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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January, 2005, 00:53 GMT
Push to block Brazil dam project

By Tim Hirsch
Anita Garibaldi, southern Brazil

Barra Grande dam
The Barra Grande dam is built but courts have blocked its opening
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.

Environmental value

The 180m-high dam (590ft) 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.

Map of Brazil
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.

Knowing now

The consortium, Baesa, says it was not responsible for the original mistake which gave a false impression of the natural composition of the area.

We were going to spend the rest of our days here on our land - then this firm comes along and throws everything upside down
Dora Alicia
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.

Different views

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.

The dam has come to us from heaven
Local businessman
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.

Bright side

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.

Most of Brazil's araucaria forest has been destroyed
Most of Brazil's araucaria forest has been felled (Image: Adriano Becker)
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 on our land. Then this firm comes along and throws everything upside down. People are being pushed this way and that,'' she said.

In the city of Anita Garibaldi itself, however, for many people the dam construction has meant only better roads and a booming economy.

"The dam has come to us from heaven," one local businessman said.

How long the boom would last once the project was complete is another matter - hydroelectric dams need very few people to keep them running.

But for now, the giant structure remains a symbol of the battle in Brazil between those who believe that the energy needs of a growing economy outweigh all other considerations, and those who argue that the country's remaining natural heritage is too precious to sacrifice.

And in this case, it is still not clear which side is going to win.


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