Wed, Dec 16, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The dammed Amazon

Predictable battle lines are being drawn over Brazil’s new dams — despite the government’s green credentials

By Raymond Colitt  /  REUTERS , PORTO VELHO, BRAZIL

Straddling one of the Amazon’s main tributaries and flanked by dense jungle, a construction pit the size of a small town bustles with bulldozers and nearly 10,000 workers blasting huge slabs of rock off the river bank.

While blue-and-yellow macaws fly overhead, a network of pipes fed by a constant flow of trucks pours enough concrete to build 37 football stadiums.

The US$7.7 billion Santo Antonio dam on the Madeira river is part of Brazil’s largest concerted development plan for the Amazon since the country’s military government cut highways through the rain forest to settle the vast region during its two-decade reign starting in 1964.

In the coming years, dams, roads, gas pipelines and power grids worth more than US$30 billion will be built to tap the region’s vast raw materials and transport its agricultural products.

The Santo Antonio dam in the western Amazon’s Rondonia state, which goes online in December 2011, will pave the way for a trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by making more of the Madeira river navigable.

But the behemoth project may also make it tougher for the nation to steer a new course as a leader of the global green movement.

Brazil’s government says such development is needed to improve the lives of the region’s 25 million inhabitants, who remain among the poorest in Latin America’s biggest economy.

With the economy expected to grow at 5 percent to 6 percent annually in coming years and the country preparing to host the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the government wants to ensure ample energy and adequate infrastructure.

Critics say not all projects make economic sense and many energy-saving measures — such as switching from electric to solar water heaters — have not been explored. They also argue that the drive for development in the world’s biggest forest highlights a policy contradiction as Brazil tries to play a top role in forging a global deal on climate change at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

Brazil reversed years of opposition to greenhouse gas targets this year, saying it intended to reduce Amazon deforestation by 80 percent and curb projected 2020 greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.

“They talk about reducing deforestation and boosting controls but they invest in these mega-projects,” said Israel Vale, director at the Kaninde environmental advocacy group in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia.

“The rhetoric doesn’t fully match reality,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a pragmatic former factory worker, has acknowledged the importance of tackling climate change and the heavy contribution that destruction of the forest makes to carbon emissions.

But he has consistently backed infrastructure projects in the Amazon and hits out at foreigners he says want to preserve the forest like a park, ignoring the needs of its inhabitants.

“I don’t want gringos asking us to leave Amazon people to die of hunger under the canopy of a tree,” Lula said in the Amazon city Manaus last month.

He says Brazil needs more international financial aid for sustainable development in the region, something he will push for in Copenhagen.

New shopping malls, supermarkets and hotels reviving the decrepit center of Porto Velho showcase the new wealth the Santo Antonio dam brings to an otherwise impoverished region.

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