Plans to build a giant hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon rainforest have been halted by Brazil’s environmental protection agency because of mounting concerns about the fate of indigenous communities and wildlife living in the area.
The 8,000-megawatt São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) dam would have been the sixth-largest hydroelectric dam in the world, spanning the five-mile wide Tapajós river and drowning 376 sq km (145 sq miles) of rainforest that is home to some 12,000 Munduruku Indians.
But in an unexpected announcement, the Ibama protection agency on Thursday cancelled development permits saying that an environmental impact study (EIA) submitted by a consortium of Brazilian, European and other companies seeking to build the dam had failed to present enough evidence to judge its social and ecological impacts.
Human rights groups and environmentalists had earlier said the social and ecological risks had been grossly neglected, including impacts on biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems, greenhouse gas emissions, and implications for downstream communities.
Leaders of the Munduruku people, who stood to lose much of their ancestral land and would have been forced to move, welcomed the announcement. “We Munduruku people are very happy with the news. This is very important for us. Now we will continue to fight against other dams in our river,” said Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku, general chief Munduruku.
International environment and human rights groups said the announcement, just hours before the start of the Olympic games, was a turning point for the protection of the world’s largest rainforest.
Greenpeace forest campaigner Sara Ayech said: “The Tapajós dam would have flooded into oblivion a whole swath of Amazon rainforest, home to indigenous civilisations and a stunning variety of wildlife.”
Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch said: “We have been awaiting such a welcome announcement from the Brazilian government for more than a decade, while witnessing the tragic and unnecessary damming of the Madeira and Xingu riversduring this time.”
Brent Millikan, Amazon program director at International Rivers, said: “Today’s decision is a major victory for the Munduruku, their allies and the rule of law in Brazil, sending a shot across the bow of the dam industry juggernaut in the Amazon.”
A licence for the Tapajós dam can be requested again, but that is considered unlikely due to the cost of redoing impact studies from scratch and the current recession Brazil is in.
Environment minister José Sarney Filho told Valor newspaper in an interview published on Thursday that the Tapajós dam was “entirely dispensable” and could be compensated by energy from smaller power generators and other sources such as wind.
Deputy energy minister Paulo Pedrosa told Reuters, however, that the Tapajós dam was a “competitive” project and a final decision on pursuing the project was up to interim president Michel Temer.
The SLT dam is the largest of five proposed hydropower projects on the Tapajós. Dozens of smaller dams are also planned on tributaries across across the Tapajós basin.
Under Brazil’s constitution, indigenous people cannot be forced off their lands except in case of war or epidemics. In June, the Munduruku started demarcating their territory in the Tapajós in the hope of saving it.
Campaigners are now urging Temer to formally recognise the Munduruku’s rights.