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Brazil's thirst for energy to flood Amazon habitats

Written by: Staff

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Mar 15 (Reuters) Brazil's plans to dam two rivers in the Amazon basin to generate power threaten a treasure trove of animals and plants in a region with one of the world's richest arrays of wildlife, environmentalists say.

The government wants to harness the vast hydroelectric potential of the Madeira and Xingu rivers in multibillion dollar projects meant to boost electricity supply and ward off a repeat of a power crisis that crippled growth in 2001.

The government's plans run counter to advice from experts at the World Commission on Dams (WCD), an independent body of international experts, who say dams should be avoided in areas rich in species -- like the Amazon which is home to an estimated 30 per cent of the world's animal and plant species.

''The Amazon, Congo, Nile, Parana and Yangtze watersheds are the most species-rich, with the Amazon far ahead,'' WCD specialists said in a report.

Brazil's plans include two dams on the Madeira, a main tributary to the Amazon, at a cost of billion to produce 6,400 MW of electricity. The project, in Rondonia, will flood 550 sq km of forest.

International Rivers Network said the dams would threaten the survival of several species of large catfish that migrate some 4,500 km to breed in the upper Madeira.

Thirty-three endangered mammal species live in the region to be flooded, including the spotted jaguar, the giant anteater, the giant armadillo, giant otter and several species of birds.

The government says the Madeira project is critical if the country is to keep pace with energy demand in the next decade.

The case illustrates the dilemma facing many developing countries -- often rich troves of biodiversity but also struggling to cater for poor, growing populations for whom environmental concerns often seem an unaffordable luxury.

It's a conflict-of-interests that will likely hang over United Nations talks on biodiversity, opening in Curitiba, Brazil next week.

''NECESSARY? NO'' Brazil's government wants to protect the country from the kind of power crisis caused by a 2001 drought. Then, hydroelectric power accounted for around 95 per cent of total generation capacity and rationing crippled growth.

Environmentalists say the government has overestimated future demand for energy and even energy sector leaders have doubts about the Madeira plan, and a second project on the Xingu river, called the Belo Monte.

''Necessary? No,'' Claudio Sales, head of the Chamber of Electric Energy Investors, said. ''These mega-projects are not indispensable, although the government is trying to present them as such. This is a big mistake.'' Sales said several smaller hydroelectric projects could easily meet energy needs, already had environmental clearance and could actually deliver cheaper energy to the consumer.

The massive 11,000 MW Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex would flood the Xingu river basin and cost close to 7 billion dollars.


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