Belo Monte Dam Disrupts Amazon Floodplain Balance
Drone documentation of low water on February 13, 2021 after North Energy's Hydrogram B cut 85% the Xingu River’s flow into the Volta Grande. (Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany Higgins)
In a bid to boost electricity production, the operator of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in the eastern Amazon rainforest is drastically reducing river flows for at least a year. Scientists say this will disrupt flood-dependent ecosystems as well as the indigenous communities in the area. Reporter Tiffany Higgins covered this for the news site Mongabay and joins Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb
Brazil has built more than 200 large hydroelectric dams as a way to produce energy for a growing economy and wants to build hundreds more in the Amazon. But the initial flooding behind dams can add to climate change by killing trees and other vegetation, which decompose and release the potent greenhouse gas methane. At the same time the diversion of water from naturally flowing rivers to fill dams can disrupt ecosystems that are dependent on periodic river flooding to help feed people, fish and reptiles. One of the most controversial dam projects in Brazil is the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in the eastern Amazon, homeland of several indigenous tribes, including the Juruna. Charts called hydrograms show Norte Energeia, the Belo Monte dam builder, has begun drawing down some 85% of the river. Tiffany Higgins has been digging into the story for the news site Mongabay and explains the yearly pulse of water that should flood the forest right about now.
HIGGINS: There’s an annual flooding that happens, where the water level rises and grows very, very, very fast, up to 23,000, 25,000 cubic meters per second. And this means that the water swells beyond the margins of the river, and it floods into the flooded forest. And there are special trees that are adapted to being seasonally flooded. The turtles and the fish around February they catch this river wave into the flooded forest. And it's an amazing synchrony, developed over millennia, between the trees that are fruiting and maturing just at this time of year, and the fish and turtles who come along – they ride this river wave into the forest. The fruiting trees drop their guavas, figs, tucum, cashew fruits, the golosa fruits, and they ripen and drop into the water into the flooded margins. And then the fish and turtles scoop it up. And this gives them essential calories to be able to reproduce. If they don't have these extra calories, which they couldn't access in the mainstem of the Xingu river, then they don't have enough energy to reproduce.
BASCOMB: And this is the time of year when they're reproducing right?
HIGGINS: This is the exact time of year when they're reproducing. It's called the piracema, which is from the Tupi native words. It's something that all the fisherfolk communities are totally oriented to.
BASCOMB: So starting in February of 2021, Norte Energia or North Energy, they diverted about 85% of the water that would have flowed into the Volta Grande for the Belo Monte mega dam. Why did they suddenly need to divert so much water? Was this always part of the plan there?
HIGGINS: This was written into the original plan. Yes, back in 2009. And at that time, IBAMA, the environmental agency of Brazil, their technical team specifically criticized what the company dubs Hydrogram B. Essentially Hydrogram B means that the very highest point of water releases to the Volta Grande would be 8,000 cubic meters per second in April. April is always the peak. However, 20,000 cubic meters per second is the [historical] average [in April] on the Volta Grande. So the company has been trying to implement this Hydrogram for a long time. The company signed an agreement, more than a decade ago, that its license was dependent upon them maintaining life on the Volta Grande. So in December 2019 IBAMA's technical team said that Norte Energia had not proven scientifically that that they could maintain the ecosystem on the Volta Grande. And they told them to go back and do studies to prove that. But instead, what happened is that the president of IBAMA stepped in, Eduardo Fortunato Bim, and he made an agreement with the president of Norte Energia to allow them to implement the Hydrogram B. They did not defend it. The president didn't defend it, he simply said, Go ahead, you can implement this Hydrogram B for a whole year, but there was no scientific evidence given for it. So the experts I talked with, as well as the people on the Volta Grande, say this is a politically motivated decision.
BASCOMB: And how might this lower water level affect the wildlife and the indigenous people who live in the area? What are scientists thinking might happen as a result of this?
HIGGINS: In 2016, when El Niño occurred, we had a kind of natural test case for what this year 2021 is going to look like on the Volta Grande. So the Juruna observed fish that were very skinny. You know, they’re supposed to have scales on them, some were smooth, and many of them they would cut them open and see that their eggs were dry, or their eggs had been reabsorbed into their bodies. As far as the turtles, they saw many turtles who were only bone, they had very little flesh on them. And when they cut the turtles open, they found that where there should be eggs, there was foam instead. It goes without saying that they can't eat sick animals, right. They noticed a clear change in the taste to acidic, bitter, and they weren't able to, to eat them, so this affects the people. And let's notice that this is a higher Hydrogram than is going to happen in 2021. So you're going to have all those effects on animals, but even worse. So that 10,000 cubic meters per second was in April, was the amount of water in 2016. But now we're gonna have 8,000 cubic meters per second in April in 2021, so we can expect even more disastrous effects on the animals.
BASCOMB: Wow. Well, I mean, and that was a natural thing. You know, El Niños happen. But this is a manmade disaster that you're saying is expected to be even worse than that year which was so devastating for both the wildlife and people.
HIGGINS: Exactly. People I talked with said this violates a wide range of laws, both international and national laws. The Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution says that hydroelectric dams cannot interfere with indigenous territories. But this is exactly what's happening. Other conventions safeguard the fishing stock of indigenous communities. In essence, you can't remove the food basis of a community.
BASCOMB: And I understand that we have a recording here that you've shared with us from Bel Juruna. She's a member of the Juruna indigenous group that lives in the area. And I believe she's talking about the low water levels that she's seeing already. Let's take a listen:
JURUNA: E como agora [a água] não vai chegar mais, aquelas [plantas aquáticas] vão morrer. Então a Volta Grande vai se tornar um cemitério, vai ser um cemitério de peixes, um cemitério de árvores mortas. E a gente vai estar aqui. A gente quer resistir neste lugar, né? Lutando para que a gente possa também não ser – não virar um cemitério também dentro da aldeia.
BASCOMB: What is she saying here, Tiffany?
HIGGINS: So Bel is in the Mïratu Village of the Paquiçamba Indigenous Territory where the Juruna people live. And she's showing the low river levels once the company was permitted to to drop them down, cutting the natural river level by more than 85%. She says, "This will be a cemetery of trees, this will be a cemetery of fish." And she says, "And so we Juruna we will be here fighting so that we too won't become a cemetery in our village." She's being quite literal here. Jansen Zuanon, a scientist I talked with, said that [in] the forest there are special trees that are totally adapted to being seasonally flooded. So when she says cemetery of trees, it's not just metaphorical, it's literal. Because Jansen Zuanon told me that they will experience functional death if these trees are not able to be flooded. I talked with a scientist Camila Ribas who is an ornithologist who told me that 60% of the birds that are in that flooded forest, they're adapted only to the flooded forest. So when the forest dies, these special kinds of birds are going to die off as well. It'll create a wide patch of deforestation in this forest that will cut off the biological continuity. This wildlife corridor between what's called the upper Xingu River and the lower Xingu River. This is at a time when Brazil has really come to the attention of the world as needing to do something about – to stem deforestation.
BASCOMB: Now, I understand that Norte Energia did come up with some plans that they thought could maybe mitigate the damage to wildlife in the river. Can you tell us about that?
HIGGINS: Right. So Norte Energia committed 157 million reais, which is $28 million in US currency, to what they call mitigation plans. There were three projects approved to send teams to collect fruit and leaves from the forests that should have been flooded, and then throw those into the river where the fish are kind of captive, right, because they can't get to the flooded forest. That's one project. The second one is to have floating platforms that have bushes and trees on them, supposedly to feed the fish, again, with the concept that they can't actually get to the fruiting trees anymore because of the diminished flow, and then third, raising fish in captivity and then releasing them. So I wanted to know, Could these work? So I asked a few scientists about this. Juarez Pezzuti from the Federal University of Pará said that these are scientifically unproven plans. He said, “It's an absurd pseudo-project, impossible to be executed on a scale that compensates for the absence of flooding of tens of 1000s of hectares.” He said that the first two projects aren't based upon any kind of precedent. They're totally unproven scientifically, and then the raising of fish in captivity, that there are numerous studies proving them to be ineffective.
BASCOMB: And what did Norte Energia say when you contacted them for this story? And I'm sure you you outlined all of these concerns for that people, the environment, the fish and the forest. What did they say to you?
HIGGINS: Right, so Norte Energia, they stated that there is no technical scientific proof that the company's hydrogram, i.e. Hydrogram B, will cause any harms to the animals, the fish, and turtles of the Volta Grande. In addition, they said we have robust scientific monitoring. It's a kind of a little bit of a perverse logic, right, because they're the ones that are doing the monitoring and they say, there's no proof, that there was no proof that this is actually gonna hurt any animals. However, they didn't consider any alternatives, so they have nothing to compare it to. And I interviewed scientists saying that the quote, unquote, monitoring studies that Norte Energia does are extremely flawed, their measurements are not accurate. For example, they don't actually monitor fish, they monitor fishing. So if it takes a fisherperson three days to get a certain amount of fish using 20 nets, or whether it took them three hours to do it, they don't measure that difference. So they've been able to claim therefore, Oh, the amount of fish being caught at the river ports is staying the same. But they don't, they don't measure how much effort and how long it took to actually catch that amount of fish.
BASCOMB: Tiffany Higgins is a freelance reporter. Tiffany, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.
HIGGINS: Thank you so much, Bobby. I've enjoyed the conversation.
BASCOMB: For a link to Tiffany’s original story in Mongabay and a video of Bel Juruna showing the changes to the Xingu River, visit the Living on Earth website, Loe.org.
On March 25, 2021 the Federal Prosecutor in Altamira (Ministerio Publico Federal) filed a public civil suit against Norte Energia, the Belo Monte dam proprietor, and Ibama (Brazil’s environmental agency), over what they call excessive diversion of the Xingu River away from the Volta Grande. Click here to access the public civil suit
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