03/20/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In The Amazon, This River Is The Next Big Thing In Frontier Expansion

Hydroelectric plants, agrobusiness and mining: in the game of development, these are the leading threats to the Tapajós, one of the most pristine rivers in the Amazon

Agência Pública www.apublica.orgFull Book: Public Amazon, an investigation.

Whoever takes the boat down the 851 kilometers of the green waters of the Tapajós River, which crosses the entire territory of the Northern state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon, often sees dolphins and diving birds on a breathtaking landscape, protected by a mosaic of forest reserves and indigenous lands. However, a wide range of new projects –- from hydroelectric dams to roads, hydroways, river ports and a mining project –- may re-design the features of one of the most beautiful rivers in the Amazon forest in a short time-span.

Even by the rich standards of the Amazon Basin, the Tapajós River valley is an area of extreme biological diversity. Of the 1,837 bird species found in Brazil, 613 come from the Tapajós. One of them, the tiny hummingbird Tapajós Hermit (Phaethornis aethopyga), nicknamed “whitened-bottom darkened-throat” was registered only in 2009. Many of the bird species have a low population density, which makes them vulnerable to environmental changes. The river is one of the main reason for such diversity. According to biologists, it serves as a barrier against dispersion. This also explains the richness of mammals: 161 species are found in the region (the total in Europe is 222).

“The Tapajós area, in the West of Pará, is a true El Dorado,” said father Edilberto Sena, leader of the Tapajós Vivo (Tapajos Alive, in Portuguese) movement that brings together several organizations for the protection of the environment and the rights of the local population. “We have a lot of water, wood and many types of minerals. Such richness has caught the attention of many companies. But it’s the federal government that leads the destruction.”

The project with the potential of causing the greatest impact is the hydroelectric complex on the Tapajós River, which comprises seven power plants capable of producing a total of about 14,000 megawatts, equivalent to the bi-national Itaipu Dam that Brazil shares with Paraguay.

State-run energy company Eletrobras is already conducing viability studies to request environmental licenses for two of the dams, called Jatobá and São Luiz do Tapajós. As of now, the cost for building the dams is estimated at R$ 23 billion[CB1]. And the federal government does not hide it is in a hurry: it hopes to bid at least the construction of São Luiz do Tapajós in 2014, with both power plants fully operating until 2019.

At least 2.3 thousand people from 32 riverside communities will be directly affected if the seven dams are actually built. Another 16 Munduriku indigenous tribes will see part of their territories flooded by the water reservoirs that will be formed, according to data from Eletronorte, a subsidiary of Eletrobras. The studies for the construction are being conducted on and off without consulting the affected communities, which led to a long and ongoing judicial fight.

The energy of these new hydroelectric plants has at least one certain beneficiary: the big mining projects in Pará, especially on gold and bauxite, the prime material for aluminium. The American company Alcoa, for instance, started to operate a bauxite mine only three years ago in the municipality of Juruti, in the extreme West of Pará, and already has plans to build a processing plant that will demand a lot of electricity. The Votorantim group, a Brazilian company that operates in the zinc, nickel and aluminum markets, will implement a similar factory in the municipality of Rondon do Pará. The Norwegian company Hydro is also mining bauxite in the State’s West.

Besides being considered the last big energetic and mineral frontier in the Amazon, the region alongside the Tapajós river has another considerable economic attraction: it is a strategic corridor for the distribution of the soy production in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest grain producing state.

Until 2014 the federal government aims to spend R$ 1.48 billion in asphalting the 1,739 kilometers of the highway BR-163 connecting Cuiabá, in the Central-Western state of Mato Grosso Santarém, the biggest city in the West of the Pará, state, located at the mouth of the Tapajós River.

While the Belo Monte dam was built in a region inhabited by many indigenous groups, the hydroelectric dams in Tapajós will exclusively affect the Munduruku lands. Known for being skillful warriors, the Munduruku dominate lands along the riverbanks.

The construction of the dams is such a sensitive issue that the public ministry requested the suspension of the environmental licensing of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, which was granted by the federal justice in Nov. 2012. The justice argued that the Munduruku tribes will be directly affected, and therefore the issue needs to be treated according to the Brazilian Constitution and the 169 Convention of the International Labour Organization, which Brazil ratified in 2003.

The federal justice injunction did not only take social aspects into account to suspend the licensing; it also demanded that an integrated environmental impact study will be conducted to assess the impact of all seven hydroelectric dams on the Tapajós water basin.

But the injunction did not refrain the federal government from seeking support from justice to proceed with the environmental studies in the area. New provisional decisions of the federal court in Santarém, the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region and of the Superior Court of Justice (STJ) in Brasilia, allowed the researchers to continue making assessments until the ruling. The federal prosecutors appealed and the fight is far from being resolved.

“When a complex with many hydroelectric plants is built, there are several barriers for the circulation of animals. And this is being constructed within biodiversity hot spots,” explains the geologist Juan Doblas, from environmental NGO Instituto Socioambiental. “This is a very serious issue. However, it is hard to quantify the environmental impact. This region has a very rich biodiversity, but most of it is still unknown and under-researched.”

View of the Tapajós river (Fernanda Ligabue - Agência Pública)

The City Explodes

The construction of the plants will also severely impact the urban area of Itaituba, the largest municipality in the region. According to Eletronorte projections, the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam alone will attract at least 50,000 people looking for work. “Itaituba is not even ready to meet the demands of the people who already live here,” admits Mayor Eliene Nunes, elected in 2012.

Even without a sanitation sewage system and the precarious electricity services, real estate prices have soared. A real estate bubble is already felt, even though the construction is far from beginning. Over the last years, at least four new real estate agencies were founded. The rent of a house by the Tapajós river almost doubled: by the end of 2012, it would cost at least R$ 2,000. Companies like Sotreq, a dealer of imported Caterpillar tractors and heavy machinery, are looking for land close to the Transamazônica highway, which cuts through the town.

Mayor Eliene also complains about the lack of precise information about the projects and the lack of a dialogue with Eletrobras, the state-run electric company, and with the federal government. “We know what everyone knows, which is what is published by the press,” she says. When asked about the future of Itaituba, she laughs in surprise: she knows it’s just like a time-bomb.

Illegal Mining

When the gold potential of the infamous mines of Serra Pelada, in South-East Pará, started to decline in the 1980s, adventurers bet that the new El Dorado was in the Tapajós River. They were right. Three decades later, there are about 2,000 mining spots along the river.

To reach the so-called “currutelas,” headquarter villages for the almost 50,000 men determined to challenge the forest in search of gold, one has to charter a small plane or face days riding a speedboat from Itaituba.

“About 98 percent of the region’s gold mines are irregular,” says Oldair Lamarque, an engineer, head of the office of the National Department of Mineral Production in Itaituba. It’s not so hard to understand why the vast majority is clandestine. To have an environmental license for a small mine, the size of 50 soccer fields, one must travel to the state capital, Belém, pay about R$ 16,000 in fees and pay for the transport of the Pará Secretariat of Environment technicians.

Without any supervision, the mines are one of the main forces of environmental degradation in the Tapajós River basin. The problems are not limited to water contamination due to the use of toxic substances to recover the gold, like mercury -- and more recently cyanide. New technologies have increased productivity and impacts on the forest. The use of backhoes, called PCs, to revolve the soil, is one of them. With them, the work that used to take almost a month to be done is now accomplished in just ten days.

In addition, the number of boats that illegally mine the riverbed is rising significantly. Officials at the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade, an institute responsible for the management of environmental reserves in Brazil, believe that the government’s 2012 decision to reduce the areas of five forest reserves in order to legally allow the construction of the hydroelectric plants of Jatobá and São Luiz do Tapajós only made the problem worse. Since the protected areas were reduced, the number of boats surged in a worrisome way, jumping from 5 to 35 in the 400 kilometers that separate the municipalities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga. “To supervise larger mines, like the ones in Itaituba, we need to virtually set up a war operation,” said Nilton Rascon, ICMBio environmental analyst.

Children playing in the sunset near the Tapajós river. (Fernanda Ligabue - Agência Pública.)

Mining Companies

If Tapajós is one of world’s largest gold provinces, why are there still no big miners in the region? There are two explanations. The first one is geological. “There are no large deposits, as in Goiás or in Minas Gerais. The deposits are small and scattered. This favors the manual gold panning and not the large mining companies,” explains Lamarque, from DNPM. The second reason is strictly economic. “The lack of roads and energy sources make great gold-mining projects unfeasible,” he adds.

But the construction of the dams and the paving of BR-163 are already getting the mining companies excited. For now, the gold of Tapajós has not yet been targeted by the world’s major companies. But at least five companies identified as juniors are already doing local research. A project in its later stages is the Tocantinzinho, in Itaituba, already requiring environmental licensing. It should start operating in 2016. The venture is embraced by a subsidiary of the Canadian Eldorado Gold, which already operates a mine in Northern state of Amapá.

But gold is not the only “attraction” in Tapajós. The giant Anglo American, one of the world’s 10 largest mining companies, is researching a copper deposit in the Jamanxim National Forest, the second largest in the country, with an area of 1.3 million hectares, nearly 10 times greater than Brazil's largest city, São Paulo.

The area to be researched under a 2011 requirement to the DNPM covers more than half of the forest. In theory, that’s not illegal: environmental laws allow mining in a forest reserve –- if it is licensed and has an adequate management plan.

However, according an interview with the manager of the Jamanxim National Forest, Haroldo Marques, in 2012, Anglo American had been using survey machines in the area since at least July that year without any authorization.

“Such a request to surveying the area has to be formalized. I am responsible for authorizing searches and perforations, but so far nothing came to me,” explains the ICMBio staff. “I saw people in pickup trucks with the logo of Anglo American, wearing uniforms, totally unconcerned about showing the name of the company.”

The head of the Jamanxim National Forest works from the Itaituba ICMBio office and needs permission of his superiors in Brasilia to go into the field to track compliance with environmental legislation. “I was doing monitoring and fighting deforestation. Then I asked for my ‘per diems’ to be renewed but it wasn’t granted,” explains Marques. “I was taken from surveilling the area, and had to stop the work. Very weird, huh?”

Questioned by Publica, Anglo American’s Press Office confirmed “that the company required areas from the DNPM” and it is “awaiting the publication of the respective research permits, to then request the authorization from ICMBio, which manages the Conservation Units in the Country”.

The company denies surveying the area. “The field team solely promoted contact with surface owners, aiming the future conclusion of terms of agreement, as defined by the Mining Code.”

The “surface owners” cited in the Anglo American’s note are people claiming ownership of land within the Jamanxim National Forest. When it was created in 2006, the conservation area which bears the name of this tributary of the Tapajós was already occupied by several farms. Throughout 2012, this was the area that most lost its native forest due to livestock, gold-mining and the illegal extraction of wood.

Curiously, the devastation spreads at the same pace that the government intends to reduce the area of the Jamanxim National Forest. A working group within the ICMBio office in Brasilia is currently assessing the possibility of reducing at least 200,000 hectares from the protected area.

According to satellite data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) displaced in the website PRODES, the forest lost 30.7 square kilometers in 2012. In 2011, the number was considerably lower: 12.9 square kilometers. “The area where Anglo American is doing the research is one of the most preserved of the National Forest,” says Marques.

There is no denial that Tapajos is now the next big thing in the expansion of the Amazon frontier -– a process that has historically left open wounds due to its predatory consequences. It’s a sad story that can repeat itself once again in the pristine waters of the west of Pará.