Brazil and the example that should be followed

Construction of the Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon.

Construction of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river, one of the tributaries of the Amazon, August 2013. | Credit: Programa de Aceleración del Crecimiento (PAC).

By Astrid Puentes Riaño (column originally published in Animal Político)

In an apparent turnaround, the Brazilian government has signaled an end to the construction of large dams in the Amazon. If materialized, it will be a step worthy of imitation. Then the region, and the world, can move towards truly sustainable energy generation that respects the environment and human rights. 

2018 began with encouraging news for the energy sector, and for rivers and human rights in Latin America. A senior official with the Brazilian government signaled, in an interview with the newspaper O Globo, the beginning of the end of large dams in the Amazon nation. That statement is backed up by the notable absence of several of these projects in Brazil’s new Ten-Year Plan for Energy Expansion.

The about-face is particularly significant since Brazil is a world leader in the construction of large hydroelectric projects, which until a few months ago were relied on to meet the nation’s rising energy demands.

Between corruption and lack of financing

The decision is a response to various factors, including the social conflicts and environmental impacts that large dams have caused in the Amazon, and major opposition from indigenous communities and civil society organizations. In addition, these projects have involved high costs from the start and, as Edvaldo Santana, former director of the National Electric Energy Agency (ANEEL) told O Globo, they “end up costing much more, despite the licenses.”

Large dams have also been at the center of the largest corruption scandal in the history of Brazil, uncovered by the Lava Jato investigation, which went beyond borders to involve politicians and businessmen from 11 Latin American nations. The evidence gathered then prompted the initiation of Leviathan, a special investigation into the Belo Monte Dam due to the signs of high payments of bribes related to its construction.

All of the above is in addition to the requirements for environment licenses with which several projects have failed to comply. This is the case of Belo Monte, whose license has been suspended for months, and of the Tapajós Dam, who license was denied last year.

On the other hand, the Brazilian government announced the privatization of Electrobras, a public company with a fundamental role in the construction of these large infrastructure projects. With this and the economic crisis that has affected the ability of the Brazilian National Bank for Economic Development (BNDES) to support these mega-projects, the large dams have lost their primary sources of funding.

Therefore—and in the face of technological advances and clean energy alternatives—Brazil is beginning to leave behind large dams and take and important step towards truly sustainable energy, and development that respects human rights.

This advance could have an important impact on the entire American continent. It could begin a wave of change toward a more modern energy matrix, further removed from the increasingly obsolete large dams.

Un cambio necesario

Solo en la cuenca amazónica existen más de 275 nuevas represas planeadas, la mayoría en la región andina. Y hay otros cientos de proyectos hidroeléctricos en fila en Centroamérica y México. De hacer eco de lo anunciado en Brasil, estas iniciativas podrían incorporar una planeación adecuada e integral de energía con evaluaciones serias de costos y riesgos. En esos término, Pablo Pedrosa, Secretario Ejecutivo del Ministerio de Minas y Energía de Brasil, habló con O Globo. “No estamos dispuestos a hacer movimientos para disfrazar los costos y los riesgos”, aseveró.

Incluso entidades de orden global como la Corporación Financiera Internacional (CFI), parte del Grupo del Banco Mundial, han experimentado de primera mano los costos financieros, reputacionales y socioambientales de no evaluar adecuadamente proyectos de grandes represas. En 2012, la CFI, a través del Fondo Latinoamericano de Infraestructura Renovable, financió con 15 millones de dólares la represa Santa Rita, a construirse en el río Ictobay, en Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. A finales del año pasado, el mecanismo de rendición de cuentas de la entidad, concluyó que ésta había incumplido sus políticas operacionales con dicha inversión. Les dio la razón a las comunidades afectadas al concluir que no se había cumplido el proceso de consulta libre, previa e informada.

Aunque la gerencia de la CFI negó los hallazgos de su mecanismo de rendición de cuentas, el proyecto está suspendido desde 2013 y las comunidades indígenas de la zona mantienen su oposición al mismo.

La reciente decisión de Brasil refuerza la tendencia mundial de alejarse de las grandes represas. Incluso en Estados Unidos, desde hace algunos años, se están removiendo represas para rescatar ríos y los beneficios que brindan. Es el caso del río Snake y la pesca del salmón en Washington.

Ante este buen inicio de año, será esencial vigilar que Brasil implemente efectivamente su decisión. Y, siguiendo ese ejemplo, seguro otros países andino-amazónicos pueden avanzar también hacia la modernidad, considerar los costos reales de las grandes represas y promover mejores alternativas, más baratas y que no se lleven por delante a ecosistemas y a las comunidades que dependen de ellos.

 

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About the Author

Astrid Puentes

Astrid

Astrid Puentes Riaño is one of two Co-Executive Directors of AIDA. She is responsible for AIDA’s legal efforts and organizational management. Originally from Colombia, Astrid has worked for AIDA since 2003 and from AIDA’s office at CEMDA in Mexico City since 2004. She has significant experience with public interest litigation, especially in the field of human rights and the environment.  Astrid holds an LL.M. in Comparative Law from the University of Florida, a Masters in Environmental Law from the University of the Basque Country, and a J. D. from the Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. Astrid has been a member of the Board of Directors of EarthRights International since 2014, and also sits on the board of International Rivers.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are the authors’ own and may not be shared by the organization. AIDA includes them with full respect for the freedom of expression and plurality of our team of professionals.

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