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.”
“Perhaps it’s the curse of Rondônia,” joked Ari Ott, referring to teething troubles with the first turbine of the Santo Antônio hydroelectric plant which was intended to kick off a new cycle of huge power projects in Brazil’s Amazon jungle region.
The enormous turbine, designed to generate 71.6 megawatts of electricity, overheated during initial tests in December and the necessary repairs delayed its coming onstream, now announced for late March, by at least three months.
Professor Ott, of the Federal University of Rondônia, said the problems “do not bode well” for the 44 turbines to be installed over a period of four years at the complex located on the Madeira river and run by the Santo Antônio Energia consortium, which is made up of Brazilian companies Odebrecht and Andrade Gutiérrez and other investors.
The Economist – from the print edition, 12/03/2011
DRIVE out of Porto Velho, the capital of the Amazonian state of Rondônia, and you see the trouble the world’s largest forest is in. Lorry after lorry trundles by laden with logs; more logs lie by the road, to be collected by smugglers who dumped them on the rumour of a (rare) roadcheck. Charred tree-stumps show where ranchers burned what the loggers left behind; a few cattle roam sparsely through the scrubby fields. In places the acid subsoil shows through, sandy and bone-pale. Seen from above, the roads look like hatchet blows, with dirt tracks radiating outward like thinner wounds. The picture is reproduced across the Amazon’s “arc of deforestation” (see map).
The Brazilian Amazon is now home to 24m people, many of them settlers who trekked those roads in the 1960s and 1970s, lured by a government promise that those who farmed “unproductive” land could keep it. Chaotic or corrupt land registries left some without secure title. Rubber-tappers, loggers, miners and charcoal-burners came too. The most recent arrivals are 20,000 construction workers building dams on the Madeira and Xingu rivers to provide electricity to Brazil’s populous south. They have attracted some 80,000 camp-followers, many of whom squat on supposedly protected land.
The population of Jaci-Paraná, the nearest town to the Jirau dam being built on the Madeira, has risen from 3,500 to 21,000 in a decade—but it still has just four police. Prostitutes and drug-dealers do well. On payday, says Maria Pereira, a teacher, busloads of construction workers hit town to drink and fight. Knife-killings are common. When the dam is finished, many of the new residents will move on. Behind them, a bit more of the Amazon will be gone.
While blue-and-yellow macaws fly overhead, a network of pipes fed by a constant flow of trucks pours enough concrete to build 37 football stadiums.
The $7.7 billion Santo Antonio dam on the Madeira river is part of Brazil’s largest concerted development plan for the Amazon since the country’s military government cut highways through the rain forest to settle the vast region during its two-decade reign starting in 1964.
In the coming years, dams, roads, gas pipelines, and power grids worth more than $30 billion will be built to tap the region’s vast raw materials, and transport its agricultural products in coming years.
The Santo Antonio dam in the western Amazon’s Rondonia state, which goes online in December 2011, will pave the way for a trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by making more of the Madeira river navigable.