While COVID-19 is taking a very high toll on Brazilian indigenous people, especially by reaping the elderly, who are the main holders of forest knowledge (1), the moment is being used to bend the rules and to force environmental deregulation (2). In 2016, Belo Monte, the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world, started operating partially despite its expected socioecological impacts over a 100 km stretch known as “Volta Grande do Xingu” (3). Full dam operation was due to begin in early 2020 and, along with it, a 6-year highly contested hydrograph test period that would alternate between a harsh and a harsher flood control annually (4).
However, a strong El-Niño in 2015-2016 significantly reduced the river flow to levels that, although above those of the alternate hydrograph, prevented the natural forest flooding. This natural experiment compromised ecological processes, including the reproduction and growth of fish and turtles, and impacted the Indigenous peoples who depend on the natural environment (4). In April 2020, after strong and continuous pressure from the civil society, the Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA) demanded the adoption of a less severe transition hydrograph for the year. This decision was not initially questioned by Belo Monte operating company, possibly because the Covid-19 pandemic first resulted in a significant drop in industrial activities, and therefore, in the energy demand. As demand for energy resumes, a dangerous strategy seems to have been set in motion to avoid fines and still achieve the required average flow. For example, the required flow for July is 1300 m3/s), which one supposes would be more or less the daily flow every day of the month. However, the operating company adopted another strategy: it strongly reduced the flow during the first 20 days of July to an average of 1022 m3/s, which compromised navigation, fishing and regular river-related activities. In the last days of the month, the company greatly increased the flow to a daily average of 1517 m3/s. By doing that, the company probably maximized its energy production and decreased its chance of being fined, with no concern whatsoever for the socioecological consequences of playing with the flow.
Locals leaving the area afraid of further unexpected floods (last week of July, 2020)
Sudden increases in flow were made without due notice to communities, who still lack alarm systems. The Indigenous peoples reported losses of boats, engines and ornamental fishponds, which represent, for many, all of their assets. At a time of extreme vulnerability, Amazonia and its people are paying the highest price for a policy that promotes impunity (5), with consequences yet to be seen. This example also raises the question: will this be the “new normal” to Amazonia’s environmental policies?
By Priscila Lopes, Cristiane C. Carneiro & Juarez C. B. Pezzuti
1. L. Ferrante, P. M. Fearnside, Protect Indigenous peoples from COVID-19. Science. 368, 251–251 (2020).
2. A. Press, Brazil: blow to Bolsonaro as judge orders release of expletive-ridden video. The Guardian (2020), (available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/22/bolsonaro-brazil-cabinet-video-court-judge).
3. D. B. Fitzgerald, M. H. Sabaj Perez, L. M. Sousa, A. P. Gonçalves, L. Rapp Py-Daniel, N. K. Lujan, J. Zuanon, K. O. Winemiller, J. G. Lundberg, Diversity and community structure of rapids-dwelling fishes of the Xingu River: Implications for conservation amid large-scale hydroelectric development. Biol. Conserv. 222, 104–112 (2018).
4. J. Zuanon, A. Sawakuchi, M. Camargo, I. Wahnfried, L. Sousa, A. Akama, J. Muriel-Cunha, C. Ribas, F. D’Horta, T. Pereira, P. Lopes, T. Mantovanelli, T. S. Lima, B. Garzón, C. Carneiro, C. P. Reis, G. Rocha, A. L. Santos, E. M. D. Paula, M. Pennino, J. Pezzuti, Condições para a manutenção da dinâmica sazonal de inundação, a conservação do ecossistema aquático e manutenção dos modos de vida dos povos da volta grande do Xingu. Pap. NAEA. 28 (2020), doi:10.18542/papersnaea.v28i2.8106.
5. H. Escobar, Illegal deforestation in Brazil soars amid climate of impunity. Sci. AAAS (2020) (available at https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/illegal-deforestation-brazil-soars-amid-climate-impunity).