Amazon under threat again as Brazil's boom takes high toll

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 01:00

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.

A report by Imazon warns that the government is not taking into account the full environmental impact of dams in the Amazon, calculating that 153 million tonnes of carbon will be released by the deforestation they cause. “The government is promoting a model of energy production without having all the data on the environmental impact,” warns Santos.

But supporters of hydro-plants defend their benefits. “The country will need this energy so it has to come from somewhere and it is self-evident that hydro is environmentally friendlier than oil or gas fired stations. The fuel is water,” says José Gelázio da Rocha, the engineer who supervised construction of the giant Itaipú dam on the Paraná river. But water is not the only fuel Brazil is seeking to harness in the Amazon. The region is also the focus of a gathering effort to exploit oil and gas reserves, often found in its deepest reaches. Marcio Rocha Mello, head of independent Brazilian oil company HRT, says the region could hold reserves equivalent to Algeria and Libya of over 100 billion barrels of oil.

Getting all this energy from deep under the forest floor to consumers thousands of kilometres away risks creating new spots of industrialisation in the heart of the jungle. Environmentalists point to the dismal environmental record of oil companies operating in the Amazon in neighbouring Ecuador.

But energy self-sufficiency is an obsession of Brazilian planners. It was dependence on imports at the time of the oil shocks in the 1970s that helped derail economic growth for the best part of two decades. Electricity blackouts in 2001 helped pave the way for the defeat of the government in elections held a year later.

Environmentalists warn this tension between preservation and development in regions like the Amazon is likely to remain so long as most developing governments seek to provide a western consumer lifestyle for their citizens.

“If we just think in economic terms then Brazil has to grow so as not to fall behind the rest of the world,” says Imazon’s Santos.

“This means increasing consumption, upping production and all this will require more energy. Where is the government going to find this? Amazonia. Hopefully Rio+20 can help change this strictly economic optic so that the economy has to take account of the environment and people.”

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