Bolsonaro’s biggest hydroelectric plant ignores sociobiodiversity and threatens more than 5 thousand people in RO

The construction project on the border between the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, on the Machado, one of the main tributaries of the Rio Madeira, crossing a good part of the Amazon (Isabelle Chaves/Cenarium)

Iury Lima – from Cenarium Magazine

VILHENA (RO) – Imagine a region taken by riverside communities, quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves), indigenous people – including isolated groups -, family agriculture producers and areas destined to extractivism being swallowed by a flood, within a radius of 100 square kilometers, caused by the alteration of a river’s course, putting more than 5 thousand people at risk in exchange for profit. This can become a reality with a simple ‘canetada’ from the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

The threat is located in Rondônia, more specifically around the small and centennial riverside community Vila Tabajara, with a little more than 100 inhabitants, in the limits of the municipality of Machadinho do Oeste, about 300 kilometers from Porto Velho. It is the Hydroelectric Plant (HPP) Tabajara, the largest project of its kind in the Bolsonaro government, which, if its environmental licensing study is approved, could destroy not only the community, but threaten the existence and take away the survival conditions of those who cannot leave the land, as is the case of the Arara and Gavião indigenous groups, inhabitants of the vicinity.

Standing for more than a century, Vila Tabajara may disappear with the environmental impacts caused by the Machado River dam, on the border between Rondônia and Amazonas (Reproduction/ EGM Drone Vision)

Environmental Violation

The project foresees construction on the border between the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, on the Machado, also known as the Ji-Paraná River, one of the main tributaries of the Madeira, crossing a large part of the Amazon.

The dangers had already been warned in a technical note, public to the entire Brazilian society. The more than 40 organizations, entities and social movements, which produced the document together with researchers from the scientific community, understand that the construction of the dam ignores the socio-biodiversity of the communities and threatens traditional populations. They also point to evidence of negligence by environmental agencies in relation to the existence and the transit of native peoples in the region.

“We denounce that FUNAI [National Indian Foundation] presented in the Term of Reference of the Tabajara HPP only the T.I. Tenharim Marmelos [Indigenous Land] as the only Indigenous Land affected, ignoring the rest of the surrounding areas and especially the indigenous people in conditions of isolation and risk. This omission allowed the studies carried out by JGP to make the Tabajara Hydroelectric Plant project feasible to be incompatible with reality. We reaffirm our position that the Terms of Reference of any infrastructure project should be prepared together with all affected peoples in order to avoid the errors committed,” state, in an excerpt, the signatories of the note, such as the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), the Madeira Vivo Institute (IMV), Federal University of Rondonia (Unir) and WWF Brazil, among several others, considering “the serious violations of environmental legislation and the rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional populations that are under threat, in the conduct of a venture without economic, social and environmental viability.

The capital’s narrative

According to the federal government, the plant will have a total capacity of 400 megawatts (MW); an investment of R$5 billion with the promise of generating at least 30,000 jobs. “One more large infrastructure project made in the Amazon and not really for the Amazon. And, as always, wrapped in a narrative of local development, when, in fact, what it leads to, is socio-environmental impact for the region,” Octávio Nogueira, a specialist in Amazon Sociobiodiversity, People and Forests from WWF Brazil, evaluated the CENARIUM report.

“Most of the time, they [hydroelectric plants] don’t deliver the generation capacity that would justify such an impact or that could come to justify it,” added the specialist.

Protests against UHE Tabajara were also held in Brasília (Reproduction/Gilmara Camila de Oliveira Araújo)

Socio-economic impacts

The estimate of direct or indirect impact to about five thousand people on average, “among indigenous peoples and other traditional populations, not to mention family farming and urban centers”, is from the coordinator of the Madeira Vivo Institute, Iremar Ferreira. As a founding member, he helps spearhead projects aimed at ensuring the socio-environmental rights of communities and the preservation of water resources, in Rondônia.

“Not even the territories that are above Tabajara, like the Igarapé Lourdes Indigenous Land, which includes the Arara and Gavião indigenous people, for example, were considered. The peoples below and the isolated indigenous peoples were not considered. There was a total erasure”, pointed out the activist. “Then, how can we discuss studies that deny the presence of local populations, simply to give consistency to a study done, unfortunately, ‘half baked’, with so many gaps?”, he ironized.

For the IMV coordinator, Iremar Ferreira, an environmental impact study that denies the presence of traditional populations cannot be taken into consideration (Reprodução/Arquivo Pessoal)

Ferreira also points to the unavailability of fish stocks as a consequence, which would be tragic for a riverine population, due to dependence on the rivers for subsistence. “This stock is already fragile due to the impacts of the Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric plants on the Madeira River [also installed in Rondônia]. So what will happen to the populations of this region who depend on fish as basic food?”, he questioned.

Octávio Nogueira, a specialist from WWF Brasil, explains that “when a large area is flooded, the impact on the surrounding area is very big”. “An area that was far from the water gets closer to it and this affects the dynamics of the fauna and flora. When it comes to fish resources, if there is a change in the migratory flow of fish, then the impact is not only in the rivers and forests that you flooded, but also in the surrounding area, and this has to be considered, because these people live off these resources, not only the fish, but also the extraction of nuts, vegetable oils and other products. And not only for subsistence, because this is part of their economic dynamics, since it is a productive area”, Nogueira detailed.

2 de Novembro Waterfall region, on the Machado River, in Machadinho do Oeste (Reproduction/EMG Drone Vision)

Public consultations well done, what for?

Ibama held two public hearings this week to hear part of the populations that will be impacted. One of them took place on Wednesday, the 6th, at the Association of Farmers, in Machadinho do Oeste. The second, in a soccer field in Vila Tabajara, on Thursday the 7th.

However, the environmentalists are unanimous: there is a lack of transparency, because “they pretend to listen to the communities”. “This should be considered by the licensing body [Ibama] itself as a serious problem. But the licensing body itself is the one that should respect the regulations and make this a condition for the interested parties, that is, Eletronorte and Eletrobras (…) And, for this reason, society was not informed to its satisfaction and within the period of at least 30 days”, revealed Ferreira.

“The people there, from Machadinho, who even dialogue with the Municipal Tourism Council, say that the Tabajara project means killing our ecological tourism potential. That is, those who are there are not being listened to,” he repudiated.

Public hearing held in Machadinho do Oeste, on Wednesday, 6, by Ibama and the town hall (Reproduction/Ariquemes Online)

Iremar also reports that he heard, on a radio program, the mayor of Machadinho do Oeste, Paulo Henrique dos Santos (DEM), inviting the population to participate in the hearing, a few hours before the meeting, offering a package of infrastructure works in the urban area as “environmental compensation”. “See, the public administration, the legislature, those who should be putting themselves in opposition because of the fragility, don’t do that. They don’t defend the public interest”, lamented the IMV coordinator.

The mayor of Machadinho do Oeste, Paulo Henrique dos Santos (Reproduction/ Machadinho do Oeste City Hall)

For the specialist in sociobiodiversity, the conduct given to the hearings held by Ibama “look like the fulfillment of a requirement to say: ‘look, I did it'”, besides having given the image of a “directing of the whole process already in search of the expected result”.

“Generally, it’s all a matter of time and they [the authorities involved] know that. They go through these stages, completing the studies in an unsatisfactory way, mobilizing political groups, giving half answers, and defeating themselves through tiredness,” he condemned.

Octávio Nogueira is emphatic: “public consultation has to be broad, prior and, as we see in this process and in many others, they do not give time for the population to prepare and understand what is happening, to understand the impact (…) It is a population that needs to be heard and that needs, before that, to be well instructed”, he added.

Solar alternative

In Octávio Nogueira’s technical view, the UHE Tabajara project totally disregards the opportunity that one has for distributed generation by sustainable systems, such as photovoltaic energy, that is, solar energy – abundant, growing and free.

“This is a region of high insolation. However, the impression is that there is an agenda or political and economic groups, commitments, people, and interests that need to be met and will be met at all costs, when there would be another option,” he said.

The coordinator and founding member of the IMV, points out that Rondônia has 7,400 distributed generation units and that, for this reason, if the state or the federal government decided to expand the investment in solar energy, tripling the total of units already installed, “there would be no need for a Tabajara”.

Region that will be flooded by the Machado River dam, planned by Eletronorte/Eletrobras and the federal government (Reproduction/ EMG Drone Vision)

“The capacity or the amount of energy that is intended to be generated with this bus bar, if we were to convert it to solar energy, perhaps with all the roofs of Machadinho counting on plates, we would already generate much more than what is intended with this plant. Imagine if we had in the whole state, 30 thousand photovoltaic energy generation units; ready, it would be solved”, he suggested.

An example of initiative comes from the Madeira Vivo Institute itself which, recently, installed a generating unit of clean energy, generated by the Sun, in a cathedral in the city of Guajará-Mirim. This action was done in partnership with the Committee for the Defense of Amazonian Life in the Madeira Basin.

“It is with initiatives like this that we have to act. Until when will we end up using our rivers to serve the speculative interests of companies, big companies and politicians? Rivers are bearers of rights. And, for this reason, we need to guarantee possible ways for them to remain free of dams”, concluded the environmentalist.

What the federal government says

Despite several imbroglios in recent years, the federal government guarantees, through the General Advocacy of the Union (AGU), that the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region (TRF-1) ensured the continuity of the environmental licensing process, against the decision of the 5th Federal Court of Rondonia, “in the records of a public civil action filed by the Federal and State Public Ministries of Rondonia.

The government also says that AGU “was able to demonstrate the full regularity of Ibama” and that the agency “not only made available to interested parties the environmental studies preliminarily, but also employed all the reinforcements to ensure the involvement of communities in the debates”.


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