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7 Wild Rivers Under Attack by Hydropower Dams

Insights + Opinion

By Gary Wockner and Lydia Bleifuss

Hydropower, falsely sold to the public as a source of "green" or "clean" energy, is expanding at an alarming rate in many of South America's beautiful and ecologically pristine rivers.


In line with a global trend, many South American governments—backed by multi-national hydropower corporations, international financiers and profit-motivated corruption—continue to endorse hydropower developments as "renewable" sources of energy despite public opposition and dramatic negative environmental impacts.

Hydropower destroys rivers, often forces the relocation of local communities, increases the spread of vector-borne diseases, and disrupts local cultures and ecologies that have evolved together for thousands of years. Perhaps even worse, methane emissions from hydropower reservoirs are making climate change worse.

Here are seven incredible rivers flowing through South America that are currently threatened:

1. The Beni River

Beni River, Bolivia.Havelock13 / Deviant Art

The Beni River in Bolivia is a tributary to the Madre de Dios which flows into the Amazon. The Beni is threatened by the proposed Bala Hydropower Plant, which would be constructed in the Bala Gorge. The reservoir would flood up to 2,000 square kilometers, including a great portion of the Madidi National Park, jeopardizing tropical forests and biodiversity. Like many hydro developments in South America, the Bala's electricity production estimations are based off of limited hydrological data and accuracy is unreliable.

2. The Jondachi River

Jondachi River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Jondachi River in Ecuador is a tributary of the Napo Basin which flows into the Amazon. The "La Merced de Jondachi" hydroelectric project would divert the majority of the river's water, which provides world renowned whitewater paddling. Although Ecuador seeks energy independence, development of the Jondachi has been met with fervent resistance from organizations like Ecuadorian Rivers Institute. The massive hydroelectric dam would cause a dramatic decline in the local eco-tourism industry, in addition to ecological degradation, both of which contradict the developer's "clean" and "sustainable" energy platform.

3. The Maipo River

Maipo River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Maipo River in Chile, a whitewater destination and also Santiago's main source of drinking water, is threatened by an internationally financed hydropower tunneling system that is siphoning away the majority of the water of its tributaries—the Volcán, Yeso and Colorado rivers. The hydropower project has met sustained local opposition because it would cause drastic ecological shifts in the valley and has already caused groundwater contamination due to tunnel construction. The proposed electricity production is compromised by drought in the region and isn't reliable. Further, the electricity would be largely funneled to the private mining industry or exported to Argentina for profit.

4. The Marañón River

Maranon River, Peru.Gary Wockner

The Marañón River in Peru is the Amazon River's largest tributary. On the grounds of "national interest," the construction of approximately twenty internationally financed dams have been proposed. Four projects are currently in the permitting process, although none have begun construction. The projects—which would devastate the river's ecological health, fragment nutrient flow and flood local communities—are meeting increasing local, national and international opposition.

5. The Ñuble River

Ñuble River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Ñuble River of Chile runs through the Bío Bío Region and is currently slated for two hydropower projects. While the Chilean government claims the electricity is needed for public use, private mining corporations appear to be the biggest supporters of the projects. Beyond the The Ñuble's amazing scenery and sections of class III/IV whitewater opportunities are jeopardized, as are local farms that would be drowned. While some nearby agricultural communities once recognized the benefits of increased irrigation access the reservoir would provide, the realities of human relocation and an overwhelming focus upon energy production have generated increasing resistance to the developments.

6. The Quijos River

Quijos River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Quijos River in Ecuador is a tributary of the larger Napo Basin. While one dam already exists on this river (named "Coca Codo Sinclair HPP"), several others are proposed that would slice this once wild and pristine river into an eviscerated tunnel and reservoir plumbing system. The government of Ecuador is endorsing these nationally and internationally financed projects, claiming they will provide "clean" and "sustainable" hydropower, while disregarding the unavoidable environmental degradation and negative social implications that have already started to take hold.

7. The Rocín River

Rocín River, Chile.

The Rocín River in Chile flows from the Andes in the Valparaiso Region. Northern Chile holds some of the largest copper deposits and thus mines, in South America. The privately funded and legally approved hydropower project planned for this river would provide electricity to those mines, which are also held by private companies. Due to the remoteness of the Rocín, relatively little attention has been focused on the development despite local community concerns regarding water access for agriculture and also contamination of both surface and groundwater from mining activities.

Almost all of these seven proposed hydropower projects in South America are being pushed forward to create electricity to be sent to private mining corporations or exported to nearby countries for profit. In most cases, the negative human and environmental consequences are being glossed over, and the "Environmental Impact Assessments" required by governments lack scientific rigor and integrity. Government corruption may also be playing a role as hydroelectric companies are rarely held accountable in permitting processes nor are they required to strictly follow national environmental laws.

Most projects are marketed to the public as "green" energy. In South America's tropical Amazon Basin, for example, methane emitting hydropower reservoirs have been measured to be bigger greenhouse gas polluters than coal-fired power plants of equivalent electricity production. International financial institutions and hydroelectric corporations that fund these projects are distanced from the problems they create, while they continue to push hydro development forward under the guise of "clean" energy mandates that resulted from COP21, the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

Layers of different preservation strategies are needed to guarantee any river's safety in South America, and fortunately there are groups who are working on creating and maintaining them. However, these river-protection movements are often isolated from each other and lack funding to help connect and promote their effectiveness. The seven cases above are but a sliver of the threats to South America's—as well as the world's—magnificent rivers. These threats are constantly expanding and shifting, and demand an urgent global response.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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