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Viewpoint – Brazil’s Madeira River dams: A setback for environmental policy in Amazonian development

Philip Martin Fearnside
National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil; pmfearn@inpa.gov.br

ABSTRACT: Decisions on hydroelectric dam construction will be critical in shaping the future of Amazonia, where planned dams would convert most tributaries into chains of reservoirs. The Santo Antônio and Jirau dams, now nearing completion on the Madeira River, have created dangerous precedents in a trend towards weakening environmental protection in Brazil. Political appointees have overruled the technical staff of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which is responsible for evaluating the environmental impact study (EIA) and for licensing dams. Installation licences were granted without satisfying many of the 'conditions' that had been established as prerequisites. This feature and several others of the licensing process for the Madeira River dams have now been repeated in licensing the controversial Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. Brazil plans to build 30 large dams in its Amazon region in a decade, and others are to be financed and built by Brazil in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Guyana. These plans affect virtually all water resources in an area larger than Western Europe. The Madeira River dams indicate the need to reform the decision-making process in Brazil.

KEYWORDS: Hydropower, hydroelectric dams, environmental impact, energy policy, Amazonia