This post was originally published on Agência Pública's website on 17 December, 2013.
Under a tarpaulin tent specially designed to bring the Amazon forest to a public square in downtown São Paulo, experts in the fields of energy, environment and communication, as well as representatives of grassroots movements and NGOs, gathered to debate the dilemmas of the Amazon region, caught between the pressures for development and the need of preservation — essential to provide quality of life to the people of the region.
Approximately 100 enthusiasts attended the debate – and everyone received a copy of the book “Public Amazon”, written in Portuguese. The book is composed of three series of stories covering the impacts of mega-projects in Carajás National Forest and the Tapajós river in state of Pará, and in the Madeira river, state of Rondônia. Verification was carried out on-site by six reporters.
Three videos produced by the reporting teams were shown before the debate, capturing the words of famous people who were born or work in the Amazon region. People such as writer Milton Hatoum and filmmaker Aurélio Michelis, both from the city of Manaus, who talked about their relationship with the city and the forest, as they shared their own expectations for the region's future.
The energy issue
The debate was triggered with a question that has been frequently asked ever since riverside settlers and indigenous populations of the Xingu area in the Amazon made Brazilians aware of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam: All in all, is it worth it to build hydroelectric dams in the Amazon rivers? Who will benefit from the energy produced from hydroelectric dams on the Xingu and Madeira rivers (where the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams are under construction)? There are more dams planned for the beautiful Tapajós river, where traditional settlers and Munduruku indigenous communities live, on the west part of the state of Pará.
Célio Bermann, a professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at the University of São Paulo (IEE/USP), was categorical:
É mentira a necessidade de energia elétrica para o desenvolvimento.
The electricity demand for development is a lie.
Bermann added that it is not the new middle classes’ growing consumption that puts pressure on electricity demand. According to the professor, 30 percent of the electricity generated in the country is solely consumed by six areas of the industrial sector: steelmaking, non-ferrous metals industry, ferro-alloys, petrochemical, pulp and paper, and cement. Referring to the priority given to the production of energy instead of the preservation of natural resources, he said:
Nós estamos vivendo no país uma autocracia energética
In this country we are living an autocracy based on electricity.
Working on energy issues across the Amazon for more than 20 years, Bermann presented the alternatives listed by a research report of the Institute of Energy and Environment. Among the alternatives, it argues for the possibility of supplying Brazilians’ demand over the next 10 years with the construction of 66 wind farms of 30 megawatts capacity, which are cleaner and have less of an impact in terms of territory than hydroelectric plants. Besides, also according to the professor, wind farms could be built closer to the urban areas to avoid loss of power while transporting electricity through transmission lines. He also called attention to the fact that construction companies are the largest beneficiaries of the current projects and the biggest donors during elections:
[A usina hidrelétrica de] Belo Monte não está sendo construída para gerar energia elétrica. Está sendo construída porque em cinco anos as empresas que hoje dominam o governo vão embolsar R$ 17 bilhões
The construction of Belo Monte [hydropower plant] isn't under way to generate electricity. The reason for its construction is that in five years the companies that currently control the government will earn a profit 8 billion US dollars.
Professor Bermann highlighted another focus of criticism: the absence of public consultation by the government and private companies to universities – to discuss the need and best way of carrying out construction works – and to the traditional and indigenous communities. Even though the latter are the most affected by the megaprojects, their right to veto has been neglected in these discussions:
As consequências sociais e ambientais são irreversíveis. Mitigação é um belo nome para dizer nada.
The social and environmental consequences are irreversible. Mitigation is a beautiful word to say nothing.
Marcelo Salazar, representing the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), based in the city of Altamira, where the Belo Monte dam is located – believes the project is “the largest symbol of social and environmental default”. He talked about what's going on in the region since he moved there in 2007:
O que estou vivenciando em Altamira é um verdadeiro rolo compressor. A pressão social parece não ter força.
What I see in Altamira is the effect of a bulldozer. Social pressure seems powerless.
Salazar explained that along with the impact on the communities near the hydropower plant, it also caused conflicts that echoed through an area larger than the dam itself. It has led to a rise in illegal logging and, in the town, residents are facing a higher cost of living and an alarming increase in violence:
Uma em cada três pessoas tem um parente ou conhecido que foi assassinado.
One in three residents has a relative or acquaintance who was murdered.
Plus, Salazar criticized the government's position towards indigenous communities: “The government isn't funding the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), and uses [state-run electricity companies] Eletrobrás and Eletronorte instead to perform their indigenist policy throughout the region”. The local indigenous peoples are paid a financial compensation through both companies, however, being the institution responsible for their protection, FUNAI was supposed to mediate the compensations.