After swathes of forest clearance, millions of tonnes of concrete and decades of hydro-expansion, Brazil has raised hopes that it may finally step back from the construction of new mega-dams.
In a surprise statement, a senior government official said hydropower policy needed to be rethought in the face of environmental concerns, indigenous sensitivities and public unease.
Anti-dam activists welcomed the apparent shift, despite scepticism about the declared motives, which they believe mask a drying up of bribes from the construction industry. The decision could reprieve the Tapajos and free-flowing rivers from a plan to open half the Amazon basin to hydro-development.
Brazil already gets more than 70% of its electricity from hydropower – one of the highest proportions in the world. Until recently, most of the generating capacity came from plants near the southern border and the economic hubs of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.
But in recent years, the dam builders – backed by the Workers’ party administrations of Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – pushed north into the Amazon with the huge Belo Monte project on the Xingu river, despite environmental concerns, court battles and fierce resistance from indigenous residents.
The Tapajos was the next major river in the sights of the consortium led by utility Eletrobras and major construction firms such as Odebrecht. Two dams have already been completed on the Teles Pires tributary and hundreds more were planned elsewhere.
But the momentum has diminished along with falling government revenues, sluggish economic demand and an increasingly unpredictable climate that has made hydropower generation less reliable and more expensive.
Opponents have capitalised on this. After indigenous demonstration and critical scientific studies, the environment agency rejected a licence application for a dam at São Luiz do Tapajós which would have flooded Munduruku indigenous territory.
The current centre-right government of Michel Temer now appears to be considering a far bigger retreat.
“We don’t hold preconceptions about big projects, but we have to respect the views of society, which has reservations about them,” said Paulo Pedrosa, the executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, in an interview with O Globo newspaper.
Government studies suggest Brazil could add 50 gigawatts of hydroenergy by 2050, but Pedrosa noted that less than a quarter of the necessary dams would be free from challenges over protected land.
Pedrosa said such costs should not be hidden, an apparent reference to the Rousseff administration’s refusal to heed warnings about the Belo Monte dam, which has since proved a social and environmental disaster.
The Car Wash corruption investigation exposed how the Workers’ party received campaign donations from Odebrecht in return for over-inflated contracts to build Belo Monte and other infrastructure projects.
Now the kickbacks have dried up, government officials have little incentive to cover up the social and environmental costs of future projects.
Few believe the Temer administration is any cleaner or greener. It is closely allied to the agribusiness lobby, which is primarily responsible for Amazon clearance. Last year, the government also attempted to open up protected areas to mining companies.
But it is in the process of privisatising Eletrobras, which will mean the economic feasibility of mega-projects will come under greater scrutiny, particularly with wind and solar energy becoming more viable.
The government will propose a new model for project evaluation to Congress this year that takes greater account of costs.
“Current projects when priced appropriately – including transmission costs, risks associated with the seasonality of energy and the possible delay of works – show them to be much less competitive than in previous assessments,” the Ministry of Mines and Energy noted in an email response to The Guardian.
It is unlikely to be a complete panacea Given the pro-business stance of the ruling coalition, there are fears that other environmental licensing criteria may be weakened.
With a presidential election in October, any changes of policy could also be rapidly reversed, but anti-dam activists hold out hope this – in regard to mega-projects at least – this will be a turning point.
“The Brazilian government’s announcement validates what scientists, indigenous activists and economists have long known: that these costly, corrupt hydropower projects are destroying lives, livelihoods and the vibrant ecosystem of the Amazon, the lungs of the planet,” Kate Horner, executive director of International Rivers, said. “Brazil can meet its energy needs without mega-dams, and now it will finally get the chance.”