasing rapidly in the region, all need to be taken into account. And the planning must examine every aspect. We have to put aside our short-sighted habit of only evaluating the works one by one and, instead, gain an understanding of how to plan development better. Does Brazil need more power supply? Then in what ways can that power be provided?  We still have a chance to take action. We must never repeat Belo Monte.
How can we put aside our short-sightedness?
By asking the right question, that is to say: what is the plan for the integrated and sustainable development of the Tapajos basin?

And is there such a plan?
Not of the kind that we consider to be most appropriate. The prevailing attitude is to examine each large-scale venture, each project, individually, without considering the cumulative impacts stemming from its construction or its implications for the rest of the landscapes and for the basin itself. That is the fundamental mistake. And we cannot afford to make mistakes when we are thinking of a whole set of mega-ventures in one of the world’s largest stands of tropical forest; one that is relatively well preserved with a mosaic of protected areas that includes parks, extractive reserves and indigenous territories, all bathed by rivers with transparent waters, in addition to possessing an extraordinary degree of biodiversity. Any disastrous intervention there could put the equilibrium of the hydrological system, the environmental services provided by the forest and the ways of life of local populations at great risk.

What is WWF-Brazil’s proposal?

With the launching of the study A conservation vision for the Tapajos basin, we wish to collaborate in enabling Brazil to find a new way of thinking and addressing the development of the Amazon, especially of that particular basin which is quite unique, as I have already said. This contribution of ours is not complete or definitive but, rather, it is focussed on biodiversity conservation needs and the identification of the most vulnerable areas. It is part of a broader set of information that is needed to support the discussion that needs to take place. 

In what way?
Historically, the environmental impacts of large-scale projects in the Amazon have been assessed individually with little or no attention paid to indirect or cumulative impacts, even though the hydropower potential inventories are made in an integrated manner. It is of fundamental importance that infrastructure works and economic activities should be assessed as a set, thereby making it feasible to anticipate, prevent, mitigate and eventually compensate for their undesirable impacts on the hydrological system, on biodiversity and on traditional peoples. What is essential is to keep strategic stretches of rivers free from dams, guaranteeing connectivity and vital flows.

Does the study offer any instruments for conducting such analyses?
Yes, we can detect the interaction among impacts using instruments like the Ecological Risk Index, which we have already tested with considerable success in other regions such as the Serra do Mar, the Pantanal and, more recently, in the Xingu River basin. We incorporate to that previous experience new analyses and databases that embrace regional particularities of the Tapajos basin. In our conservation solutions, we cross-reference hydrological data to analyse aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Are these big projects really inevitable?
They would not be if we had other priorities involving decentralized generation and more intense use of alternative sources like biomass and solar and wind energy. To give you an idea, more than half of a felled tree that is processed for wood goes to waste. But actually that waste is an organic residue and it can be transformed into electricity. That form of biomass alone, which is being simply thrown out, would be capable of supplying the total electricity demand of the entire Amazon region.

So planning is the key then?
Yes, we have to create mechanisms to ensure that planning is done in a better way, otherwise we will end up with a fragmented basin from the forest point of view, with seriously jeopardised rivers and flows and increasingly vulnerable protected areas. There is great pressure from outside its borders on the Tapajos basin.  You may not know it, but the springs and headwaters that feed the Tapajos are already deteriorated. However, there is still a chance to protect the heart of the basin. Now is the time to bring governments, entrepreneurs and society at large together. We need to sit down with all those involved in this issue, converse and do the planning properly this time.

But the Senate is about to pass a bill that would permit a high speed licensing process for large-scale infrastructure works and most of them are planned for the Amazon region especially for the Tapajos basin. Doesn’t that make things considerably more complicated?
If it is approved, the bill will practically abolish licensing for large-scale ventures. That would be a monumental mistake. Our efforts are directed at improving and streamlining the current process that authorizes the construction and functioning of such projects. The Senate is going against the current tide of sustainable development. The measure in question, if approved, will harm the forests and the traditional populations. It could also jeopardise the protected areas. The financing entities need to be more cautious before they approve investments for works that are liable to dilapidate the natural heritage. They need to raise their standards for estimating social and environmental impacts. Our study contains certain tools that can help to achieve that. 

At the UN Climate Conference, Brazil presented its Plans for 2025 and 2030. The plans foresee that 66% of the country’s energy matrix will be hydroelectricity. That means that a series of hydropower plants will be built in the Tapajos.

The Brazilian State can no longer carry on promoting this kind of development which uses the argument of generating wealth but actually ends up generating deforestation, species loss and negative impacts on protected areas and traditional peoples. Companies, too, need to understand their roles in this kind of occupation project. Apart from the undesirable externalities they generate, the glaring lack of environmental planning may damage the country’s image and lead to financial losses and judicialization. Nobody wants that.  We need to view the Tapajos basin in a more strategic perspective and avoid repeating the same old mistakes.
Apiakas indigenous people, Mato Grosso State, Amazon, Brazil. WWF Juruena Expedition 2013
© Adriano Gambarini / WWF Living Amazon Initiative