Damning the Amazon

The Risky Business of Hydropower in the Amazon

Publication - 13 April, 2016
Brazil’s Amazon region, which includes most of the world’s largest remaining area of rainforest, is under attack by uncontrolled economic exploitation. Mainly as a result of industrial agriculture, cattle ranching, mines and infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, and the illegal loggers and settlers that follow in their wake, over 750,000 km² of forest have already been cleared, putting at risk the region’s unparalleled biodiversity, driving traditional forest communities from their land and threatening serious impacts for the world’s climate.

From 2004 deforestation slowed, but in 2012 the Brazilian congress passed legislation that created a climate of impunity for illegal deforestation and since then the rate of destruction has shown some sharp rises. Now the government of President Dilma Rousseff, obsessed with economic development at any cost, is pushing a further massive expansion of hydropower in the Amazon.

Among the areas liable to be worst affected is the basin of the Tapajós River, one of the Amazon’s last unobstructed major tributaries, which has been called one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Over 40 medium-sized to large dams are currently planned or under construction in this unique area, which is also threatened by utterly inappropriate plans for an industrial waterway to transport soybeans from Mato Grosso to the Atlantic.

Among the new schemes is a complex of five dams on the Tapajós River and its tributary the Jamanxim. The largest of these, the São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) dam, is expected to drown nearly 400 km2 of pristine rainforest and lead to a further 2,200 km2 of deforestation.

Experience of previous and ongoing Amazon hydropower projects has shown that dams can wipe out huge areas of habitats such as alluvial forest that are dependent on seasonal flooding, and have devastating impacts on populations of fish and aquatic reptiles and on the life cycles of mammals such as turtles, caimans, otters and river dolphins. 

In addition to its environmental impacts the SLT dam, along with two other dams upriver, is set to flood large areas of land belonging to the indigenous Munduruku people (including sacred sites) and to traditional riverside communities that have lived in the area since the 19th century. 

Enthusiasts of Amazon development try to justify such woeful environmental and social impacts by claiming that hydropower dams are a carbon-neutral source of energy that will help to save the world from climate change. Unfortunately, such claims do not stand up to analysis.

Greenpeace is demanding that the Brazilian government cancel its plans for Amazon hydropower projects such as the SLT dam, and is urging companies and banks considering involvement in these projects to focus instead on helping Brazil to develop a clean energy future.

Damming The Amazon - The Risky Business Of Hydropower In The Amazon