Mar 17 2007

Alcoa and Brazil’s latest dam project – They’re doing it again!

Brazilian environmental activists are charging that Brazilian environmental authorities and an Alcoa lead consortium planning construction of Barra Grande dam conspired to commit fraud in the awarding of an environmental license for the project. Members of Brazil’s Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB) and environmentalists blockaded the access road to a stand of virgin forest slated for clearing before the filling of the reservoir. In all, 6,000 hectares of primary forests, including araucaria pines, in one of the richest remaining expanses of the threatened Atlantic Coast rainforest, would be flooded by the dam on the Pelotas river in Southern Brazil. A 2,000 hectare stand of virgin araucaria forests was somehow “omitted” in the project’s environmental studies. Local groups have filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to annul the license awarded to Barra Grande, to require the consortium to carry out new studies evaluating the possibility of operating the reservoir at a lower level to avoid drowning the araucaria forests, and if this is deemed impossible, to order the demolition of the dam structure. Heavily-armed riot police have reportedly been sent to the area to disperse protestors. The consortium building Barra Grande includes the Pittsburgh-based Alcoa aluminum company (which contains Kathy Fuller, President of WWF-USA as a Board Member), MAB leader Soli da Silva says the mobilization will continue indefinitely. “We cannot permit that fraud and a ‘done deal’ become the rule on environmental licensing for hydroelectric projects in our country.” Please support these brave environmentalists at .

Barra Grande: “The Hydroelectric Dam that Ignored the Forest”
by Jason Coughlin, Greengrants Volunteer

Dams happen. Sometimes, the best that environmental groups can do is to ameliorate a dam’s impact on the people and environment of the area, and to make sure that the next project will have a full and fair environmental review. Those are exactly the accomplishments of the The Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB) and APREMAVI (Associação de Preservação do Meio Ambiente do Alto Vale do Itajaí), two Greengrants grantees that have opposed Brazil’s vast Barra Grande hydroelectric dam.

Brazil’s burgeoning energy needs have led its government to construct several large-scale hydroelectric plants, such as the $400 million, 695 megawatt, Barra Grande Dam on the Pelotas River in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. A consortium called Barra Grande Energetica S/A (or BAESA), which includes the US aluminum giant ALCOA, is building the dam. The participation of ALCOA in this project is not surprising given that the aluminum industry is the world’s largest industrial consumer of electrical energy, using about 1% of all the electrical energy generated globally, and about 7% of world industrial consumption. In the case of Brazil, the aluminum industry accounts for roughly 8% of the country’s total electricity use.

Only after 80% of the Barra Grande Dam had been built was it discovered that the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was fraudulent. According to this initial EIA, the 92,000 sq km of land that was to be flooded consisted basically of degraded land “without significant environmental value”. However, as a result of pressure put on it by environmental groups, BAESA conducted a second EIA that discovered that roughly 50% of the land to be flooded was actually primary Atlantic Coastal forest (Mata Atlântica) or secondary forest in recovery. Included in this area were swaths of the native pine tree Araucária, which is a protected species in the country. According to experts, only 1% of Brazil’s original Araucária forest survives today. Conservation International lists the Brazilian Atlantic Forest where the Barra Grande dam is located, as one of its 34 global “biodiversity hotspots. Once covering an estimated 1.2 million square kilometers, today less than 10% of the Mata Atlântica remains intact.

Nonetheless, the case was made by BAESA that since the original EIA was done prior to the consortium assuming control of the project, it should not be held accountable for the erroneous report. Furthermore, given the advanced stage of construction of the dam, BAESA argued that the only option that made sense was for the project to go forward.

After numerous legal injunctions, on July 4th, 2005 BAESA was given the go-ahead by the courts to proceed. The decision was based on the fact that most of the work had already been concluded, and that not finishing the project would result in financial losses for the consortium. Shortly thereafter, the buzz of chainsaws signaled that the demise of the forest had begun. “With this act, IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) has blessed the extinction of a large part of the Coastal Forest ecosystem and its Araucárias trees,” lamented Miriam Pronchow, Greengrants Advisor and Director of APREMAVI.

Environmental Response
One organization that has responded to the impacts of Barra Grande is the Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB). MAB was created in the 1980s, uniting struggles in various regions of Brazil. It is the best organized movement of dam–affected people in the world. MAB is demanding that the government halt subsidies to energy-intensive industries, such as aluminum production, and instead provide electricity to rural communities. At the same time, MAB defends the rights of dam–affected populations; demanding fair compensation for their losses and a role in the resettlement process so that it actually improves the quality of life of those relocated.

The need for MAB is great, as the promises of assistance that the Brazilian government has made to families forced to relocate have not always been honored. According to the International River Network, more than one million people have been displaced by the construction of dams in Brazil and at least 30,000 families affected by dams constructed 20 years ago are still awaiting compensation.

MAB used a $5,000 grant from Global Greengrants to give voice to the 1,200 families being forced to relocate as a result of the Barra Grande dam. Through the organization of numerous community meetings and boisterous protest marches, MAB helped the local communities carve out a role in the decision making process. In addition, MAB funded a public media campaign to denounce the fraudulent EIA that led to the approval of the project.

While the attempt to prevent the completion of the dam itself was not successful, MAB certainly did have a positive impact not only on the families impacted by the project, but also in publicizing the nature of the fraud that took place. Ideally, this will sensitize other environmental groups both in Brazil and abroad about the need to demand a review of EIAs to ensure their integrity prior to projects being started.

As a result of its negotiations with MAB, BAESA set up a fund of six million reais (approximately $2.5 million) for agriculture and credit programs that the displaced families could tap into as they attempt to restart their lives. This fund would also finance a pilot project for one of the affected communities to create a regional development plan as well as provide technical assistance for the all of the communities impacted by the dam. MAB was able to get an additional 214 families included in the relocation process, as well as material for the construction of 400 houses.

In addition to these concessions from BAESA, MAB successfully negotiated additional resources and support from the Brazilian government. The government agreed to provide electricity for 600 resettled families (an ironic concession given that the families were relocated to build a hydro-electric dam), basic foodstuffs for 1,400 families as well as technical assistance for the building of 400 houses. MAB requested and received an audience with the Minister of Mines and Energy and with the Chief of Staff of the President to voice the concerns of the families affected by the dam.

The second grantee active in the fight against the Barra Grande project was APREMAVI (Associação de Preservação do Meio Ambiente do Alto Vale do Itajaí). With the help of a grant of $1,000 from Global Greengrants, APREMAVI was able to publish and distribute a book titled Barra Grande – The Hydroelectric Dam that Ignored the Forest about the environmental impacts of the project. The book was a collaborative effort by 12 authors who approached the problem from a variety of legal, social, environmental and economic viewpoints. APREMAVI also enlisted legal support to stop the deforestation associated with the project and carried out its own campaign to mobilize the public against the completion of the project. APREMAVI was active in organizing additional support for the activities of MAB and indirectly contributed to the successes of this group’s campaign as well.

Recently celebrating its 18th anniversary, APREMAVI is an association of non-governmental organizations, who jointly see their mission as “defending, preserving and restoring the endangered Atlantic Forest and surrounding cultural values as a means to improve the quality of life for those that live in the region.” APREMAVI’s activities cover a wide range of topics from the replanting of trees in previously deforested areas and the management of seed banks for native species, to the production of environmental videos and training materials on a variety of related topics.

Both APREMAVI and MAB are committed to making sure that the agreements reached with both BAESA and the government will be honored. However much remains to be done. In the words of one of MAB’s organizers:

“Unfortunately in our country, social concerns and the environment are pushed aside because of our “development needs”…..However, what kind of development forces families to leave their homes…and which doesn’t take into account the need to protect the environment. … These are questions that aren’t asked in our country and we need to fight to change that. …. It is our challenge… and it isn’t easy….”