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

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Jonathan Watts

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.”

Alamy

A river runs through it … the Rio Ta­pa­jós in Brazil’s Ama­zon, which could soon be­come a ma­jor eco­nomic gate­way for food pro­duc­tion

Getty

Street­wise … mem­bers of the Mun­duruku tribe protest in Brasilia

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