By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 28 2020 – “We are no longer familiar with the Xingú River,” whose waters govern “our way of life, our income, our food and our navigation,” lamented Bel Juruna, a young indigenous leader from Brazil´s Amazon rainforest.
“The water is no longer at its normal, natural level, it is controlled by the floodgates,” she explained. The giant floodgates are managed by Norte Energia, a public-private consortium that owns the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant whose interest is using the river flow for profit.
Built between the middle and lower sections of the Xingú River, in the eastern Amazon, Belo Monte takes advantage of a 130-kilometre U-shaped curve in the river, called the Volta Grande.”For the Juruna people, the impact is not only on food, but there has also been a heavy impact on our culture, which is fishing, taking care of the river that offers food, income and navigation to go to the cities, visit neighbouring communities and have fun. It is what brings joy to our lives.” — Bel Juruna
A 20-km artificial channel diverts most of the flow, in a shortcut that connects to the end of the curve, at an 87-metre waterfall. The shortcut kept the Volta Grande – where there are 25 communities, including two legally protected indigenous territories – from flooding.
The new project replaced the initial idea dating to the 1970s – which would have created a conventional 1,225-square-kilometre reservoir that would have submerged the entire Volta Grande – with two smaller reservoirs totalling 478 square kilometres. The first retains water before the curve and diverts it to the channel that forms the reservoir that feeds the main power plant, which produces 11,000 megawatts of electricity.
The second dam, with a plant that generates up to 233 megawatts, holds the floodgates that release water into the Volta Grande, which almost dried up, bringing other types of impacts for the riverbank population.
The Belo Monte complex, with the third largest power plant in the world, is planned to generate just 4,571 megawatts of firm energy on average.
This low level of productivity, of only 40 percent of installed capacity, is explained by the fact that it is a run-of-river plant whose flow varies from more than 20,000 cubic metres per second in the rainy season – which lasts a few months in the first half of the year – to less than 1,000 metres per second in some of the driest months.
The waters of the river, divided between its natural course and the channel, proved to be inefficient when it came to maintaining the level of electricity generation intended by Norte Energia and the energy authorities and at the same time meeting the vital needs of the people of the Volta Grande.
“We no longer know how to navigate the Xingú River, which channels to pass through, because Belo Monte closes and opens the floodgates whenever it wants to,” said Bel, a member of the indigenous people known as Juruna, who call themselves Yudjá, which means “the indigenous people of the river.”
The Xingú, one of the largest Amazon tributaries, 1,815 kilometres in length, is particularly rough in its middle section, with many visible and submerged rocks, islands and islets, and both deep and shallow channels. Navigation is dangerous and requires practical knowledge and familiarity, which have been thrown into chaos by the low water levels and the changes in the natural low and high-water cycles.
“We want enough water to flood the ‘igapós’ (blackwater swamp forests seasonally inundated with freshwater) where fish and turtles can breed and feed during the winter, to fatten up and maintain their weight in the summer,” demanded Bel, who took her ethnic group’s name as her surname, a common custom among indigenous people in Brazil.
Fish and the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), a species of freshwater turtle abundant in the Amazon, are important sources of protein for the people of the Volta Grande, especially the Juruna people, fisherpersons and people who work on boats.
“But it is life itself that is at risk, not just us indigenous people; it is nature that is deprived of the water cycle – the trees, the fish and other animals,” Bel told IPS in a Whatsapp dialogue from her village, Miratu, on the left bank of the Volta Grande.
The struggle of the Juruna people, which they say they are waging for humanity as a whole, was given a boost thanks to a new assessment by the government’s environmental agency, IBAMA, in December 2019.
The agency acknowledged that the scant water released by the hydroelectric plant does not ensure “the reproduction of life” in the Volta Grande ecosystem or “the survival of the local population.”
For that reason, IBAMA wants to increase the water in the “reduced flow section”, where it is about 20 percent of the previous normal flow as outlined in the so-called “consensus hydrograph”, which defines the monthly flows in the river’s natural channel, based on what was considered necessary to keep the ecosystem alive in 2009.
Citing data analysed since 2015, when Belo Monte filled its reservoirs, Ibama technicians pointed to the need for a better distribution of water between the production of electricity and the sustenance of life.
Ibama’s environmental analysts recommended a provisional hydrograph for this year with a major increase in volume for the Volta Grande in the period from January to May, especially in February (from 1,600 to 10,900 cubic metres per second), March (from 4,000 to 14,200 m3/s) and April (from 8,000 to 13,400 m3/s).
For the future, Norte Energia is to present studies to create a definitive hydrograph.
But the top officials in IBAMA delayed the proposed measures, and after that the company challenged them in court. It lost in the first and second instance and failed to comply with the demands in force in October and November.
The attorney general’s office decided to intervene and ordered IBAMA to draft sanctions against Norte Energía for non-compliance with the provisional hydrograph, the flows required for 2021 to enforce the precautionary principle, and measures to ensure that the company carried out the complementary studies to create the long-term hydrograph.
A strong water flow in the first months of the year and “for at least three months” is necessary for fish and turtles to be able to breed and feed, said Juarez Pezzuti, a professor of biology at the Federal University of Pará who is an expert on turtles.
“Increasing the flow only in April is not a solution. It is essential to have a volume of water that floods extensive forest areas, to the necessary level and at the proper time, for example, for the larvae to become fry and for the food chain to develop normally,” he explained to IPS by phone from Ananindeua, where he lives, in the Amazonian state of Pará.
For life along the Xingú River, more serious than severe droughts in the dry season, or “summer” in the Amazon, is “a low level of rainfall in the winter,” he said.
The battle is facing a crucial moment, because the actions taken by IBAMA – unexpected under the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, which has worked against environmentalism – have been opposed by the power industry’s regulatory agency and by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, which claim that modifying the hydrograph would cause energy insecurity and higher costs for consumers.
Pezzuti believes that whatever the outcome of this dispute, Belo Monte is doomed to face increasing difficulties in terms of economic viability due to the worsening of droughts in the Xingú basin caused by climate change and intense deforestation upstream.
The crisis of 2016, when the Juruna indigenous people complained that there were fewer and fewer fish and that they were “skinny” due to the drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, was a warning for the future, he said.
Since the approval of the mega hydroelectric project in 2009, numerous critics, including environmental authorities, indigenous people, university researchers and energy experts, have warned about the risks of the business itself, in addition to the social and environmental damage.
The project, which was inaugurated on Nov. 27, 2019, once the 18 generating units of the main plant were completed, has been highly praised for the innovative channel. But it turned out to be a deceptive solution, both for the company and for the affected population, which has suffered irreversible damage.
“For the Juruna people, the impact is not only on food, but there has also been a heavy impact on our culture, which is fishing, taking care of the river that offers food, income and navigation to go to the cities, visit neighbouring communities and have fun. It is what brings joy to our lives,” said Bel Juruna.