Brazilian Amazon Struggles to Keep Up with Power Plant Population Growth

This story by Ana Aranha was originally titled Vidas em Trânsito (Lives in Transit) and is part of Brazilian investigative journalism agency Pública's special coverage #AmazôniaPública, which reports on the impact of mega-construction projects in the Amazon along the Madeira river in the state of Rondônia, Brazil. The story will be published in a series of five posts on Global Voices Online.

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In the first post of this series delved into how the Brazilian fishing village of Jaci Paraná has been affected by the construction of the Jirau hydroelectric power station in Madeira, Rondônia. Social chaos affecting the area is directly linked to the population explosion in the region.

To carry out a project of such magnitude like the Jirau hydroelectric station – which is valued in 15 billion Brazilian reais (nearly 7,5 billions US dollars)  – companies must invest in social services. The idea is that they build public service infrastructure such as schools, health service units, and police stations in order to meet increasing demands. Those are called “social compensation deeds”.

Like the Jirau dam, the Santo Antonio hydroelectric station [en], a dam also constructed by the Madeira River, has similar obligations. The difference is that Santo Antônio dam attracted more people to the capital of the federal state, Porto Velho, and its region. In the Jaci Paraná village, the Santo Antônio dam forced the eviction of river dwellers who lived in the wetland neighbourhoods. In this case, the hydroelectric station either built houses in other neighborhoods or gave compensation to the residents.

To absorb the population growth in the area of the Jirau dam, the Jaci Paraná village should have received at least 20 million reais (nearly 10 million US dollars) from the Energia Sustentável do Brasil [en]  – a company in charge of Jirau dam, which has the French multinational GDP Suez as its greatest shareholder. With that amount of money, the promise was to build schools, a health service unit, an environmental police unit, a water collection treatment, and supply system as well as basic services such as street pavement.

Famílias de pescadores de Jaci vivem sem infraestrutura entre os trilhos da antiga estrada de ferro Madeira-Mamoré Foto: Marcelo Min

Fishing families in Jaci Paraná live without infraestructure between the old Madeira-Mamoré railway. Photo: Marcelo Min

Those services should have been ready before the arrival thousand of workers. But, while they work extra hours in order to speed up the dam construction which might go online in early 2013, the “social compensation deeds” have rarely been completed. All that the company has delivered to the people of Jaci Paraná were two miles of paved roads, gullies, and repairs to two schools. They also financed temporary campaigns to prevent malaria and fight child sexual exploitation.

Angela Fortes, child service advisor for Porto Velho, the municipality in charge of Jaci Paraná village management, asserts that these actions are far from meeting the demand created:

Quando as usinas foram anunciadas, prometeram novas escolas e hospitais. Criaram aquela expectativa no povo. Depois que as usinas chegaram, temos escolas com salas lotadas e centenas de crianças sem matrícula.

When the construction of the dams was announced, they promised new schools and hospitals. They built up the expectations of people. Now that the dam projects are here, we have schools with overcrowded classrooms and hundreds of unregistered students.

Between 2007 and 2008, the demand for new school enrollments in the city of Porto Velho increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Angela estimates that nowadays there are nearly 100 unregistered students in Jaci and some other villages.

The government of the federal state of Rondônia and the city hall of Porto Velho are partly responsible for the late use of the money. According to the plan signed with the company, they are responsible for indicating how investments on public services should be carried out. The city hall of Porto Velho managed 65 million reais (32 million US dollars) for Santo Antônio and 91 million reais (45 million US dollars) for Jirau. The state government had 75 million reais (37 million US dollars) for Santo Antônio and 67 million reais (33 million US dollars) for Jirau.

However, the current city hall of Porto Velho did not prioritize meeting the demands created by the construction of the dam. “I always opposed building new schools in Jaci. They always wanted them and I never allowed them,” asserted city hall secretary Pedro Beber, head of the Extraordinary Secretary of Special Programs, which is in charge of managing those funds:

Os trabalhadores estão indo embora, e ficaríamos com um elefante branco.

Workers are leaving (the village) and we would be with a white elephant.

Beber asserts the best for Jaci village is to wait for the dust to settle and focus on building for the people who are going to stay in the village after the dam construction is over. He minimizes the fact related to unregistered students this year and in 2011:

Em um ou dois anos, tudo vai se acomodar

Everything is going back to normal in one or two years

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewal Natural Resources (IBAMA) is the organization in charge of monitoring the plan as whole. In theory, if the agreed investment plan with the company is not followed, the organization can put environmental permits on hold for the new stage of the construction work. However, in practice, these environmental permits are approved even when technicians detect serious problems, mostly problems with benefits for the local population.

It was what happened with a basic health service unit (called ‘Unidade de Pronto Atendimento’ in the country) that should be created to meet emergency demands in Jaci. Locals hoped for this project the most, since 15,000 inhabitants only have one health unit. This construction should be built with Jirau's resources in an agreement with city government. In November 2011 during an inspection of the “social compensation deeds” completed by the Santo Antônio project, IBAMA technicians found that the construction of the unit were abandoned. This fact was communicated to Brasília in a report (pt) recommending a notice of infraction against the company Energia Sustentável.

Nearly a year later in October 2012, the company received permission to start operating its turbines. Although the basic health service unit construction has started again, there is no date set for its expected completion.

Project Amazônia Pública is composed by three teams of Agência Pública de Reportagem e Jornalismo Investigativo reporters who travelled to three Amazon areas from July to October 2012 – among which the hydroelectric plants along the Madeira river, in state of Rondônia. All stories aim to explore the complexity of current local investments in the Amazon, including negotiations and political articulations, and to listen to all agents involved – governments, enterprises, civil society – in order to frame the context in which these projects have been developed. The key perspective of such stories, as well as Pública's entire production, is the public interest: how do actions and political and economic negotiations impact people's lives.

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