03/13/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In The Amazon, Construction Of Hydroelectric Power Plants Destroys Villages

In the Northern state of Rondônia, devastating land erosion and disappearing river fish affect the lives of millions of citizens; these are some of the consequences of the ‘progress’ brought by the brand new hydroelectric plants of Santo Antônio and Jirau

Two days before the first turbine of the Santo Antônio Dam in Rondônia was tested, the phone rang at the house of fisher woman Maria Iêsa Reis Lima’s. “It will start,” warned a friend who worked at the construction of the power plant. Iêsa sat on the porch and watched the waters, waiting for what she knew to be an irreversible change. “The Madeira River is dangerous; it demands respect. The engineers say they have the necessary technology, but nothing controls the reaction of this river.”

Weeks later, in early 2012, the waters surrounding Rondônia’s capital Porto Velho, in the northern Amazon region, started getting rough. The waves grew bigger each day, scraping the riverbanks and uprooting the trees. The deck of the municipal port broke. The river reached the houses until they collapsed from the landslides into the waters.

Iêsa’s prediction was correct. What she didn’t know was how quickly the river’s response to the opening of the floodgates would alter the course of her life, her neighborhood, and the history of Porto Velho. The waves reached the Triângulo District, the capital’s first neighborhood. The District takes its name for being the location where the trains of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad used to stop to unload. Iêsa’s house was located between the edge of the river and the abandoned rails, seven kilometers downriver from the plant.

The river also swallowed the Rondon landmark, a historical obelisk older than the state itself. It was built in 1911 by Marshal Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, an explorer that tore through the forest to install the first telegraph line in the Amazon. When the waves reached the landmark, the story was published by media around the world. But the Santo Antônio Energia consortium, responsible for the plant, denied any responsibility. In two weeks the waters had dug the base of the obelisk, dragging it to the bottom of the river. After it was proven that the plant was responsible for the monument’s destruction, the company tried to rescue the obelisk, but only two blocks were recovered.

“Banzeiro” was the word adopted by Rondônia’s residents for the phenomenon. According to the Brazilian Portuguese dictionary Houaiss it means “series of waves caused by the tide change or passage of ships, which will break violently on the beach or on the banks of the river.” It also means “wobbling, not firm” and “feeling upset, melancholic, sad.”

In the living room of the apartment rented to her by the company, sitting on a chair between moving boxes, Iêsa experiences the various definitions of the word. “My story is lost, everything is underwater,” she says. The daughter of a rubber soldier, she learned to fish with her father and brothers, and fishing was her livelihood until early 2012. She misses fresh fish and the food she used to grow in her backyard: yucca, beans, açaí, starfruit, and mango.

For now, the only one who still enjoys the shade of her house’s trees is her neighbor Francisco Batista Souza. He lived on the riverbank, in the Triângulo District, and also moved into an apartment. But he spends the day at what’s left of Iêsa’s yard, building small fishing boats. The land on which he used to work was also taken by the water. Souza clings to pictures of the old dock while he fights in court for the company to reimburse him for the loss of his workplace. “I’m 59 years old. I make boats since I was 15, what am I going to do with my life now?,” he asks.

With the money from the settlement (between 90,000 reais and 150,000 reais), the 120 families temporarily living in hotels and apartments won’t be able to buy land by the river, a valuable area for real state in Porto Velho. They can’t return to Triângulo District either, because what’s left of it will be removed for the construction of a tourism complex.

However, older residents refuse to leave. José Oliveira, who worked on maintenance of the railway since 1950, when he was 16 years old, until its deactivation in 1972, is one of them. “I was responsible for cutting weeds when they got tangled to the rails. I used to ride the road alone, on a velocipede that fits on the trail. I was even hit by an Indian’s arrow,” he recalls. When he arrived in Porto Velho, the city life revolved around the train. After the railway was disabled, he used the scraps to reinforce the foundation of his house. “I’m satisfied here near the rail and the river. Nobody’s going to throw me into the city like those families that ran away, crying, as if they weren’t worth anything.”

It is difficult to comprehend the impact of the change for those who grew up on the riverbanks. Iêsa is worried about her 12-year-old grandson, who has spent more than a month locked in his room in the apartment. When asked what has changed since the family had to leave their house, the boy made a long silence and said: “It messes with your brain.”

Families don’t forget that night. While the waves were breaking, Santo Antônio Energia denied responsibility for the “banzeiros” on TV. Iêsa slept with her suitcase packed by the door. “At night the waves were stronger,” she recalls. “We heard a loud noise coming from the power plant.”

For two weeks, nobody knew what to do. The families did not receive guidance from agencies responsible for controlling the actions of social and environmental impact of the plant: the City Hall, the state government, and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). The State Prosecutors Office had to intervene, demanding the company to sign a term of adjustment of conduct, settling to aid the families and pay for the containment of the river margins.

rio madeira
Sunset at the Madeira river.

Warnings Ignored

All of this happened because the phenomenon was not foreseen by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – commissioned by Furnas and Odebrecht, the companies responsible for Santo Antônio, and certified by IBAMA before issuing the permit. This is the assessment that points out the possible damage caused by the construction and the necessary actions to mitigate it.

“It was a failure,” admits Thomas Miazaki de Toledo, IBAMA’s Electric Power Infrastructure Coordinator. “If all of these impacts had been foreseen, preventive measures would have been adopted. But we don’t have a crystal ball,” he adds.
However, at least two experts paid by Santo Antônio pointed to the high possibility of erosion. These warnings can be found on the complementary reports to the original Environmental Impact Assessment. “They were in-depth analyses, completed as a demand of the Rondônia State Prosecutors Office. But they were forgotten during the licensing process,” says Roberto Smeraldi, Director of the NGO Amigos da Terra (Friends of the Earth).

The erosion issue is pointed out in these studies by the biologist José Galizia Tundisi, retired professor of the University of São Paulo (USP) and an environmental consultant. He writes that the phenomenon could happen in various places throughout the course of the Madeira River due to the imbalance in the movement of sediments.

In order to understand this process, one must know that the Madeira River is one of three rivers with the highest concentration of sediments in the world. It’s only behind rivers in the Himalayas. It is named Madeira (wood) because after going down the Andes, its waters yank off trees and soil in some areas. Every day, these woods and more than 500,000 tons of sediments slide across Porto Velho.

The way this material settles down along the river is what gives balance to its course. There are stretches where erosion and landslides occur naturally. In other parts, the sediments settle and then form sandbars. Porto Velho was a main area of sedimentation. But Tundisi alerted in the study released in 2007 that after the power plants were built, the reserves would retain the sediment, and this change of balance could create new zones of erosion, particularly in the stretch downstream from the dam.

This is one of theories used by Rondônia State Prosecutors Office (MPE-RO) to explain the problem. To IBAMA, the company explains the phenomenon saying it is temporary: since not all the turbines are running yet (there will be 50 in total), the water comes out with more speed, generating waves.

“We accept the explanation, but we understand that it’s not just that, we have technicians working on an independent report,” said Aluildo de Oliveira Leite, from the MPE- RO. The explanation of the company helps to understand the violence of the waves in Porto Velho. But the Prosecutors Office registered the same phenomenon in at least two other communities, located 150 and 200 kilometers from the capital.

A worrisome precedent is the case of the Aswam Dam, in Egypt. Although less mighty than Madeira, the Nile River is also rich in sediments. The concentration of nutrients in its waters supplied the Nile Delta crops, well-known for their abundance in the midst of the desert. But after the dam was completed in 1970, erosion swallowed entire villages downstream and altered the morphology of the Delta, where today crops depend on fertilizers.

Only with a complete diagnosis will it be possible to establish preventive actions on the Madeira River. It also depends on the good faith of the company. After the incidents in the Triângulo District, Santo Antônio had to build a seven-kilometer stone wall to contain the waves. “Other parts of the riverbanks located downstream started to erode. The company does not acknowledge that, alleging that the incidents are not related,” said the Prosecutor Renata Ribeiro Baptista, who follows the case from the Federal Prosecutors Office.

“Water As Black As Coffee”

While the waves rise up the course of the Madeira River, downstream from the dam, those who live upstream had their lives transformed by another environmental disaster: the death of the fish.

It was expected that the amount of fish would decline with the dams. But the fishermen have seen it dramatically slump. Near the plant, the reports are that you can only get enough to eat – and that’s it. It’s been impossible to fish for selling.

Predicting the problems that would arise after the construction of the dam, a group of 30 fishermen from Jaci Paraná, a village 90 kilometers from Porto Velho, organized among themselves and set up a project for farming “tambaqui” fish, before it was too late. They did everything right: they won a Petrobras bid and built 26 tanks into the Lake Madalena, adjacent of Jaci Paraná River, where they started farming more than 35,000 fish.

Two years later, when the tambaqui fish were almost ready for sale, the Santo Antônio plant began to flood the riverbanks to build the reserve. In October 2011, the concerned fishermen watched the water level rise, monitoring the fish tanks closely. In December, José dos Santos, a fisherman and field coordinator of the project, received a call from a fisherman who was on duty: some fish were dying. “I ran over and saw that the water was different, black like coffee,” he recalls. “I didn’t have time to do anything. That same night he called me saying that all the fish were dead, floating. We were desperate.”

The fishermen contacted Santo Antônio Energia, the company responsible for the plant. “And they had the nerve to say that the fish died of hunger,” says José, smiling nervously. “We worked hard for five years. We had plenty of fish food stored and we would let the fish die of starvation?”

Looking at the once-prosperous project, José points out hundreds of dead trees inside the lake. They were part of the valley vegetation, and could survive in the water a few months a year during high tide. But they couldn’t tolerate a permanent flooding. On the way back to Jaci, we saw hundreds of logs abandoned by the riverbank, all with the Fox seal – this is the company hired to do the forest cleaning for the dams. According to the fishermen, much of the vegetation destroyed by the power plant had not been removed before the flooding, and it ended up in the water. They suspect that this is the cause of death of the fish: the decomposition of the flooded vegetation.

The theory makes sense for biologist Philip Fearnside, researcher for the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). “Environmental reports indicate that the valley vegetation is part of the riverbed. But, if you fill up these areas and keep it flooded all year, the trees will decompose, the leaves will rot and release CO2,” he states.

With the aid of the NGO Madeira Vivo Institute, which helped coordinate the fish farming project, the group of fishermen collected samples of water and dead fish and sent for analysis at the Federal University of Rondônia. According to Claudio Antonio Ferreira, Director of the Institute, the analysis pointed out the absence of oxygen in the water. “We filed a lawsuit,” says José. “We want to negotiate with the company, and resume the project. But Santo Antônio Energia says there will be no settlement.” Meanwhile, waiting for the lawsuit to take its course, José has no income. The solution for his problem was to work as a security guard at Jirau Dam, which is also being built in the same river.

The lack of control of the water quality by the Santo Antônio Dam had already been noticed in 2008, when dead fish could be smelled from the city of Porto Velho. IBAMA estimated 11 tons, but members of the surveillance team suspect there were more. The death had been happening near the construction for five days and when the inspectors arrived, the plant’s employees were burying the fish.

The plant was fined 7.7 million reais. IBAMA’s report points out that the company was negligent and reckless, because they weren’t monitoring the water quality daily and there was no skilled staff on-site. The company was reprimanded for not having warned about the accident; not having an expert report on the cause of the death of the fish; and for using inappropriate buckets for hauling the fish that were still alive, so they were dead upon arrival at the release site.

Lives In Transit

“When I arrived here, I found it sad. I used to cry every night. The dust, the dirt roads, I used to work washing dishes. I don’t remember how it happened for the first time. He was weird, he brought cocaine to the room, he wanted to kiss me on the lips, and have sex again. Then I cried. If I were in my hometown, I’d be ashamed, disgusted. But here, this is normal. Almost every girl does it. I’ve changed; I’m not the same woman.”

Michele (fictitious name) was 20 years old by the time of the interview. Years before, after leaving her hometown, in the state of Pará, she landed in the village of Jaci Paraná, a small district of Porto Velho, state of Rondônia, with a population of 13,000. There she found work and a place to live at a “brega,” local name for brothel, where she began helping with housekeeping. Within two weeks, she was prostituting herself, like “almost every girl.”

It is impossible to walk the streets of Jaci and not run into a “brega.” They are open bars, sometimes with plastic tables scattered across the sidewalk. At night, the music plays out loud. During the day, the women walk around town wearing shorts and shirts showing their bellies.

The women came to Jaci due to the thousands of men coming and going to the village in shifts, at 7am and 5pm. These were the work shifts for the construction of the Jirau Dam, one of the greatest projects of the federal government’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) currently underway. The hydroelectric power plant is being built around a dam on the Madeira River, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. The village of Jaci is the nearest urban center, situated 20 kilometers from the dam.

usina de jirau
View of the Jirau dam.

At its peak the construction project had 25,000 employees, more than double the number predicted in the original plan. Some workers settled into the village, while others spent their days out of town. The Rondônia Prosecutors Office estimates that the village jumped from 4,000 to about 16,000 residents since 2009, when the construction of the Jirau Dam began. Workers bring accents from the North, Northeast, South and Midwest of Brazil. Some of them are still not fluent in Portuguese, like the Haitians and Bolivians.

“Some of them just want to party, while others are sad. They say they cheat on their wives because they have to, but they don’t like it,” says Michele. Most of the workers traveled alone. They don’t return home for 6 months to a year. “It’s hard work. When it’s over, they want to have fun, to drink,” says Michele. There are 68 points of prostitution in Jaci. She says that the worst is when the client becomes aggressive after abusing alcohol or cocaine, which flows in abundance at the “bregas.” Or when they ask to spend the night. “God forbid spooning like husband and wife,” she says.

The fishing village became a transient place. People go after money; they don’t want to settle there. There’s constant tension in the air. Sexuality is everywhere: women wear short, provocative clothes, sometimes exposing their private parts in broad daylight. Fights at the brothels are common. They happen among workers or among the prostitutes – there is a growing tension between the Brazilian and Bolivian women. Many of the fights end up in stabbings. Some are fatal.

The Projects

The hydroelectric power plants of Jirau and Santo Antônio will together receive around 37 billion reais to explore and build a structure able to generate more than 7,000 megawatts – the equivalent of 9% of all energy power produced in the country. Jirau’s maximum power generating potency will be 3,750 megawatts and Santo Antônio will be 3,570. After the construction is finished – what is set to happen in 2016 – both companies will operate the dams on a 35-year concession.

Santo Antônio and Jirau are the second and third biggest hydroelectric dams under construction in Brazil – they lose only to the controversial Belo Monte dam, in the state of Pará. The plants’ initial estimate was to remove 2,849 people from the area to be flooded. However, According to the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Affected by the Dams Movement), by the end of 2012, 4,325 people had been removed or were indirectly affected by the dams.

According to information provided by the companies, the inundation would be limited to 230 square kilometers of land. But according to the biologist Philip Fearnside of Inpa, the real flooded area was almost twice as big: 529 square kilometers.

The construction of the dams will have direct and indirect impacts over five indigenous lands, and the flooded area will reach part of six conservation units. Our reporters contacted the companies Santo Antônio Energia, responsible for the construction of Santo Antonio Dam, and Energia Sustentável do Brasil, which is building Jirau, to request to visit the construction sites and to interview the officers responsible for environmental and social issues. Both companies denied our requests alleging “lack of time” of their teams.



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