A rapid route to destruction?
Brazil and China’s plan for a giant grain canal is the biggest threat ever posed to the Amazon wilderness, activists say
Crashing upstream through the São Luiz rapids, the churning river throws the speedboat around like a child’s toy. There is first a moment of fear, then relief and finally wonder at crossing a natural boundary that has held back the destruction of this corner of the Amazon for almost five centuries.
This is the gateway to a land that indigenous inhabitants call Mundurukania, after their tribe, the Munduruku, which has settled the middle and upper reaches of the Rio Tapajós since ancient times. The thickly vegetated shores, misty hills and untamed waters are one of the few regions of the planet still to be explored and exploited by industrial commerce.
The tranquillity is breathtaking, but misleading. The São Luiz rapids are on the frontline of one of the world’s most important struggles for indigenous rights and environmental protection. Long ignored, they are suddenly seen as a strategically crucial step between the nation with the world’s biggest farms – Brazil – and the one with the most numerous dining tables – China.
The Brazilian government – backed by Chinese and European finance and engineering – wants to construct the world’s biggest grain canal by building 49 major dams on the Tapajós and its tributaries, making the rapids navigable as it connects the deforested savanna of Mato Grosso – which produces a third of the world’s soya – to a giant container port being planned in the city of Santarém.
The network of dams would also produce 29gW of electricity, increasing Brazil’s supply by 25%, and offer power to local mining companies seeking to unearth the mineral riches under the forest.
The opening up of the Tapajós basin – roughly the area of France – is for Brazil’s government a linchpin of national economic development and trade with China. For opponents it is the biggest threat ever posed to the native inhabitants, waters and wildlife. By one estimate, 950,000 hectares of forest would be lost, including 198,400 hectares flooded by hydroelectric projects.
“This is a historic moment for the Amazon. We have seen previous economic booms – rubber, logging and mining – that caused social conflict and environmental damage, but the proposed development along the Tapajós covers a much wider area and would have a much more profound impact,” said Alcilene Cardoso of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.
Opponents claimed a partial victory last year when the Brazilian environmental agency suspended a licence for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam but the battle is far from over. The damming of the rapids – which would require a 7km-wide concrete barrier and a reservoir eight times the area of Manhattan – remains a priority of the powerful mines and energy ministry and state-run energy utility Electrobras. Three other dams are already under construction on the Teles Pires, a tributary of the Tapajós.
Half an hour above the rapids is the Munduruku village of Dace Watpu, which would be flooded if the São Luiz dam were built. Despite the suspension of the licence, they remain vigilant.
“They will be back. That is our constant concern,” said village chief Juarez Saw Munduruku. “The Brazilian government may call hydroelectric dams clean energy, but it isn’t. It is dirty. It is mixed with our blood and our misery. The government will have to kill us if they want to push ahead with these projects.”
Images of Munduruku protests usually show them in traditional costume, with warpaint and feather headdresses. But their strategy is more sophisticated than these images suggest. Recognising that foreign investment and consumption are part of the issue, they have taken their campaign overseas, presenting their grievances at the United Nations. They have also worked with environmental NGOs, foreign media and archeologists.
The last have verified the long history of settlement in the region, which is crucial to Munduruku ownership claims and also important to rebut the idea that this region can be dammed because it is empty. The first written record of Mundrukania dates back to 1742, though habitation by indigenous groups goes back much further.
The image of the Amazon as a wilderness was a construct of 19th-century Europeans, which has been adopted on several occasions by Brazilian governments: during the dictatorship era to justify a land distribution and roadbuilding policy, and most recently to back up the argument that dams will not have much of a social impact.
“The prevailing view is that the Amazon is a provider of raw materials rather than a centre of culture. That is wrong,” said Bruna Rocha, of the Federal University of West Pará State, who found pottery and stone tools, suggesting cultivation of the land had occurred intermittently for many centuries, when she first excavated sites near the proposed dams in 2010.
“In the 16th century, several million indigenous people lived in the Amazon and they had a standard of living that was higher than in Europe at the time. But about 90% were wiped out by the guns and diseases of the colonisers.”
The Munduruku survived thanks to the rapids – which prevented steamships from entering their territory – and temporary alliances with European settlers against other tribes. Now, they are changing strategy, linking up with the nearby riverine community of Montanha e Mangabal – most of whose inhabitants are former rubber tappers.
Mauricio Torres, a geography professor at Para Federal University said the alliance marked a turning point. “Two generations ago, the indigenous communities and the rubber tappers were fighting one another. Now they are united against the dam and have delayed the process of approval. That is remarkable.”But they are up against enormous geo-strategic pressures. To lift Brazil out of recession, the government wants to ramp up exports of soya and meat, particularly to Asia. Currently, China accounts for 57% of Brazil’s overseas soya sales and production and demand are expected to grow.
Among the construction companies aiming to provide finance and support for dams on the Tapajós and Teles Pires is the Three Gorges Development Corporation, which built the world’s biggest hydroelectric plant on the Yangtze.
Santarém, the port city that sits on the confluence of the Tapajós and Amazon, is meanwhile thriving. The world’s biggest agricultural company – Cargill of the United States – recently built a huge new grain terminal here and the municipal government is planning an even bigger container port.
“Many investors want to come here. We are the last frontier,” said the mayor, Nélio Aguiar. “In the next 10 years, we project Santarém will double its population from 300,000 to 600,000 and the city will be more prosperous and offer a better quality of life.”
He has support from the Nature Conservancy, a US-based group, which backs plans for a dam cascade to provide energy and food to a growing global population. “The Tapajós river is important to not only its surrounding lands, wildlife and people, but also to the entire Brazilian population and to the world,” it notes.
An infrastructure upgrade is certainly needed. The main road between Mato Grosso and Santarém is choked with soya trucks and has begun to challenge China’s coal transport routes for the unwelcome title of “world’s worst traffic jam”. The government is pushing three parallel projects – widening the road, and building a grain railway and a Tapajós hydrovia, or waterway. Some fear this will lead to the industrialisation of the Amazon as traffic increases, factories move in and the population surges to the point where the Tapajós begins to resemble China’s stressed and polluted Yangtze river.
Bruno Rolim, secretary of the environment in the municipal government, was wary. “China has lots of pollution accidents. It suggests they put much more of a priority on the economy than the environment,” he said.
“This is a very sensitive area. The Amazon has the greatest fresh water assets in the world. We don’t want what happened [in China] to happen here.”
A river runs through it … the Rio Tapajós in Brazil’s Amazon, which could soon become a major economic gateway for food production
Streetwise … members of the Munduruku tribe protest in Brasilia