When it is completed in 2015, the Jirau hydroelectric dam will span 8km across the Madeira river and feature more giant turbines than any other dam in the world. Then there are the power lines, draped along 2,250km of forests and fields to carry electricity to Brazil‘s urban nerve centre, São Paulo.
Still, it won’t be enough. The dam and the Santo Antonio complex that is being built a few kilometres downstream will provide just 5% of what government energy planners say the country will need in the next 10 years. So Brazil is building many more dams, courting controversy by locating the vast majority in the world’s largest and most biodiverse forest.
“The investment to build these plants is very high, and they are to be put in a region which is an icon for environmental preservation, the Amazon,” said Paulo Domingues, energy planning director for the ministry of mines and energy. “So that has worldwide repercussions.”
In Grenoble, France, there is a 40-metre-long scale model of the Jirau dam that is being built in Brazil’s Amazon jungle. The exact replica of the project makes is possible to foresee and analyse possible risks, such as the heavy flow of sediment in the Madeira River.
But “the model does not take people into account,” which is why it did not help anticipate the workers’ uprisings and strikes against poor working conditions that have twice held up construction for lengthy periods of time since 2011, said Ari Ott, a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Rondônia in Porto Velho, who describes the dam as “an engineering marvel.”
Jirau is one of the two big hydroelectric complexes under construction on the Madeira River in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondônia. Jirau is 130 km from Porto Velho, the state capital, while the Santo Antônio dam is just seven km outside of the city.
Trade with the rapidly expanding market in Peru will aid Porto Velho, in northwest Brazil, to cushion the blow of job and business losses in the wake of the construction of two hydroelectric plants on the Madeira river.
Work on the Jirau and Santo Antônio plants was at its height in 2011, when they employed more than 40,000 workers, equivalent to nine percent of the total population of Porto Velho, the capital city of the state of Rondônia.
When the construction work is completed in four years’ time, the workers remaining to operate and manage the plants will be counted in the hundreds, rather than the thousands.