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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Re-mapping the Amazon

Air Date: Week of

Dams on the Madeira River, a tributary of the Amazon, are already under construction. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

The Brazilian government recently proposed a re-mapping of the Amazon that would remove protection for more than 200,000 acres of rainforest, including national parks. Brent Millikan is Amazon Program Director for International Rivers. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the government wants to make way for hydroelectric dams.



GELLERMAN: Brazil’s River of the Dead is teeming with life, tropical birds, fish and turtles. The river is one of the hundreds of tributaries of the mighty Amazon.


GELLERMAN: But even this remote region is being developed. Not far from this part of Brazil construction has begun on the huge and hugely controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. When finished, it will generate a vast amount of electricity and flood a vast area of the rainforest. It’s just one of 60 dams planned in the Brazilian Amazon.
Balancing Brazil’s growing need for energy and protecting the rainforest was front and center back in January 2011, when Dilma Rousseff addressed Congress after being sworn as Brazil’s first female president.


VOICEOVER: My Dear Brazilians, I consider that Brazil has a sacred mission to show the world that it is possible for a country to grow rapidly without destroying the environment. We are and will continue to be the world champions in clean energy, a country that will always know how to grow in a healthy and balanced fashion.

GELLERMAN: But just a year later, President Rousseff, who was once a Marxist guerilla, signed a provisional measure redefining part of the Amazon: lifting federal protection, and potentially opening the way for construction of hydro-electric dams on more than 200,000 thousand acres of rainforest.

The Rio das Mortes lies downstream of the controversial Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

Environmental groups within Brazil and around the world issued an open letter criticizing the president; saying her first year in office was - quote: 'marked by the most significant regression of the social and environmental agenda since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship.' International Rivers is one of the environmental groups that signed the letter. Brent Millikan is the organization’s Amazon Program director.

MILLIKAN: Well, it essentially transforms areas that were set aside for sustainable use and environmental conservation to open way for the reservoirs of dams. Brazil has very advanced environmental legislation, and before you can go ahead with a project, environmental impact studies have to be carried out, economic viability studies have to carried out, so this is a situation where the President reduced these areas to make way for projects that haven’t even been studied adequately yet.

So it’s not clear that those projects should even go forward at all. So it’s really putting the cart before the horse - for that reason, the federal prosecutors office filed a lawsuit questioning the legality of that provisional measure that was taken by the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff.

GELLERMAN: And this is in the Amazon.

MILLIKAN: This is in the Amazon. This is in, you know, the Tapajos is really in the heart of the Amazon, it’s right there in the middle. It’s one of the main tributaries on the right bank of the Amazon, and an incredibly important area in terms of biological diversity, in terms of cultural diversity, you know, it’s often referred to as a jewel of the Amazon in that regard, in terms of its social, its cultural, its environmental importance.

GELLERMAN: So, this would change the status of this vast area of the Amazon, which is actually part national parks. As I understand it though, there’s an exchange, that is, they give up this land so they could study it to perhaps build these dams, but in exchange, an equal amount of Amazon forest would be set aside as conservation land.

MILLIKAN: Right. The problem is that the Amazon is an incredibly diverse area. An incredibly diverse biome with very different ecosystems that aren’t the same; very different habitats. So, along the rivers you have very specific ecosystems in terms of the relationships between the rivers and the forest, in terms of endemic species, in terms of threatened species. o you can’t just subtract an area that includes a place like that and consider that any other area could be suitable for its substitution.

GELLERMAN: So not all Amazon acres are created equal.

MILLIKAN: Exactly. Yes, you can’t just treat everything as if apples and oranges are the same thing.

GELLERMAN: What about the people that live there, are there people that live in this area?

MILLIKAN: These are areas that are inhabited by riverine populations, fishing populations, indigenous people. You know, these are tradition populations, that depend on healthy rivers, healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods. A fishing economy is absolutely critical to a lot of these populations. And dams, on the Amazon, are devastating in terms of the local fish populations.

GELLERMAN: Do these indigenous peoples have a say in any part of this process? Particularly here, in terms of this provisional measure which the president signed?

MILLIKAN: The Brazilian constitution and international agreements which Brazil has signed onto require that indigenous people be consulted. That a process of free, prior and informed consultation and consent be carried out. What in fact is happening, is that that right is not being respected and that consultation process is not being carried out as it should.

GELLERMAN: So, I understand they’re going to be flooding a large part of the Amazon to make way for these five large hydroelectric dams, but that’s just the beginning!

MILLIKAN: Exactly. I mean, in fact, there are over 60 large dams that are slated for construction in the next 20 years in the Amazon. So it’s so important right now that these sorts of issues about social-environmental impacts, about economic viability, about the alternatives to large dams, these sorts of issues get the kind of attention that they deserve. Otherwise, we’re seeing situations where the same sorts of mistakes are being repeated over and over again.

GELLERMAN: But supporters of the hydroelectric powered dam say, “look, this stuff is clean energy, we don’t have to burn coal, and if we don’t do this, we’ll have to build nuclear power plants.”

MILLIKAN: Well, first of all, the idea that dams in the Amazon particularly, are clean energy really requires more scrutiny. In fact, a really important impact of dams in the Amazon has to do with greenhouse gas emissions from decaying vegetation in the reservoirs. So, if you look at human rights, if you look at the impacts on biodiversity, if you look at greenhouse gas emissions, the idea that these dams are clean energy really needs to be reconsidered, it really cannot hold water in that regard.

GELLERMAN: So is this remapping of the Amazon, this proposal a done deal?

MILLIKAN: There’s been a problem in Brazil with the way these sorts of provisional measures have been approved. Typically, there hasn’t been a discussion in Congress and they’ve been steamrolled through without any real discussion at all. In this particular case, there’s a movement for there to be a Congressional hearing that would involve representatives of communities affected in the region to be able to come into Brazilia and talk about what’s going on, to have legal experts, to have scientists talk about what’s going on. So we’re hoping there’s going to be a quality discussion, that some reason can come to bear on this situation, so that this sort of mistake won’t be able to go through Congress and be approved.

GELLERMAN: Well, Brent Millikan, thank you so much.

MILLIKAN: Thank you, it's a pleasure to talk to you.

GELLERMAN: Brent Millikan is Amazon Program director for International Rivers.



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