An attempt by President Dilma Rousseff to eliminate 86,288 hectares of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon (equivalent to the area of 161,178 football fields) to make way for five large hydroelectric dams has been challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court by Federal Public Prosecutors (the Ministério Publico Federal or MPF). The MPF alleges that the Provisional Measure (Medida Provisória) signed by Rousseff in early January violates the Brazilian Constitution and the country's environmental legislation.
According to head prosecutor Roberto Monteiro Gurgel Santos, the majority of the proposed dam projects lack environmental impact studies. As a result, there is no certainty whether the dams will be constructed, and if so, in what location that would minimize their negative impacts. Hence, reducing the boundaries of protected areas to make way for dam reservoirs, prior to carrying out environmental impact studies, is both ludicrous and illegal. Economic viability studies for the proposed dams have also not been carried out.
"The Provisional Measure signed by President Rousseff signals a growing tendency within the federal government, already visible with the Belo Monte Dam, to blatantly disregard human rights and environmental legislation in the rush to construct over 60 large dams in the Amazon," said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director at International Rivers. "This shows that the president is backtracking on Brazil's environmental commitments, and will use any means necessary to push through an agenda of expensive mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon, reminiscent of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. It begs the question, who will protect the Amazon and the rights of its people, if not the government?"
If the Provisional Measure is not overturned by the Supreme Court, it still needs to be ratified by both houses of Congress to enter into law. In Para State, the Provisional Measure would eliminate a total of 75,630 hectares in five conservation units to make way for the reservoirs of two large proposed dams on the Tapajós river—São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá. The areas that would have their boundaries reduced include the Amazonia National Park (17,800 hectares), the Itaituba 1 and Itaituba 2 National Forests (7,705 and 28,453 hectares, respectively), Crepori National Forest (856 acres), and the Tapajos Environmental Protection Area (19,916 hectares).
In the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, 8,470 hectares would be excluded from the Mapinguari National Park so they could be flooded by the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams on the Madeira River. Additionally, 2,188 acres would be excluded from the Campos Amazônicos National Park to make way for the reservoir of the proposed Tabajara hydroelectric dam on the Machado River, a tributary of the Madeira River.
According to a document submitted by the Rousseff administration to the Brazilian Congress, the reduction of protected areas was proposed by the federal environmental agency, ICMBio. However, internal memos reveal that local staff of ICMBio—who are responsible for the management of protected areas in the Tapajós region—expressed direct opposition to the proposal. According to them, the reduction of protected areas, in the absence of socio-economic and environmental assessments of impacts and risks, is likely to cause tremendous damage to the region's biodiversity, including endemic and endangered species, and to the livelihoods of local populations.
Raione Lima, regional coordinator of the Movement for Dam Affected People (MAB) in Itaituba (Pará state) argues that "the government's attempts to reduce the size of conservation units on the Tapajós river shows that it is catering to the interests of large construction contractors, mining interests, agribusiness, commercial loggers and other members of the local elite, at the expense of biodiversity and the rights of indigenous communities and other local populations."
The São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá dams are the first of seven large dams proposed by the parastatal energy company Eletronorte for construction along the Tapajós River and its main tributary, the Jamanxim River. The reservoirs of five additional dams (Chacorão, Cachoeira do Caí, Jamanxim, Cachoeira dos Patos, and Jardim de Ouro) would inundate a total of 165,324 hectares in two national parks, four national forests and the Mundurucu indigenous territory. Recently, the Mundurucu tribe denounced Eletronorte's plans to build the Chacorão dam, slated to flood 18,721 hectares of indigenous lands, as a "criminal act" that demonstrates an "absolute lack of concern of the federal government with the rights of the indigenous people of Brazil."
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The Bureau of Reclamation today received a proposed set of common-sense solutions to solve the imbalance between supply and demand for water in the Colorado River Basin, where the Bureau projects river flow will decrease by an average of about nine percent over the next 50 years due to climate change. The proposal by Environmental Defense Fund—which includes ideas by other conservation groups and stakeholders—was in response to the Feb. 1 deadline for public input of “options and strategies” for a study to define and solve future imbalances in water supply and demand in the basin through 2060.
“Our proposed solutions don’t include expensive new infrastructure and diversions that threaten the health of the Colorado River and the recreation and tourism economy of the region,” said Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for Environmental Defense Fund and a former vice chairman of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee in the Colorado Senate. “Instead, we are focusing on common-sense ideas—including water banks, water re-use and municipal and agricultural efficiency—to solve the imbalance between supply and demand, while protecting the healthy flows of the river.”
Water banks are institutional mechanisms that can be set up in one state, or by multiple states, to use existing storage in a more flexible manner—particularly during drought—by holding “deposits” of water leased or purchased from existing users. For example, they hold the potential to be a cost-effective way of preventing the chaotic effects of a “call” on the river under the Colorado River Compact. The compact stipulates that when river flows are insufficient to satisfy the Lower Basin states’ water entitlement on the river, the lower basin can place a call on the river water, forcing upper basin states to stop diverting water until the lower basin’s water entitlement is satisfied.
“Managing the Colorado River in a hotter and drier west requires bold and innovative thinking,” added Grossman. “We can’t continue to adhere to the dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries and expect to solve this impending crisis.”
The Colorado River Basin is one of the most critical sources of water in the western U.S. and Mexico, providing water to 30 million people in seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study—due to be completed in June by the Bureau of Reclamation and agencies from the seven basin states—is focusing on the needs of basin resources that are dependent upon a healthy river system. They include:
- Water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use
- Hydroelectric power generation
- Fish and wildlife and their habitats
- Water quality including salinity
- Flow and water-dependent ecological systems
- Flood control, all under a range of conditions that could occur over the next 50 years.
“As we begin forging a new path forward for managing the Colorado River in the age of limits, we need to think about the impacts of our actions on future generations in the west,” concluded Grossman. “Current demands from residential development and agriculture are overtaxing a river that is diminishing because of a changing climate. We need flexible, market-driven solutions that will protect the river and the ecosystems and western economies it supports.”
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