Tapajós River: Threatened by hydroelectric power plants

15 fevereiro 2012

The Provisional Decree issued by the presidency to reduce the size of protected areas in the Amazon in order to build hydroelectric power plants comes under fire in the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court
Brasília, Brazil - 13 February, 2012

The year of 2012 started with bad news for both the Amazon and the Brazilian forests biodiversity conservation. The Provisional Decree MP 558, published on the Federal Official Gazette of Brazil on January 6, decreases the area of four protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon and changes two other ones. The main reason for the initiative is to build two mega hydroelectric power plants planned for the Tapajós Complex: São Luiz (6,133 MW) and Jatobá (2,336 MW).

Last Thursday (February 9) the Prosecutor General of the Republic, Roberto Gurgel, filed a Direct Action for the declaration of Unconstitutionality against the presidential measure that reduces the size of Protected Areas in the Amazon.

The protected areas which are now threatened are the Tapajós Environmental Protection Area (Pará state), the Crepori National Forest (Pará state), the Itaituba 1 and 2 National Forests (Pará state), and the Amazon National Park (Amazonas and Pará states).

According to WWF-Brazil's CEO, Maria Cecília Wey de Brito, the change in the area and in the limits of the protected areas through a Provisional Decree is quite unfortunate, because this action endangers the country's environmental wealth.

"The protected areas are created by means of a presidential decree, or a state decree, after its ecological relevance has been the object of a detailed assessment; they can only be changed and have their areas shortened by law and if this change does not compromise the original reason for their creation", explains Wey de Brito. "They should receive the same technical and legal treatment in the case of having their limits altered. The government cannot, with each new work or interest, wish to change the protected areas in all haste by means of a Provisional Decree".

WWF-Brazil advocates an innovative governmental approach for the hydroelectric power issue in Brazil as a whole and in the Amazon in particular, by means of an integrated vision of the hydrographic basin intended for exploitation. This new approach should take into account the cumulative impact of projects in the light of the prior areas for conservation within the basin in question, thus minimizing not just the impacts of a particular project but also the impacts of the hydroelectric program it wishes to implement.

The Brazilian electric sector itself has already developed an analysis methodology to evaluate the cumulative impact of dams - the Integrated Environmental Assessment (AAI, in the Portuguese acronym). This methodology has been applied to various cases, including in the Xingu River. Nevertheless, for the Tapajós River basin, up to now the official methodology was not taken into consideration nor was it applied. This is a step that should precede any decision making on building hydroelectric power plants in Brazilian rivers.

The need for biodiversity conservation, for ecosystems' services and life in the basin's scale -- as in the case of the Tapajós River, which represents almost 6% of the national territory - depends on keeping some free flowing rivers, without any control or limitation, to ensure the social, economic and cultural integrity of local communities inhabiting the area and whose lives depend on the rivers.



Understanding what a Brazilian "Provisional Decree" is

According to definition, a Provisional Decree (MP, in the Portuguese acronym for Medida Provisória), is a privilege of the President of the Republic and should be edited only in relevant and urgent cases. It is a legislative act enforced by law during a determined period or until they are either approved or rejected by the Federal Congress. Issues regarding Citizenship, Civil Rights, Political Rights, Political Parties, Electoral Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedures and Civil (Suit) Procedures cannot be addressed through a Provisional Decree.

According to the Senate News Agency, a Provisional Decree goes into effect immediately after it is published and its effect is valid during 60 days, after which it can be extended for an equal period of time. If, by the end of this period, the Provisional Decree has not been approved by the Federal Congress (including the House of Representatives and the Senate), it is no longer valid and the Executive Power is not allowed to re-publish it during the same legislative period (year). To become law, a Provisional Decree must be approved by the Congress.

The year of 2011 was marked by several debates concerning the Provisional Decrees and their procedures, which block the House of Representatives' and the Senate's agendas. A total of 37 Provisional Decrees were channeled through the Senate and 34 of them were approved. The excessive use of this expedient by the Executive Power was criticized by members of both Houses, from the opposing to the governing parties as well. Dissatisfaction caused the Chairman of the Senate, José Sarney, to present a project-of-law to amend the Constitution and modify the proceeding of Provisional Decrees. This project will continue to be analyzed in 2012.
Vista aérea de Itaituba, às margens do rio Tapajós, Pará.
© © WWF-Brazil / Alex Silveira