Mato Grosso shelves environmental license application for Amazon dam

  • The Mato Grosso government has halted the licensing for the Castanheira hydropower plant, proposed for construction in the Juruena River Basin, which would flood a 95-km2 [37-square-mile] area and directly affect Indigenous and rural communities in northern Mato Grosso state.
  • Social movements in the area see this as a victory in a struggle that lasted more than a decade.
  • The fact that the project was shelved does not mean it has been put to rest; Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy may still resubmit plans for the construction of the dam.

On March 18, the Mato Grosso State Environmental Department (SEMA-MT) shelved the environmental license application for the Castanheira hydropower plant. Organizations and social movements have mobilized for more than 10 years to block the dam that would be built on the Arinos River (Juruena River Basin).

As reported by Mongabay in December, if the project were to go ahead, an area of around 95 square kilometers [37 square miles] would be flooded, directly affecting Indigenous communities, small farmers and urban and rural dwellers in the municipalities of Juara, Novo Horizonte do Norte and Porto dos Gaúchos, all in Mato Grosso state.

According to SEMA-MT, the application was rejected for not presenting solutions “to pending issues, since complementary studies, documents and essential information were requested for analysis” and were not provided by the Energy Research Office (EPE), a federal government company linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, which is responsible for studies related to the country’s energy planning.

The environmental agency’s technical report was published one day after the Federal Public Defender’s Office and the Federal Prosecution Service filed a public civil action demanding the suspension and federalization of the licensing procedure.

According to a study by the NGO Operação Amazônia Nativa (OPAN), the project would be economically harmful to affected towns and would threaten the physical and cultural preservation of Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the researchers pointed out a series of social and environmental inconsistencies in the licensing procedure.

Liliane Xavier, a member of the Juruena Vivo Network, says that environmental licensing and other procedures with impacts on the lives of communities should be participatory and comply with the law. “We don’t oppose progress as long as it is responsible and really cares about the lives of people who live and work in this region and it complies with laws, norms and conventions to which Brazil is a signatory,” she says.

The Arinos River, where the Castanheira dam was supposed to be built. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Perdigão/Secom-MT.

Herman Oliveira, executive secretary of the Socio-Environmental Popular Forum of Mato Grosso (Formad), sees the shelving of the environmental license application as a victory in a great battle, since “projects of this nature usually neglect key socioenvironmental aspects — people’s well-being and desire to remain in the place, the right to enjoy an ecologically balanced environment and so on.”

However, he says, there is still a long way to go. “The Castanheira dam will be a ghost haunting us until it is removed from the PPI,” the Brazilian government’s Investment Partnership Program.

Uncertain future

The fact that the project was shelved does not mean it has been put to rest. The application can be resubmitted by the federal government via the EPE, which still has support from the PPI.

Jefferson Nascimento, a member of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), says, “The procedure has been only partially shelved since EPE can resubmit an application for the Castanheira dam and carry out many other projects planned for the [Juruena] basin. Staying alert, organized, mobilized and fighting is what will lead us to a final victory, which is the withdrawal of this [Castanheira dam] project from the 10-year energy plan.”

The Ten-Year Energy Expansion Plan (PDE) 2031 lays out the prospects for expanding Brazil’s energy sector for the next decade (2022-31). The document is prepared by the EPE under guidance and support from Ministry of Mines and Energy staff, headed by the departments of energy planning and development (SPE/MME) and oil, natural gas and biofuels (SPG/MME). It supports decisions on energy policy and analyzes different scenarios for the country’s energy development. The Castanheira dam is described in this document as a threat to the rivers in the Juruena Basin, just as a hundred other projects in the region.

“The challenges remain huge, since this model of building dams, which violates rights and results in huge environmental crimes, has been present in every government’s plans, always based on the false debate about clean energy,” Nascimento emphasizes. “The big challenge is for threatened and affected peoples and communities to actually be heard and have the right to say no to these projects and for this to actually be taken into account,” he concludes.


Banner image: Residents of the Pedreiras riverine community protest against the Castanheira dam. Image courtesy of the MAB/MT Communication Collective

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on March 26, 2024.