Local Development, the Key to Legitimising Amazon Hydropower Dams

The Altamira water treatment plant is practically inactive because the sewer pipes installed 10 months ago in this city of 140,000 people have not been connected to the homes and businesses. Altamira is 50 km from the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil’s Amazon jungle region. Credit. Mario Osava/IPS

The Altamira water treatment plant is practically inactive because the sewer pipes installed 10 months ago in this city of 140,000 people have not been connected to the homes and businesses. Altamira is 50 km from the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil’s Amazon jungle region. Credit. Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
ALTAMIRA, Brazil, Aug 31 2015 (IPS)

In the case of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil, the projects aimed at mitigating the social impacts have been delayed. But in other cases, infrastructure such as hospitals and water and sewage pipes could improve the image of the hydropower plants on Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rivers, turning them into a factor of effective local development.

Under construction since 2011 on the Xingú river, Belo Monte has dedicated an unprecedented amount of funds to compensating for the impacts of the dam, through its Basic Environmental Project (PBA), which has a budget of 900 million dollars at the current exchange rate.

To that is added a novel 140-million-dollar Sustainable Regional Development Plan (PDRS), aimed at driving public policies and improving the lives of the population of the dam’s area of influence, made up of 11 municipalities in the northern state of Pará.

These funds amount to 12.8 percent of the cost of the giant dam on the middle stretch of the Xingú river, one of the Amazon river’s major tributaries. If distributed per person, each one of the slightly more than 400,000 inhabitants of these 11 municipalities would receive 2,500 dollars.

But the funds invested by the company building the Belo Monte hydropower plant, Norte Energía, have not silenced the complaints and protests which, although they have come from small groups, undermine the claim that hydropower dams are the best energy solution for this electricity-hungry country.

“The slow pace at which the company carries out its compensatory actions is inverse to the speed at which it is building the hydropower plant,” complained the Altamira Defence Forum, an umbrella group of 22 organisations opposed to the dam.

The most visible delay has involved sanitation works in Altamira, the main city in the area surrounding the dam, home to one-third of the local population. Installed 10 months ago, the sewage and water pipes are not yet functioning, leaving the water and wastewater treatment plants partially idle.

The problem is that the pipes were not connected to the local homes and businesses, a task that has been caught up in stalled negotiations between Norte Energía, the city government and the Pará sanitation company, even after the company expressed a willingness to shoulder the costs.

“In addition, the storm drainage system was left out of the plans; the city government didn’t include it in the requirements and conditions set for the company,” the head of the Live, Produce and Preserve Foundation, João Batista Pereira, told IPS.

Part of one of the 18 big turbines that will generate electricity in the main Belo Monte plant, ready to be inserted into one of the big circular metal holes built in the giant dam in the Brazilian Amazon. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Part of one of the 18 big turbines that will generate electricity in the main Belo Monte plant, ready to be inserted into one of the big circular metal holes built in the giant dam in the Brazilian Amazon. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The lack of storm drains is especially destructive for cities in the Amazon rainforest, where torrential rains are frequent.

The works and services included in the PBA respond to requirements of the Brazilian Environment Institute, the national environmental authority. Incompliance with these requisites could supposedly bring work on the dam to a halt. But the rules are subject to flexible interpretations, as recent experience has shown.

Pereira is one of the leaders of the PDRS, a “democratic and participative” programme where decisions on investments are reached by an administrative committee made up of 15 members of society and 15 representatives of the municipal, state and national governments.

The projects can be proposed by any local organisation that operates in the four areas covered by the plan: land tenure regularisation and environmental affairs, infrastructure, sustainable production, and social inclusion.

In these areas and some projects that the company finances, such as the Cacauway chocolate factory that processes the growing local production of cacao, the PDRS is distinct from the PBA, which addresses the immediate needs of people affected by the dam, such as indigenous people, fisherpersons or families displaced by the reservoirs.

The PBA’s activities were defined by the environmental impact study produced by researchers prior to the dam concession tender. Hospitals and clinics were built or refurbished to compensate the municipalities for the rise in demand for health services, while 4,100 housing units were built for relocated families.

These are responses to the immediate needs of affected individuals, groups or institutions, without integral or lasting planning. The only one responsible for implementation is the company holding the concession, even though they involve tasks that pertain to the public sector.

“The confusion between public and private is natural,” José Anchieta, the director of socioenvironmental affairs in Norte Energía, told IPS.

The delay in compensatory programmes generated chaos, the Altamira Defence Forum complains. Many of the initiatives were supposed to be carried out prior to construction of the hydropower plant.

The hospitals and health clinics were not delivered by Norte Energía until now, when construction of the dam is winding down. But they were most needed two years ago, when the floating migrant worker population in the region peaked as a result of work on the dam. The same is true for schools and urban development works.

This mistiming led to serious problems for the local indigenous population. The institutions protecting this segment of the population were not strengthened. On the contrary, the local presence of the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency in charge of indigenous affairs, was weakened during the construction of the dam, and the overall absence of the state was accentuated.

From 2010 to 2012 an “emergency plan” distributed processed foods and other goods to indigenous villages. This led to an abrupt change in habits, driving up child malnutrition and infant mortality among indigenous communities, which only recently began to be provided with housing, schools and equipment and inputs to enable them to return to agricultural production.

Bridge under construction on a road at the entrance to the city of Altamira, in Brazil’s Amazon region. The delay in building the bridge has hindered the reurbanisation of the low-lying parts of the city that will be partially flooded when the Belo Monte dam reservoir is filled. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Bridge under construction on a road at the entrance to the city of Altamira, in Brazil’s Amazon region. The delay in building the bridge has hindered the reurbanisation of the low-lying parts of the city that will be partially flooded when the Belo Monte dam reservoir is filled. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The PBA and PDRS also have different timeframes. The former is to end before the reservoirs are filled, which is to be completed by the end of this year. The latter, meanwhile, involves a 20-year action plan.

The company’s social programmes are also “an important sphere of debate, definition of projects and redefinition of public policies, which should become permanent by being transformed into an institute or foundation,” said Pereira, defending “the adoption of their democratic administration by other development agencies.”

The question is of concern to Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES), which has financed 78 percent of the cost of the construction of Belo Monte.

Besides providing a team to accompany the PDRS, it promoted a study to organise its projects and ideas in an “initiatives file” and a Territorial Development Agenda (TDA) in the Xingú basin.

But this planning and promotion effort to bring about real development has come late, when it is difficult to neutralise the negative effects, which will stand in the way of the construction of new hydropower dams in the Amazon, even with the promise of a TDA.

Belo Monte has also highlighted the dilemmas and challenges of power generation, currently dramatised by severe drought in much of Brazil.

Belo Monte, which will be the second-largest hydropower plant in Brazil and the third-largest in the world, producing 11,233 MW, will aggravate the seasonal drop in hydropower in the second half of each year, once it becomes fully operational in 2019.

That is because the Xingú has the biggest seasonal variation in flow. From 19,816 cubic metres per second in April, the month with the strongest flow, it plummets to 1,065 cubic metres in September, the height of the dry season. This was the average between 1931 and 2003, according to the state-run Eletrobras, Latin America’s biggest power utility company.

There is probably no worse choice of river for building a run-of-the-river power station, whose reservoirs do not accumulate water for the dry months. Belo Monte will represent 12 percent of the country’s total hydropower generation, which means the effect of the plunge in electricity will be enormous, fuelling demand for energy from the dirtier and most costly thermal plants.

One alternative would have been a reservoir 2.5 times bigger, which would have flooded two indigenous territories – something that is banned by the constitution.

Another would have been the construction of four to six dams upstream, to regularise the water flow in the river, as projected by the original plan in the 1980s which was ruled out due to the outcry against it.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez

Stop Food Waste – Cook It and Eat It

Customers enjoy a ‘Pay As You Feel Lunch’ at The Armley Junk-Tion, Armley, Leeds, where food destined to waste and intercepted by volunteers is cooked into perfectly edible and nutritious meals. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

Customers enjoy a ‘Pay As You Feel Lunch’ at The Armley Junk-Tion, Armley, Leeds, where food destined to waste and intercepted by volunteers is cooked into perfectly edible and nutritious meals. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

By Silvia Boarini
LEEDS, England, Aug 31 2015 (IPS)

A new grassroots initiative born in the northern England city of Leeds has set itself the ambitious goal of ending food waste, once and for all.

Founded in December 2013, ‘The Real Junk Food Project’ (TRJFP), is the brainchild of chef Adam Smith.

It consists of a network of ‘Pay As You Feel’ cafés where food destined to waste and intercepted by volunteers is cooked into perfectly edible and nutritious meals that people can enjoy and give back what they can and wish, be it money, time or surplus food.

TRJFP is run on a volunteer basis through customers’, crowdfunding and private donations and with only a handful of paid positions at living wage level.

Sitting at a table in the first café opened by TRJFP, The Armley Junk-Tion in the struggling suburb of Armley, Leeds, 29-year-old Smith is still infectiously enthusiastic about it all.

Adam Smith, a chef from Leeds, northern England, who founded The Real Junk Food Project in December 2013. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

Adam Smith, a chef from Leeds, northern England, who founded The Real Junk Food Project in December 2013. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

“It’s the right thing to do and it’s something that has a positive impact,” he told IPS. “We believe that we can empower people and communities and inspire change across the whole system through the organic growth of these cafés.”

In under two years, TRJFP has grown into a worldwide network of 110 cafés: 14 in Leeds, one of which in a primary school, 40 across the United Kingdom and the rest in countries as diverse as Germany, Australia, South Africa or France.

“So far,” explained Smith, “the Armley Junk-Tion alone has cooked 12,000 meals for 10,000 people using food that would otherwise have gone to landfill.” As a network, in 18 months it has fed 90,000 people 60,000 meals and saved 107,000 tonnes of food from needless destruction.

TRJFP volunteers are out every day and at all hours intercepting food from households, food businesses, allotments, food banks, wholesalers, supermarkets and supermarket bins.“The [U.K.] government is spending million and millions of pounds on campaigns to stop people from wasting food but all we are doing is just feeding it to people. We say, ‘if you know it’s safe to eat, why don’t you eat it?’ That’s all it takes, it didn’t cost us any money“ – Adam Smith, founder of ‘The Real Junk Food Project’

TRJFP has also been able to secure surplus chicken from the Nando’s restaurant chain and part of the food ”waste” generated by local Morrisons supermarket branches.

“We ignore expiry dates or damage and use our own judgment on whether we think the food is fit or safe for human consumption,” said Smith.

The number of tonnes of food intercepted, though, pales in comparison with the amount of food that is still wasted each year. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates food wastage globally at one-third of all food produced – that is 1.3 billion tonnes each year. This means that one in four calories produced is never consumed. On the other hand, FAO also reports that 795 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished.

‘Food waste’ is often described as a “scandal” and yet top-down actions seeking to put an end to it still treat the above statistics as two separate problems requiring two separate solutions – recycle more in rich countries and produce more food in and for developing countries – that effectively leave a faulty system intact and the interests of a multi-billion dollar industry unchallenged.

According to Tristram Stuart, campaigner and author of ‘Waste – Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’, “all the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.”  

But our short-sightedness and unwillingness to change our habits are laid bare in laws such as the one approved last May by the French parliament. In France, large supermarkets will be forbidden from throwing away unsold food and forced to give it to charity or farmers.

Although hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against food waste, critics such as food waste activists ‘Les Gars’pilleurs’ say that such laws only circle around the problem, offering a quick fix. For starters, supermarkets are hardly the only culprits. For example, as the U.K. charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reports, they produce less than two percent of U.K. food waste, while private households are responsible for roughly 47 percent of it and producers 27 percent.

“The government is spending million and millions of pounds on campaigns to stop people from wasting food but all we are doing is just feeding it to people,” Smith cut short. “We say, ‘if you know it’s safe to eat, why don’t you eat it?’ That’s all it takes, it didn’t cost us any money.“

As a grassroots and independent initiative, TRJFP does not categorise food waste as an environmental, economic or social malaise. It tackles it holistically and works to educate the public but also lobbies ministers and parliamentarians to develop relevant policies.

“We have been to Westminster (seat of the U.K. parliament) a few times already to talk about this problem. There are many interests at stake but we will keep working until there is no more waste,” Smith said, adding that he hopes to prepare a waste-food lunch for members of parliament.

In Armley, the café fills up for lunch. On the menu are delicacies such as meat stew, steak and lentil soup. The clientele represents a cross-section of society that normally travels on parallel paths. Hipsters, homeless, professionals or unemployed all eat the same food, sit at the same tables and enjoy the same service. No referrals needed, no stigma attached, as often happens with other such services.

Richard, a recovering alcoholic, has been having lunch at The Armley Junk-Tion for a few months. “The café has been a real focus point for the community to come and eat together irrespective of background,” he told IPS. “It doesn’t matter what you want to eat. There’s always something on the menu for everybody.”

For 36-year-old Paul, with a history of mental illness, TRJFP offers an important safety net not guaranteed by social services. “Where I stay, my cooking facilities are restricted to a microwave. Due to cut backs and lack of support services, the only help I get is coming to places like this,” he told IPS.

Nigel Stone, one of the café’s volunteer co-directors, had no doubt the idea would catch on. “It is such an unbelievably common sense solution and the best part of it is how it brings the community together, especially in times of need.”

Slowly but steadily, TRJFP is changing norms around food waste and hopes to make it socially unacceptable for anyone to waste food. First off, though, they are proving that we must stop calling it waste, it just isn’t, it’s perfectly good food that every day we decide to throw away.

Edited by Phil Harris