Amazon under threat again as Brazil's boom takes high toll
With demand rising for electricity, Brazil is looking to the Amazon it did so much to protect
AS WORLD leaders in Rio de Janeiro this week tried to map a sustainable future for the planet, their host Brazil provided a ready-made example of the dilemma they face.
In recent years the country has made huge strides in tackling deforestation in the Amazon, the world’s biggest rainforest, 60 per cent of which lies within its borders. Latest figures show the rate at which the jungle is being cleared in Brazil is at its lowest since records began in 1988.
It marks a huge advance on 1992, when the country hosted the first Earth Summit. Back then, images of burning rainforest helped mobilise the global environmental movement. Now Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has hailed the success as “a great example of respect for the environment but also the capacity to combine the protection of nature with a reduction of poverty and economic growth”.
But at the same time as Brazil celebrates its successes in the rainforest, it is scrambling to secure future energy sources for an expanding economy, and is increasingly looking to the Amazon to do so.
Tens of millions of Brazilians are exiting poverty and joining the consumer market. With an increasingly middle-class lifestyle requiring refrigerators, TVs, computers and mobile phones, demand for electricity is projected to grow by 56 per cent by 2021.
To meet this, the government is looking to the same Amazon it has done so much to protect from loggers and ranchers, focusing on the river hydro-power potential.
At least 22 hydro-electric plants are scheduled to be built along the river’s tributaries, and engineers say the river’s basin could power many more.
Such talk alarms many environmentalists and indigenous rights campaigners who argue that damming the basin will inevitably alter is delicate environmental and social balance. “There is a contradiction in government policy. On one hand it wants to preserve the rainforest but on the other it is exploiting it as a resource,” says Daniel Santos, a researcher with Imazon, a local environmental research institute.
Dams already under construction in the Amazon have been hugely controversial. The €11 billion Belo Monte dam on the Xingu, which when finished will be the third biggest in the world, will flood hundreds of square kilometres of rainforest, forcing thousands of forest dwellers to relocate, including several indigenous communities. Many say they will resist efforts to displace them.
While locals are removed, thousands of construction workers are brought in to remote jungle regions where forest is cleared for access roads and the transmission lines that will transport the energy to the country’s population centres.