[Brazil's ambitious programme for hydroelectric dam building in the Amazon region is going ahead at full steam. But, the companies are not honouring their commitment to respect the rights of the local population and the workers on their sites.]
The Human Cost of Brazil's Amazon Dams
Saturday 28 July 2012, by Jan Rocha - LAB
Brazil's ambitious dam building programme in the Amazon is producing social chaos in the regions around the chosen sites, because the construction companies have simply ignored clauses in their contracts designed to prevent or mitigate social and environmental impacts, and ensure reasonable working conditions for their employees. The result has been an escalation of strikes, protests and court cases.
That is the damning conclusion of the MPF, the public prosecutors of Pará, about the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river at Altamira, and the congressional Human Rights commission, in the voice of its vice chairman, Padre Ton, about the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams on the Madeira river in his home state of Rondônia.
The government considers the energy from these dams and up to another 20 planned on other Amazon rivers, like the Tapajós and the Araguaia, so vital to Brazil's energy needs that it has provided most of the finance in the form of low interest loans from Brazil's state-owned development bank, the BNDES.
Yet the companies have ignored the interests of the local populations affected or displaced by the dams.
In the case of Belo Monte, the MPF have filed 15 lawsuits against the company. The latest accuses Norte Energia of failing to provide alternative river transport for indigenous communities, whose traditional access down the Xingu river to Altamira will be blocked when the construction of the dam wall begins. The only way to provide access then will be to build a road, "which will increase illegal logging and other predatory activities inside the territóry of the Juruna, Arara e Xikrin peoples and other protected areas near them."
In Rondonia the dam building consortia, made up of Brazilian and international companies (at Jirau led by the French company GDF Suez*), have also failed to implement the clauses for mitigation and compensation. As a result, in 2010 GDF Suez was nominated for the Public Eye Award, which is given every year to the company considered the most socially and environmentally irresponsible in the world. It was accused of violating the norms of environmental protection and ignoring the human rights of the indigenous populations threatened by the dam's construction. The Public Eye Award assessors concluded: "This model which gives all the power to the companies is wrong. It must be changed."
Partly because of the disruptions caused by the dam-building, the hospitals are unable to cope with the demands of the local population swollen by thousands of migrant workers and their families. When he visited the hospital al at Porto Velho, Padre Ton found "people lying on the floor, broken equipment". He said the promised investments in the water and sewage systems have not yet been made.
But the dams themselves are going well. Two of Santo Antônio's 44 turbines have been functioning since April, nine months ahead of schedule.
"Accelerated timetables for the building contrast with the lethargy in the application of mitigation and compensation programmes,.....[There is] evidence of neglect regarding the population which lives along the Madeira river and their environment." This was the conclusion of the human rights network, Dhesca Platform, which has been monitoring the dams.
Since 2009, Jirau and Santo Antônio have also been the scene of a series of strikes by the workers in protest at violations of labour legislation and inhumane treatment, like lack of safety measures, excessive working hours, failure to deliver promised wage adjustments.
In March 2011 five thousand men marched 100 km from Jirau to Porto Velho where they met with church and union leaders and President Dilma Rousseff's general secretary, Gilberto Carvalho, who had come from Brasilia to try and defuse the tense situation after buses and lodgings were burnt.
A year later workers' protests exploded again because the agreement signed the year before had not been kept.
When Padre Ton and fellow PT deputy Domingos Dutra from Maranhão state met strikers, they discovered that the consortium had hired a huge number of extra workers to deliver the dam ahead of schedule, many of them hired in other states like Maranhão by gatos, informal recruiters who then take most of their wages. To get round their contractual obligation to allow three monthly visits home for workers from other states, the consortium had registered many of these workers as being born in Rondonia.
Besides these infractions, the two deputies were also told that some workers had disappeared, and at least one had been imprisoned and ill treated for taking part in the protests. This man was held for 54 days in the Pandinha prison amongst drug traffickers and criminals.
Padre Ton, who was speaking in São Paulo, was critical of the government's willingness to finance private companies to build the dams with soft loans, while at the same time failing to demand in exhange that the companies kept their promises to protect the local populations and the environment.
*In the UK, GDF SUEZ Energy UK is a specialist energy supplier to industry and commerce, and a growing player in the electricity generation arena.