Brazil Denies License to Biggest Planned Amazon Dam

By Michael Kepp

Aug. 4 — The enforcement arm of Brazil's Environment Ministry Aug. 4 denied a license for the Sao Luiz do Tapajos Dam, conceived as the largest hydroelectric plant to be built in the Brazilian Amazon.

The ministry's enforcement arm (IBAMA) said it was rejecting the license request on the grounds that building the Sao Luiz do Tapajos Dam would harm the environment and indigenous populations.

IBAMA President Suely Araujo said IBAMA “has shelved” the request for a preliminary license for the 30 billion real ($9.4 billion), 8,040 megawatt megadam made by developer Eletrobras, the government's electric holding company, which had hoped to win the concession to build.

“The environmental impact assessment [EIA] lacks the content necessary to analyze the socioenvironmental viability of the project and has exceeded the deadline required to present complementary information [on mitigating socioenvironmental impacts of the dam] required by IBAMA,” Araujo said.

The action was an unusual decision on the part of IBAMA, which is loath to deny licenses for major Amazon dams, and rarely does for the same reason that Brazil’s highest courts rarely issue rulings blocking the licensing of those megadams. Courts argue that these dams are needed to meet Brazil’s growing electricity demand.

Araujo acted on a July 25 recommendation from the IBAMA licensing department and an IBAMA commission that recommended rejecting the licensing request.

Flooding of Tribe's Reservation Land

The IBAMA licensing department cited a study by the Federal Indian Agency that showed the dam's 722 square kilometer (279 square mile) reservoir would partially flood the 178,000 hectare (440,000 acre) reservation of the 13,000 member Munduruku tribe, forcing the relocation of members in some of its villages.

In 2012, the government, anticipating that the reservoirs of the planned São Luiz do Tapajos and the 2,338 megawatt Jatoba megadams, both on the Tapajos River, would flood 7 percent of five federally protected areas, took the unusual step of enacting a law that reduced the size of those protected areas.

The EIA also cited a lack of an analysis of possible silting of the Tapajos River tributaries caused by the dam; the impact of the dam on the water table and aquifers; its affect on fish species endemic to the Tapajos River Basin; and how a reduction of fish species caused by the dam could commercially hurt fishermen.

Appeal Is Possible

Without a preliminary license, the government can't auction the concession to build the dam; Eletrobras planned to take part in the auction.

Eletrobras can appeal the IBAMA decision, but such appeals are rarely successful.

“IBAMA's decision to deny the dam's preliminary license shows that it has recognized that the dam's EIA was highly inadequate and couldn't show that the project was environmentally viable,” Brent Millikan, Brazil representative of International Rivers, a California-based nonprofit, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 4. “Moreover, IBAMA's decision recognizes that is a direct physical conflict between the territorial rights of the Munduruku people and the building of the dam, whose reservoir—in flooding part of the tribe's reservation—would cause its forced relocation, which is unconstitutional.”

The Sao Luiz do Tapajos Dam, which would account for 28 percent of the new hydropower capacity that Brazil plans to install by 2024, is the principal infrastructure project in the Tapajos Basin, a major Amazon tributary system where the government has embarked on one of the world's biggest dam-construction program on two of its rivers: the Tapajos and the Teles Pires.

Construction has been completed on the 1,860 megawatt Teles Pires Dam on the Teles Pires River and work is underway on three medium-size hydroelectric plants on that waterway.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Kepp in Rio de Janeiro at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

For More Information

A copy of the decision is available, in Portuguese, at

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