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PORTSIDE  February 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE February 2011, Week 4

Subject:

A Mega-Dam Dilemma in the Amazon

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A Mega-Dam Dilemma in the Amazon 

A huge dam on Peru's Inambari River will bring much-
needed development to the region. But at what cost?

By Clay Risen
Photographs by Ivan Kashinsky
Smithsonian magazine
March 2011
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/A-Mega-Dam-Dilemma-in-the-Amazon.html


The town of Puerto Maldonado lies about 600 miles east
of Lima, Peru, but locals call it the Wild West. Gold-
buying offices line its main avenues. Bars fill the side
streets, offering beer and cheap lomo saltado-stir-fried
meat and vegetables served with rice and French fries.
Miners and farmers motorbike into the sprawling central
market to stock up on T-shirts and dried alpaca meat.
Garbage and stray dogs fill the alleyways. There's a
pioneer cemetery on the edge of town, where its first
residents are buried.

And Puerto Maldonado is booming. Officially, it has a
population of 25,000, but no one can keep up with the
new arrivals-hundreds each month, mostly from the Andean
highlands. Residents say the town has doubled in size
over the past decade. There are only a few paved roads,
but asphalt crews are laying down new ones every day.
Two- and three-story buildings are going up on every
block.

Puerto Maldonado is the capital of Peru's Madre de Dios
region (similar to an American state), which abuts
Bolivia and Brazil. The area is almost all rain forest
and until recent decades was one of South America's
least populated and most inaccessible areas. But today
it is a critical part of Latin America's economic
revolution. Poverty rates are dropping, consumer demand
is rising and infrastructure development is on a tear.
One of the biggest projects, the $2 billion Inter-
oceanic Highway, is nearly complete-and runs straight
through Puerto Maldonado. Once open, the highway is
expected to see 400 trucks a day carrying goods from
Brazil to Peruvian ports.

Later this year a consortium of Brazilian construction
and energy companies plans to start building a $4
billion hydroelectric dam on the Inambari River, which
starts in the Andes and empties into the Madre de Dios
River near Puerto Maldonado. When the dam is completed,
in four to five years, its 2,000 megawatts of installed
capacity-a touch below that of the Hoover Dam-will make
it the largest hydroelectric facility in Peru and the
fifth-largest in all of South America.

The Inambari dam, pending environmental impact studies,
will be built under an agreement signed last summer in
Manaus, Brazil, by Peruvian President Alan García and
Brazil's then-president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In a
joint statement released afterward, the pair praised the
deal as "an instrument of great strategic interest to
both countries." At first, most of the dam's electricity
will go to Brazil, which desperately needs power to feed
its economic expansion-a projected 7.6 percent in 2011,
the fastest in nearly two decades. Over 30 years, the
bulk of the electricity will gradually go to Peru to
meet its own growing power demands. "The reality is,
every year we need more and more energy," says Antonio
Brack Egg, Peru's environmental minister. "We need
hydropower."

But the dam will also change the Inambari's ecosystem,
already damaged by decades of logging and mining. The
river level will drop, and whatever water is released
will lack the nutrient-rich sediment on which the
lowland wildlife-and, by extension, the Madre de Dios
region-depends. Meanwhile, the 155-square-mile reservoir
created behind the dam will displace about 4,000 people
in at least 60 villages. And this dam is just one of
dozens being planned or built in what has been called a
"blue gold rush," an infrastructure spree that is
transforming the South American interior.

Development of the Amazon basin, managed correctly,
could be a boon for the continent, lifting millions out
of poverty and eventually bringing stability to a part
of the world that has known too little of it. But in the
short term it is creating new social and political
tensions. How Peru balances its priorities-economic
growth versus social harmony and environmental
protection-will determine whether it joins the ranks of
middle-class countries or is left with entrenched
poverty and denuded landscapes.

Madre de Dios claims to be the biodiversity capital of
the world. Fittingly, Puerto Maldonado boasts a Monument
to Biodiversity. It is a tower that looms over the
middle of a wide traffic circle near the center of town,
with a base ringed with broad concrete buttresses,
mimicking a rain forest tree. Between the buttresses are
bas-relief sculptures of the region's main activities,
past and present: subsistence agriculture; rubber,
timber and Brazil-nut harvesting; and gold mining-oddly
human pursuits to detail on a monument to wildlife.

I was in Puerto Maldonado to meet up with an old friend,
Nathan Lujan, who was leading a team of researchers
along the Inambari River. After getting his PhD in
biology from Auburn University in Alabama, Nathan, 34,
landed at Texas A&M as a postdoctoral researcher. But he
spends months at a time on rivers like the Inambari. For
the better part of the past decade he's been looking for
catfish-specifically, the suckermouthed armored catfish,
or Loricariidae, the largest family of catfish on the
planet. Despite their numbers, many Loricariidae species
are threatened by development, and on this trip, Nathan
was planning to catalog as many as possible before the
Inambari dam is built.

The river Nathan showed me was hardly pristine. It
serves many purposes-transportation, waste removal, a
source of food and water. Garbage dots its banks, and
raw sewage pours in from riverfront villages. Much of
Puerto Maldonado's growth (and, though officials are
loath to admit it, a decent share of Peru's as well) has
come from the unchecked, often illegal exploitation of
natural resources.

Antonio Rodriguez, who came to the area from the
mountain city of Cuzco in the mid-1990s in search of
work as a lumberjack, summed up the prevailing attitude:
"We are colonists," he told me when I met him in the
relatively new village of Sarayacu, which overlooks the
Inambari. Thousands of men like Rodriguez made quick
work of the surrounding forests. Mahogany trees that
once lined the river are gone, and all we could see for
miles was scrub brush and secondary growth. Thanks to
the resulting erosion, the river is a waxy brown and
gray. "These days only a few people are still interested
in lumber," he said. The rest have moved on to the next
bonanza: gold. "Now it's all mining."

Indeed, with world prices up by some 300 percent over
the past decade, gold is a particularly lucrative
export. Peru is the world's sixth-largest gold producer,
and while much of it comes from Andean mines, a growing
portion-by some estimates, 16 to 20 of the 182 tons that
Peru exports annually-comes from illegal or quasi-legal
mining along the banks of Madre de Dios' rivers. Small-
scale, so-called artisanal mining is a big business in
the region; during our five-day boat trip along the
river, we were rarely out of sight of a front-end loader
digging into the bank in search of deposits of alluvial
gold.

Less visible were the tons of mercury that miners use to
separate out the gold and that eventually end up in the
rivers. Waterborne microorganisms metabolize the element
into methylmercury, which is highly toxic and easily
enters the food chain. In perhaps the most notorious
instance of methylmercury poisoning, more than 2,000
people near Minamata, Japan, developed neurological
disorders in the mid- 1950s and `60s after eating fish
contaminated by runoff from a local chemical plant. In
that case, 27 tons of mercury compounds had been
released over 35 years. The Peruvian government
estimates that 30 to 40 tons are dumped into the
country's Amazonian rivers each year.

A 2009 study by Luis Fernandez of the Carnegie
Institution for Science and Victor Gonzalez of Ecuador's
Universidad Técnica de Machala found that three of the
most widely consumed fish in the region's rivers
contained more mercury than the World Health
Organization deems acceptable-and that one species of
catfish had more than double that. There are no reliable
studies on mercury levels in the local residents, but
their diet relies heavily on fish, and the human body
absorbs about 95 percent of fish-borne mercury. Given
the amounts of mercury in the rivers, Madre de Dios
could be facing a public health disaster.

But Peru is eager to move beyond artisanal gold mining
and its hazards. Over the past few decades the country
has adopted a number of strict mining laws, including an
embargo on issuing new artisanal-mining permits. And in
May 2008 President García named Brack, a respected
biologist, to be Peru's first minister of the
environment.

At 70, Brack has the white hair and the carefully
trimmed beard of an academic, though he has spent most
of his career working in Peru's Agriculture Ministry. He
speaks rapid, near-perfect English and checks his
BlackBerry often. When I caught up with him last fall in
New York City, where he attended a meeting at the United
Nations, I told him I had recently returned from the
Inambari. "Did you try any fish?" he asked. "It's good
to have a little mercury in your blood."

Under Brack, the ministry has rewritten sections of the
Peruvian penal code to make it easier to prosecute
polluters, and it has won significant budget increases.
Brack has placed more than 200,000 square miles of rain
forest under protection, and he has set a goal of zero
deforestation by 2021. Thanks in part to him, Peru is
the only Latin American country to sign the Extractive
Industries Transparency Initiative, an effort led by
former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make the
mining industry more accountable to public and
government scrutiny.

Brack has also taken over enforcement of artisanal-
mining laws from the Ministry of Energy and Mining.
"There are now 20 people in jail" for breaking Peru's
environmental laws, he said. A few days before our
meeting, police had raided a series of mines in Madre de
Dios and made 21 arrests. He told me he wants to deploy
the army to protect the country's nature preserves.

But Brack acknowledged that it is difficult to enforce
laws created in Lima, by coastal politicians, in a
remote part of the country suffering from gold fever.
Last April thousands of members of the National
Federation of Independent Miners blocked the Pan-
American Highway to protest a plan to tighten
regulations on artisanal miners; the demonstration
turned violent and five people were killed. Brack said
several police officers involved in anti-mining raids
had received death threats, and the Independent Miners
has demanded that he be sacked. "I have a lot of enemies
in Madre de Dios," he said.

Unlike the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela,
Peru and Brazil have been led, of late, by pragmatic
centrists who see good fiscal management and rapid
internal development as the key to long-term prosperity.
By aggressively exploiting its resources, Brazil has
created a relatively stable society anchored by a strong
and growing middle class. Dilma Rousseff, Lula's
handpicked successor as president, says she will
continue her mentor's policies.

Lula reduced Brazil's poverty rate from 26.7 percent in
2002, when he entered office, to 15.3 percent in 2009-
accounting for some 20 million people. Peru has done
almost as well: it has reduced its poverty rate from 50
percent to 35 percent, a difference of about four
million people. But farming and resource extraction
require lots of land and energy, which is why Brazil is
expected to need 50 percent more electricity in the next
decade, and Peru at least 40 percent more. In the short
term, both countries will have to keep pushing deeper
into the Amazon to generate electricity.

Meanwhile, they are under pressure from trading partners
and finance organizations such as the World Bank to
manage their growth with less environmental damage.
Brazil has a bad reputation for its decades of rain
forest destruction; it has little interest in becoming
known as a polluter, too. With the world's focus on
limiting fossil-fuel consumption, hydropower has become
the easy answer.

Until recently, Brazil had focused its hydropower
construction within its own borders. But a hydropower
facility works best near a drop in elevation; gravity
pushes water through its turbines more quickly,
generating more electricity-and Brazil is almost
completely flat. Which is why, over the past decade,
Brazil has underwritten mega-dams in Bolivia, Paraguay
and Peru.

In 2006, Brazil and Peru began negotiating an agreement
to construct at least five dams throughout Peru, most of
which would sell power to Brazil to feed the growth in
its southwestern states. Those negotiations produced the
deal that García and Lula signed last summer.

Although Peru relies primarily on fossil fuels for its
energy, Peruvian engineers have been talking about a dam
along the Inambari since the 1970s. The momentum of the
rivers coming down from the Andes pushes an enormous
volume of water through a narrow ravine-the perfect
place to build a hydropower plant. The problem was
simply a lack of demand. The region's recent growth took
care of that.

But there are risks. By flooding 155 square miles of
land, the proposed dam will wipe out a big chunk of
carbon-dioxide-absorbing forest. And unless that forest
is thoroughly cleared beforehand, the decay of the
submerged tree roots will result in massive releases of
methane and CO2. Scientists are still divided over how
to quantify these side effects, but most acknowledge
that hydropower is not as eco-friendly as it might
appear. "It's not by definition cleaner," says Foster
Brown, an environmental geochemist and expert on the
southwestern Amazon at the Federal University of Acre,
in Brazil. "You cannot just say it's therefore a better
resource."

What's more, the dam may kill much of the aquatic life
below it. On my trip along the river with Nathan, he
explained that freshwater fish are particularly
sensitive to variations in water and sediment flow; they
do most of their eating and reproducing during the dry
season, but they need the high water levels of the rainy
season to have room to grow. The dam, he said, will
upset that rhythm, releasing water whenever it runs
high, which could mean every day, every week or not for
years. "Shifting the river's flow regime from annual to
daily ebbs and flows will likely eliminate all but the
most tolerant and weedy of aquatic species," Nathan
said.

And the released water may even be toxic for fish. Most
dams release water from the bottom of the reservoir,
where, under intense pressure, nitrogen has dissolved
into it. Once the water heads downriver, however, the
nitrogen starts to slowly bubble out. If fish breathe it
in the meantime, the trapped gases can be deadly. "It's
the same as getting the bends," said Dean Jacobsen, an
ecologist on Nathan's team.

Others point out that if the fish are full of mercury,
the local people may be better off avoiding them. In the
long run, a stronger economy will provide new jobs and
more money, with which locals can buy food trucked in
from elsewhere. But such changes come slowly. In the
meantime, the people may face massive economic and
social displacement. "Locally, it means that people
won't have enough to eat," said Don Taphorn, a biologist
on the team. As he spoke, some fishermen were unloading
dozens of enormous fish, some weighing 60 pounds or
more. "If this guy didn't find fish, he can't sell them,
and he's out of a job."

Brack, however, says the benefits of the dam-more
electricity, more jobs and more trade with Brazil-will
outweigh the costs and in any case will reduce the
burning of fossil fuels. "All the environmentalists are
crying out that we need to substitute fossil-fuel energy
with renewable energy," he said, "but when we construct
hydroelectric facilities, they say no."

A demonstration against Brazil's proposed Belo Monte dam
in March 2010 brought worldwide attention thanks to the
film director James Cameron, who went to Brazil to
dramatize comparisons between the Amazon and the world
depicted in his blockbuster Avatar. In Peru, Inambari
dam critics are now accusing the government of selling
out the country's resources and violating indigenous
people's rights. Last March in Puno province, where most
of the reservoir created by the dam will sit, 600 people
turned out near the dam site, blocking roads and
shutting down businesses.

Nevertheless, development of the interior has become a
sort of state religion, and political candidates compete
to see who can promise the most public works and new
jobs. Billboards along the Interoceanic Highway, which
will soon link Brazil's Atlantic coast to Peru's Pacific
coast, some 3,400 miles, display side-by-side
photographs of the road pre- and post-asphalt and bear
captions like "Before: Uncertainty; After: The Future."

President García has spoken forcefully against
indigenous and environmental groups that oppose projects
like the Inambari dam. "There are many unused resources
that cannot be traded, that do not receive investment
and do not create jobs," he wrote in a controversial
2007 op-ed in El Comercio, a Lima newspaper. "And all
this because of the taboo of past ideologies, idleness,
laziness or the law of the dog in the manger that says,
`If I do not do it, then let no one do it' "-a reference
to a Greek fable about a hound that refuses to let an ox
eat a bale of hay, even though the dog can't eat it
himself.

Last June, García vetoed a bill that would have given
local tribes a say in oil and gas projects on their
territory. He told reporters he would not give local
people veto power over national resources. Peru, he
said, "is for all Peruvians."

Even in the Peruvian Amazon, the dam enjoys wide
support. A poll of local business leaders in the Puno
region found that 61 percent were in favor of it.

On my fourth day on the Inambari, I met Albino Mosquipa
Sales, the manager of a hotel in the town of Mazuco,
just downriver from the dam site. "On the whole it is a
good thing," he said of the dam. "It will bring economic
benefits like jobs and commerce," plus a new hospital
promised by the state electrical company. Mosquipa's
caveats were mostly procedural: Lima should have
consulted with local populations more, he said, and the
regional government should have pushed harder for
concessions from the dam builders. It was a line of
complaint I heard often. People questioned whether the
electricity should go to Brazil, but not whether the dam
should be built.

Eventually I made it to Puente Inambari, a postage-
stamp-size village of perhaps 50 buildings that will be
destroyed when the dam is built. I had expected to find
anger. What I found was enthusiasm.

Graciela Uscamaita, a young woman in a yellow long-
sleeved shirt, was sitting in a doorstep by the side of
the road. Her four young boys played beside her. Like
virtually everyone I had met on the trip, she had the
dark skin and prominent cheekbones of an Andean
highlander. And, like the other local residents I talked
to, she was happy about the hospital and the new houses
the government has offered to build them farther uphill.
In the meantime, there was the possibility of getting a
job on a construction crew. "It will be better for us,"
she said. "It will bring work."

Clay Risen wrote about President Lyndon Johnson for the
April 2008 issue of Smithsonian. Ivan Kashinsky
photographed the Colombian flower industry for the
February 2011 issue.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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