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How South America's Rainforests Are Being Sacrificed on the Altar of Energy

A project to construct five hydroelectric dams in Peru will mean massive environmental destruction.
 
 
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The construction of five hydroelectric dams in Peru as part of an energy deal with Brazil will do considerable damage to the environment, such as the destruction of nearly 1.5 million hectares of jungle over the next 20 years, according to an independent study.

More than 1,000 km of roads will have to be carved out of primary and secondary forests to build the dams and power plants and put up power lines, says the report, carried out by engineer José Serra for ProNaturaleza, a leading conservation organisation in Peru.

The dams to be built under the agreement signed by the two South American nations in June will have a projected potential of 7,200 megawatts.

The energy complexes include the Inambari dam, to be built where the provinces of Cuzco, Madre de Dios and Puno converge in the Amazon rainforest in southeastern Peru. The hydropower project will be the largest in Peru and the fifth largest in Latin America.

The next in size will be Paquitzapango on the Ene river in the central province of Junín, home to the Asháninka Indians. The other three projected dams are Mainique 1 in Cuzco, and Tambo 40 and Tambo 60, in Junín.

The total combined investment is estimated at between 13.5 and 16.5 billion dollars.

Serra's study, "Inambari: la urgencia de una discusión seria y nacional" (Inambari: the urgent need for a serious national debate), highlights the great variety of flora and fauna, including endangered and threatened species, in the areas to be flooded.

For example, the extremely rare Black Tinamou (Tinamus osgoodi), a threatened species of ground bird, is found in the area where the Inambari dam is to be built.

"There will be a serious impact on the Amazon ecosystems," Serra told IPS.

Extrapolating from past developments in the Amazon, he projects that 1,446,000 hectares of well-preserved rainforest will disappear over the next 20 years, as a result of the construction of the five hydropower dams.

That estimate takes into account a 10-km strip that would be deforested along each of the roads that have to be built in order to install the transmission towers and power lines.

It does not consider further deforestation in areas already degraded by the construction of the Southern Interoceanic Highway, which will link the Amazon jungle state of Acre in Brazil with several Pacific port cities in Peru.

The study mentions a number of impacts for the Inambari and Araza river basins, such as the dams' interruption of the migration of many species of fish upriver to their breeding grounds, which will in turn affect riverbank populations that depend on fish as a staple food.

Peru ranks fifth in the world in terms of diversity of fish species, with more than 1,000 species, around 600 of which can be found in the Madre de Dios river alone, the report says.

If these areas are deforested, the study also warns, sedimentation would build up even faster in the reservoirs, reducing the availability of nutrients in the water, which would hurt the river ecosystems downriver and the forests that depend on the nutrients.

In addition, the rotting vegetation in the reservoirs will contribute to the generation of greenhouse gases like methane, over 20 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

In Serra's view, it is simply unsustainable to say that hydropower is a form of clean energy.

The mud that accumulates in the reservoirs is similar to the tailings water generated by the mining industry, in the sense that it holds all kinds of chemical pollutants that can be lethal, the report adds.

The Inambari hydroelectric project is to be built partly in the buffer zone of the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, one of the most biodiverse natural reserves in the country.

The Brazilian consortium Egasur (Southern Amazon Electrical Generation Company), which is to build Inambari, identified 139 species of trees, bushes and other plants in the area to be flooded. And 50 species of amphibians and 203 kinds of birds have been identified in the dry season.

The company also found 25 species of medium to large sized mammals. Local residents in the area told IPS that animals there include the lowland or Brazilian tapir, the jaguar, and the paca, a large rodent.

Mariano Castro, an expert with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, told IPS that "the state only puts a priority on the economic and commercial dimension, without considering the natural value of these places or the high environmental costs.

"What's more, there is a belief that these environmental considerations hinder private investment, and there is no acknowledgement that these are requisites necessary for developing sustainable investment," he said.

Congressman Yonhy Lescano said President Alan García told him that Egasur planned to pull out of Inambari. But neither the company nor the government has confirmed the report.

Experts believe it is unlikely because Inambari Geração de Energía, Egasur's parent company, recently increased its capital -- an indication that it intends to expand, rather than close down, projects.

Meanwhile, fears are rising among 18 Asháninka communities and 33 other human settlements that would be displaced by the flooding caused by the Paquitzapango dam, to be built on the Ene river by Odebrecht, one of Brazil's largest construction companies.

The natural ebb and flow of the Ene river and its tributaries will be modified in that area, along with the availability of fish for human consumption, Ernesto Ráez, a biologist with the Cayetano Heredia University's Centre for Environmental Sustainability, told IPS.

The Mainique dam, for its part, is slated to be built in an area that is sacred to the Matsiguenga indigenous people, who live in the jungle along the Urubamba river in Cuzco province.

The sacred spot is the Pongo de Mainique, a narrow whitewater canyon with abundant fish species that forms part of the Megantoni National Sanctuary, a nature reserve.

Before signing the agreement with Brazil, the Peruvian government should have commissioned an environmental impact study, to assess the damages, Castro remarked to IPS.

He also said it was a mistake not to include in the decision-making process environmental regulatory agencies and government bodies that work with indigenous communities.

Energy experts say Peru does not need to tap Amazon jungle resources to meet domestic demand for electricity, because the country's installed capacity of more than 6,000 megawatts is sufficient to cover current needs.

They also say future demand, projected to grow to 12,000 megawatts by 2020, will easily be covered by the wind energy potential of the country's Andean highlands and coastal regions, estimated at 22,000 megawatts.

But going against the grain of recommendations, the García administration introduced a bill in Congress in October that would waive the requirement for companies granted concessions to build hydropower dams to present environmental impact studies.

 
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