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© Edward Parker / WWF

Sustainable infrastructure

Pescadores en la Amazonia
Background: The Madeira dams

As of 2001, the Brazilian government made evident its intentions of constructing a hydroelectric energy complex on the Madeira River for generating power as part of IIRSA (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America). The objective of the latter is to produce energy for the region as well as for the inter-connected Brazilian system, in addition to promoting regional navigation along 4,225 Km. The Project consists in:

  •  the construction of four dams: Jirau and San Antonio on the Brazilian side, Guayaramerin as a bi-national undertaking and Cachuela Esperanza in Bolivia
  • the dams will allow for floodgates to operate which would make possible the navigation of the Madeira River and its tributaries, which implies eliminating an area of rapids that would “interrupt” navigation
  • the operation of ports on the hydrovia for the Madeira-Guaporé-Beni-Madre de Dios Rivers (Brazil-Bolivia-Peru).
The government of Brazil has decided to construct the two dams on the Brazilian side aiming to achieve a joint production capacity of 6.450 MWh to benefit a large portion of its population.

In view of the fact that the licenses awarded by the government of Brazil for the construction of the dams did not consider potential ecological, socio-economic and environmental impacts in Bolivia, the Bolivian government reacted as well as those sectors of civil society potentially affected.

The Bolivian Amazon’s fishing economy could be affected by the imminent construction of dams
A recent study carried out by the NGO FaunAgua, in collaboration with WWF, and presented to a high level governmental commission, gave convincing results in terms of the possible impacts that could be caused by the Jirau and San Antonio dams - on the Madeira River in Brazil - on the fishing economy and food security of the inhabitants of the Bolivian Amazon.
Un pescador sosteniendo un tambaquí. © Edward Parker / WWF

The study reports that in the Amazon fish are a part of the diet for approximately 950,000 people in Bolivia, and that roughly 155,000 people living along river banks in the Departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and La Paz carry out subsistence fishing. It also gave information on the existence of some 16,000 commercial fishermen who generate USD 4,000,000 annually (approximately 3,200 metric tons annually from commercial fishing). The study goes on to indicate that the current fishing activity barely represents 10% of the fishing potential in the Bolivian Amazon and could represent up to 0.3% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The species of Amazon fish that are currently targeted for commercial fishing are Prochilodus nigricans, catfish (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum), cod (Brachyplatystoma filamentosum) and red belly pacu (Piaractus brachypomus). Of these commercially fished species, 80% are migratory; in other words, they first migrate up river (from Brazil to Bolivia) to spawn and then return in the opposite direction to develop. In spite of a system which is supposed to allow the fish to pass through the dams, this migration – vital to the survival of these fish – will be reduced by the dams which will be obstacles in their migratory habits.

The final recommendations of the study bring attention to three fundamental aspects:

  • National hydro-electric energy policies should take into consideration not only economic aspects, but also ecological and socio-cultural aspects as well;
  • The dams should be placed above the range of the migration of fish; and
  • Smaller dams have less of a socio-cultural and environmental impact in comparison to larger dams, such as those planned for Jirau and San Antonio on the Madeira River.