About hydroelectric dams in the Madera River basin

About hydroelectric dams in the Madera River basin

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By Iván Castellón Quiroga

By decision and interest of the Brazilian government, the project for the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Madera river basin is on the table for discussions between Bolivia and Brazil, a project that Brazilian companies have been wanting to implement for twenty years, but has not been able to overcome. the well-founded opposition of organizations and social groups from both countries.

By decision and interest of the Brazilian government, the project for the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Madera river basin is on the table for discussions between Bolivia and Brazil, a project that Brazilian companies have been wanting to implement for twenty years, but has not been able to overcome. the well-founded opposition of organizations and social groups from both countries that for three years have been pronouncing themselves on the social and environmental impacts that these dams would cause in the Amazon ecosystem, not only in Bolivia but also in Brazil itself.

The Brazilian position

Silas Rondeau, Minister of Mines and Energy of Brazil, with a contempt typical of a bandeirante, dispatched a "there is no agreement with Bolivia ... to the extent that the two hydroelectric plants are in Brazilian territory" (La Razón, 23, 01, 2007), ignoring international agreements that protect the natural course of transboundary waters. Similarly, Aloísio Vasconcelos, President of Eletrobrás, threatened: “Either the Government hits the table and liberates the energy sector projects or those groups of environmentalists will stop the country” (Foundation “Consejo para el Proyecto Argentino”, 01, 02, 2007). For his part - as reported by the media - President Lula has offered Bolivia a maritime outlet to the Atlantic, through the Madera and Amazon rivers. It has also offered soft loans for the agricultural area. “Among them, a concessional loan of 30 million dollars for the purchase of tractors at an interest rate of 2 percent” (Infolatam, 23, 01, 2007) 1.

Undoubtedly, the interest declared by the Brazilian State to undertake this project responds to convergent interests between the Lula government and the Brazilian private company. For the Lula government, the construction of hydroelectric dams is part of the Growth Acceleration Program that includes: a) the generation of electricity for the industrious cities of southern Brazil; b) the opening of markets in western South America and distant China and India, eager for Brazilian soybeans, and c) having a greater geopolitical presence in the region. On the other hand, for Brazilian companies, particularly for FURNAS 2 and Odebrecht S.A. 3, the construction of the hydroelectric dams constitutes a business between 5,600 and 8,400 million dollars (without considering the costs involved in the construction of the transmission lines), plus the possibility of running a 6,400 MW distribution business that the dams would generate in Jirau and Santo Antonio in the State of Rondonia.

Prior to all this, FURNAS and Odebrecht SA, which were doing seduction work in government and professional circles in the country, failed in their attempt to obtain a license from the Bolivian State to carry out environmental studies in Bolivian territory 4, since several Personalities and public institutions managed to get the Bolivian government to enact Supreme Decree 28389 (6, X, 2005), which suspends the processing of applications and the consequent granting of licenses, provisional licenses and concessions in hydroelectric matters over the Madera river basin.

Faced with this obvious defeat suffered by the aforementioned Brazilian companies in front of the government and national institutions, which promptly warned of the risks involved in the construction of the dams in the Madera River basin, the FURNAS - Odebrecht S.A. consortium He continued negotiations in Brazil, obtaining the initial approval of his project. For this purpose, the aforementioned consortium carried out an environmental impact study that was approved in September 2006 by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). With the environmental impact study carried out by Odebrecht SA, the Brazilian government assumes that it has the right to build the dams in its territory without having to consult Bolivia, in a style that recalls the old “fazendeiros” who took the Acre for themselves .

Fortunately, and contrary to the position of the government and the Brazilian consortium, there are social groups such as the Movement of People Affected by Dams, personalities and environmental organizations that, within Brazil itself and in the Brazilian State itself, are fighting the promoters. of this huge project, and they are doing it effectively. Thanks to this, the project cannot yet overcome numerous technical observations, referring to the environmental, social and health impacts that it would cause in the Amazon.

The position of the Bolivian government

As the Bolivian State lacks studies on the size of the project and on the impacts that it could have on the country's northern Amazon ecosystem, the position of the national government for the moment is hopeful, since it has determined not to negotiate on this issue until it has information. technique that allows making political decisions, fully authorized and legitimate. So there is uncertainty and this is perceived in their public statements. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, for example, has expressed: "our fear is that these dams could flood our territories and lead to the extinction of some species" (La Razón, 23, 01, 2007). For his part, the Minister of Public Works, Jerges Mercado, has declared the following: “If it is not viable, be it from the ecological and financial point of view, from all points, we will not do it; but if it is viable, you have to put it in ”(, 26, 01, 2007).

With a clearer and more forceful tone, President Evo Morales, in his meeting with his counterpart in Brazil in February 2007, has expressed a dignified position and has not signed any agreement on the matter with President Lula, despite his impatience. aims to show large and successful megaprojects to its constituents.

The social movements of the northern Amazon

For their part, social organizations in the northern Amazon of the country (Pando, Riberalta and Guayaramerin), have held meetings to analyze the fate they would suffer with the eventual construction of the dams. With the participation of peasant representatives, colonizers, indigenous people, urban middle classes and NGO technicians, they are calculating the impacts that they would have to bear and that can be summarized as follows:

The first and great impact that they warn to face is the growth of their rivers. Since the topography of the Amazon is more or less uniform, the construction of two dams on the Madeira River (Brazil) would block the rivers and tributaries of the Madera basin, directly affecting the Abuná, Madre de Dios, Beni, Mamoré and Guaporé rivers. turning the region into an extensive swamp. This phenomenon would not be possible in another type of topography such as the Andean one, where - due to the slope of the rivers - the construction of dams creates lagoons or water reservoirs without blocking the rivers.

In addition to the dams, it must be considered that the Madera river basin is a basin of Andean origin, its waters are born in the Andes mountain range, as well as its sediments. Thus, the rivers Madre de Dios (Peru and Bolivia), Beni (La Paz and Beni) and Mamoré (Cochabamba, Potosí, Santa Cruz and Beni) run large amounts of water but also Andean sediments, which in a few years would arrive to cover the reservoirs created by the dams, aggravating the flooding of the Madera River and its tributaries. According to Jorge Molina, basic studies in hydrology show that there is a direct causality between the water level and the level of sedimentation: if the sedimentation at the bottom of the river increases, the surface of the water also increases.

River plugging, caused by dams and increased sedimentation, would cause seasonal cropland to flood along the riverbanks. Currently –between the months of May and November and when the waters of the rivers go down-, the inhabitants cultivate on the banks products necessary for their own survival, which is not possible when the waters rise in the rainy season. With the installation of two dams, built in the middle of the river, there would not be this seasonal use of the banks, because the banks would be covered all year round, preventing the cultivation of products necessary for the food security of peasant and indigenous families in the area. . And if, due to the construction of the dams, the banks would be covered throughout the year, in the rainy season the flood would be greater - and during the periodic phenomenon of El Niño even more serious -, the overflowing of the rivers would cover large territories of the Madera basin, mainly in Bolivian territory.

The flood would also affect Brazil nut production, whose trees require certain soil moisture conditions: if the humidity increases, the Brazil nut trees stop producing and die, with serious consequences for the economy of the producers who export Brazil nuts to the markets in Europe in appreciable quantities 5, precisely because the current ecosystem of Pando allows them to produce high quality chestnuts and that the Brazilian chestnut does not have: its poor quality has been acquired precisely because the ecosystem on the Brazilian side is seriously damaged with plantations of rice and extensive cattle pastures.

Not only that, the flood would also affect grazing lands, both large and small, causing the crisis of the livestock economy, not only because the grazing lands would shrink but also because the change in the geographical conditions of the The zone would expose cattle to new risks of morbidity and mortality. This is particularly worrying for the inhabitants of the banks of the Mamoré who already have fateful experiences due to the flooding of their grasslands in the rainy season.

In addition to affecting farmland, chestnut forests and grazing lands, the flood would affect the virgin forests of the Amazon, seriously affecting plant and animal biodiversity that, being covered with water like never before, would rot in the background of the waters. In this way, for example, many plant species of great therapeutic and medicinal value would simply become extinct or, more seriously, they would mutate their benefactor condition for another malefic, such as pests that appear and grow uncontrollably, or like "medieval miasmas" that, emanating from the stopped waters, would contribute to the processes of global warming of the planet.

The construction of the dams in Jirau and Santo Antonio would cause strong impacts on the ichthyofauna, that is, on the variety of existing fish species, which is estimated at around 700. According to Pablo Villegas, health worker, “studies carried out by FURNAS show that in the first year after the construction of the dam, 70% of the existing species disappear ”, that is, 490 known and unknown species, an alarming fact for the health of humanity and nature. The factors that would explain this natural disaster would be directly linked to the new dams that would constitute two retaining walls in the transit of fish that migrate between the Amazon River and the Madera River 6. Although the designers of the dams announce the construction of fish crossings in dams, their own studies dictate that these steps would not guarantee free transit of fish, just as fish steps built in other dams are ineffective. Another factor that would affect the extinction of fish is related to the decrease in the speed of the waters, which would cause a lack of oxygenation and an increase in the temperature of the water. This, for aquatic life is as serious as for terrestrial life it would be the lack of winds and breezes, or for human life it is the decrease of oxygen. Just remember the thousands of adults and children who died as a result of the heat wave and lack of oxygen that suffocated Europe three years ago.

The construction of dams, as P. Villegas maintains again, would cause the spread of old and new epidemics (malaria, dengue, yellow fever, diarrheal diseases, parasitosis, schistosomiasis and other pathological conditions caused by the stagnation of the waters in the dams). Malaria –which in any case is again worrying national and international organizations due to its recrudescence in tropical areas of the planet 7-, due to the construction of the dams, would show a disproportionate increase in morbidity and mortality rates in the area. The new dams that would cause the flooding of large territories, would reduce the speed and oxygenation of the waters, would spread the proliferation of its transmitting agent: Anopheles, which is developing resistance to conventional insecticides, while the parasite (plasmodium) has developed a high resistance to antibiotics (particularly plasmodium falciparum), which is making it difficult to control both the infection rate and the spread of the disease. It should be emphasized that in the world, every minute, between 3 and 5 children die of malaria.

What to do?

The Bolivian State must promote diagnoses of economic, social, cultural and environmental needs of the northern region of the country, which must include studies on the impacts that the construction of mega-dams, transmission lines and locks would cause, in order to establish the bases for the construction of a State policy around the Amazon region. That is, studies should be carried out on the social needs of the region to meet them, considering aspects related to the integral management of flora, fauna, biodiversity and water. The word of the State and civil society must be created in these areas to agree on them, prioritizing social and environmental interests over the interests of private companies.

The government and civil society must agree on and advance comprehensive development projects, such as the construction of small hydroelectric dams (for example, on the Yata River and the Tahuamanu River) that, without affecting the region's ecosystem, satisfy the demand for energy. electricity of the urban and rural inhabitants of the Departments of Pando and Beni, who currently depend on the electrical energy produced in turbines and diesel, which makes their production costs terribly expensive.

Brazil cannot affect transboundary basins or use international waters, without consulting and agreeing with the affected parties; if it does, the Bolivian State must file a claim with international organizations that protect the natural course of international rivers. Bolivian diplomatic representation must establish a dignified and sovereign relationship with Brazil; It must be aware that the relations between Bolivia and Brazil until now have been relations of power, not equitable relations. Around this, the biblical image about the encounter between David and Goliath can be sobering.

The Bolivian government must prioritize the execution of its national policies on land, which in the north of the country - due to the hoarding to which they were subjected from the time of rubber exploitation until the neoliberal regime - are already scarce. Therefore, the flooding of land, which could cause the Brazilian hydroelectric complex, should not affect or override the policy of Reconduction of the Agrarian Reform that the national government is carrying out. Otherwise, social contradictions could worsen and lead to violent land titling and reorganization processes. Within this framework, the Bolivian State must stop the process of private land appropriation by Brazilian subjects and companies, and Brazil cannot condition the financial loan of 30 million dollars so that Brazilian landowners in Bolivia have preferential treatment in the application. of the Agrarian Reform.

Bolivia cannot be a transit point for commercial business between capitalist elites from Brazil, Chile and Peru, who have an interest in developing “export corridors and waterways”, eliminating national borders and facilitating the expansion of markets between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In this framework, and according to Patricia Molina, Coordinator of FOBOMADE, it is important to evaluate and review the national laws of export corridors (Law 1961) and electricity (Law 1604) that grant hydro-energy resources to private companies within the strip of 50 kilometers security, indefinitely.

The Bolivian government must be warned that neoliberal poses and philosophies are still recreated in Bolivian society and in its institutions, and that in the resolution of this conflict there are characters who wield financial marital arguments over environmental and social considerations. The fact that by the action of "homo oeconomicus" animal species disappear would not be the first in the history of humanity, it is an inseparable part of developmental teleology that postulates the dominance of man over nature, or the maximum use of nature by man, without considering the breaks that can be caused to the balance of ecosystems. What would be new is that in a single, voracious and private action, hundreds of species that are currently feeding millions of human beings would be extinguished.

The Bolivian State and civil society must assume a leading role in the defense of the ecosystem of the Madera river basin, establishing links of solidarity and alliance with intellectuals, organizations for the defense of the environment, human and indigenous rights, social movements in Brazil, Latin America and the world, with the firm belief that the fate of the Amazon depends on the fate of the Madera River. It should be noted that in the northern Amazon region of the country, its inhabitants are already developing processes of collective reflection and action, with the conviction that such dams, in addition to flooding their farmlands and turning them into extensive swamps, will affect the health of men and women, to the health of plants and animals, that is, to the health of Mother Earth.

La Paz, June 2007.

* Sociologist and plastic artist, General Superintendent of the Renewable Natural Resources Regulation System (SIRENARE).


1 To finish off Brazil's "diplomatic advance" strategy, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has announced in Europe that "Brazil will subordinate its aid of 30 million dollars to Bolivia to the treatment received by Brazilian farmers affected by the agrarian reform in Bolivia ... tractors that Brazil will finance are linked to the way in which the agrarian reform is carried out in areas where there are Brazilians ”, declared Amorim, who denied that it is a condition; "It is a positive induction and not a negative conditioner", he clarified. The “affected Brazilians”, referred to by Amorim, are owners of barracks and haciendas that are within the 50-kilometer security strip on the Bolivian-Brazilian border that the Political Constitution of the State prohibits giving property title to foreign individuals and companies.

2 Brazilian electricity company, linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Brazil. He was born in 1957.

3 Private construction company founded in 1946 by Norbert Odebrecht; since 1979 it has expanded its activity to the chemical and petrochemical industry. It is found in South America, Central America, North America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

4 With this license, the construction companies would have completed their desire to build four dams in the Madera river basin, two dams in Brazil (Jirau and Santo Antonio) and two dams in Bolivia (one bi-national dam on the Madera river and another dam on the Beni river).

5 It should be noted that Bolivia is the leading producer of Brazil nuts, as it exports 70% of world production, while Peru 20% and Brazil 10%.

6 It has been established that the migration circuits of the ichthyofauna that inhabit the Madera river basin are varied. There are species of fish that circulate long stretches that go from the Mamoré River to the mouth of the Amazon, and others that circulate shorter stretches between Bolivia and Brazil.

7 According to data from the United States Center for Disease Control, it is estimated that each year 300 to 500 million cases of malaria occur and that more than one million are fatal. It is the highest risk disease for people who move to hot climates. See:

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