Tim Hirsch and Anita Garibaldi
January 5, 2005
Environmental groups are hoping to use the Brazilian legal system to prevent the destruction of a highly-endangered remnant of the Atlantic forest threatened by a hydroelectric dam project.
The $300m Barra Grande dam is already built, but so far the courts have blocked the
deforestation of more than 40 sq km (15 sq miles) of Brazilian pine -or araucaria – forest which has to take place before the sluice gates are closed and the reservoir is impounded. The controversy is centred on this small city in the state of Santa Catarina, named after a local girl who married the famous Italian revolutionary when he visited the region in the 1830s to support a rebellion against the newly-independent Brazilian empire. That rebellion was unsuccessful.
But in this modern-day battle, a mighty consortium led by the aluminium giant Alcoa has so far been thwarted by the manoeuvrings of conservation organisations and activists representing families whose land would be flooded by the dam.
The 180m-high dam (590 ft) straddles the steep gorge of the Pelotas river forming the border between the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul – the reservoir behind it would stretch nearly 100km (60 miles) eastwards up the winding valley. When an environmental impact assessment was carried out six years ago, it described the area as consisting mainly of degraded land. Only after a licence was issued
and the dam nearly completed did the real environmental value of the threatened gorge emerge. A subsequent survey found more than 20 sq km (8 sq miles) of undisturbed forest. This included areas of araucaria, a native candelabra-shaped pine that has been felled in huge numbers for the construction trade, and much of its ecosystem cleared for soya plantations. Experts say just 1% of Brazil’s araucaria forests now survive.
The consortium, Baesa, says it was not responsible for the original mistake which gave a false impression of the natural composition of the area. Now that the dam is built, it argues, there is no sensible option other than to go ahead and make it work. The president of Baesa, Carlos Miranda, told the BBC News website: “If we had known about these species of trees at the initial stage of the licensing, probably we would not have begun construction. “But you cannot destroy a dam like that. What is the greater damage, to let the dam stay there as a monument or to cut those araucarias?” Baesa is spending considerable sums of money planting new native trees and relocating some of the wildlife displaced by the proposed reservoir.
But environmental groups have argued that an irreplaceable ecosystem is being sacrificed as the result of a fait accompli. And the courts so far agree. Federal Judge Osni Cardoso Filho granted an injunction to prevent contractors going in to remove most of the trees, an essential first step before the area can be flooded. He told the BBC: “The principal argument used by those defending the continuation of the project is that the dam is already built, so nothing can be done about it. “I take the opposite view -since we have to take environmental interests into account, we must protect everything we are still in a position to protect.” Back in the Pelotas valley, the environmental campaign to block the dam project is mixed in with the highly-politicised social conflict involving hundreds
of families whose homes or land would be flooded by the reservoir.
Organised by the Movement for Dam-Affected People, some 400 people have been camped out on access roads to the project in an attempt to prevent the deforestation going ahead. Many claim they have been refused resettlement or compensation because they were overlooked in the original registration by the consortium. Dora Alicia, a 63-year-old grandmother spoke to us from her ramshackle home overlooking the
beautiful gorge. “We were going to spend the rest of our days here.”
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