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All to play for as indigenous leaders join Brazil’s dam debate


Emotions are running high in Brazil at the moment, and I’m not just referring to England’s 2-2 football draw with Brazil at the Maracana stadium last Sunday.

Today is World Environment Day, and in a public debate the leaders of four indigenous groups in Brazil will present their perspectives on the energy planning process for the Tapajós river basin in the Amazon. Local communities and their livelihoods are under threat from 42 planned dams in this area. WWF is very much involved in the debate and Pedro Bara, who heads our Living Amazon Infrastructure strategy, is one of the keynote speakers at today’s event.

Rio Tapajos communityThe Rio Tapajos, which feeds into the Amazon river, is home to many local communities – which are now under threat from hydroelectric developments. © International Rivers

With 140 large dams planned in Brazil and across the Amazon, hydropower and energy remain controversial issues, as shown by the continued court battles and protests against the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River. If planned poorly, dams like these can have serious implications for the rainforest, its biodiversity and local communities. But there is hope.

By getting involved with hydropower planning at the earliest possible stage, WWF can increase the likelihood of positive change before too much financial and political capital has been invested. Hydropower planning typically overlooks social and environmental criteria and operates on a dam-by-dam basis, rather than looking at the river basin as a whole. We’ve developed some very advanced decision-making tools to change that. Our Amazon Decision Support System uses detailed hydrological and ecological information to obtain a regional-scale vision of priority terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This has already caught the eye of the Inter-American Development Bank which has used the system in the screening process for 40% of its projects. In late 2010, the Brazilian government also created a decree to pilot the tool’s use in the Tapajós basin.

It’s difficult to predict how our Amazon Decision Support System will affect the government’s hydropower plans for the Tapajós river basin. But Mauricio Tomasquin, president of Brazilian energy planning company EPE, has made encouraging comments which suggest the government is listening. In an article in Valor Economico, Brazil’s most influential financial newspaper, he describes our tool as “a state-of-the-art instrument”.

The Rio Tapajos meets the AmazonThe difference in the two rivers is obvious when the Rio Tapajos meets the Amazon. © Pierre Lesage

At WWF, we don’t want to leave anything to chance though, so we’ve conducted our own analysis which highlights the importance of protecting the central area of the Tapajós basin to conserve biodiversity. Our aim is to achieve some shared objectives for meeting Brazil’s ambitious energy targets that don’t come at the expense of vital ecosystems and local communities.

While it would be easy to protest against new dams in the Amazon, we must be mindful that the alternative could be a return to fossil fuels. In fact, the Brazilian government is expected to auction off very large reserves of petroleum and shale gas later this year.

I was personally involved in conversations with the Brazilian government on other matters in early May. Senators Jorge Viana and Luiz Henrique da Silveira visited London to promote changes to Brazil’s Forest Code – with the UK government, businesses, NGOs and academia. It was a good opportunity to raise our concerns about how these changes have weakened forest protection, and about the huge logistical and financial challenges involved.

Although the revised Forest Code has been in place for over a year, its implementation has not been a top priority for the Brazilian government. Economic incentives designed to stimulate forest conservation have not got off the ground. The tools that determine which areas must be restored and preserved in each state and ecosystem have not been defined. Plus, there’s an outstanding and urgent need for rural properties to sign up to the Rural Environmental Register (Cadastro Ambiental Rural) to prevent deforestation. Brazil currently has 5.4 million rural landowners and, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, 4 million of these are facing environmental liabilities. Given that the Forest Code includes a two-year grace period for registration to be completed, this equates to at least 12,000 registrations being made every day.

At our meeting in London, senators Jorge Viana and Luiz Henrique da Silveira acknowledged the rising power of the anti-environment lobby in Brazil’s House of Deputies. They admitted that although the revised legislation was “not ideal”, it was the best compromise that could be reached in such circumstances. They recognised the huge challenge of implementing and enforcing the new code but stressed that, from their perspectives, the Brazilian government was on target to meet the deadline for all producers to be registered by May 2014, and for reforestation to begin after this.

WWF is already working with state and municipal governments, and rural producers in Brazil to provide incentives for environmentally sustainable forms of forest management. We’re keen to support the Forest Code because we recognise that even though the legislation has been weakened, it’s still critical for the conservation of priority ecosystems in Brazil.

It’s important to maintain the dialogue with key decision makers, and to rely on strong scientific knowledge and tools, and we’re well positioned to do this. But we’re also ready to hold the government to account on their commitments. We’ve joined six other civil society entities in setting up the Forest Law Observatory, to make sure the government keeps its promises and there are no more legal setbacks. This platform will run alongside the implementation of the Forest Code and generate relevant data, information and analyses.

Like the England football team last weekend, we’ll keep working hard to avoid defeat, even when the odds are against us.

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