DC Environmental Film Festival 2011

On Thursday, March 24, WWF hosted the screening and discussion of "The Madeira River: Life Before the Dams" as part of the 2011 DC Environmental Film Festival. Working with filmmaker David Reeks, WWF developed the documentary to give a voice to the local communities in the region who express their hopes, opinions and fears about the dams' construction. A panel discussion, moderated by Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, followed the screening. Panelists included Reeks, as well as Amazon regional experts Leila Salazar-Lopez, Program Director at Amazon Watch, and Pedro Bara-Neto, Infrastructure Strategy Leader of WWF’s Living Amazon Initiative.

The Amazon River is the world's largest water basin, extending more than 2 million square miles. Its average discharge represents more than 15 percent of the world's total river discharge into the oceans. Today, more than 30 million people and 10 percent of all known plant and animal species on Earth live in the Amazon. But the region is facing serious threats to its existence.


The Madeira River: Life Before the Dams.

The Madeira Hydroelectric Complex is an infrastructure project of four dams intended to generate over 10,000 MW of energy, 4,000 km of waterway and 2,500 km of transmission lines. The Madeira River is a major tributary of the Amazon River, which is the main element of the tri-national Madeira basin (Brazil, Bolivia and Peru). This is the biggest infrastructure project planned by the Initiative for Regional Integration of Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA).

Santo Antonio and Jirau are the first dams to be constructed, and are both located in Brazil, on the Madeira River. According to the Brazilian social movement of people impacted by dams, called MAB (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens), 10,000 people will be displaced. The two other dams are Riberao, on the Mamore River (Bolivia-Brazil border), and Chachuela Esperanza, on the Beni River (Bolivia).  For the latter, a feasibility study commissioned by the Bolivian government has been finalized.

Although the extent of the dam’s impact is not clear, the dams will affect migratory fish and other species dependent on the river’s ecological flow. Also, the opening up of road infrastructure for access to the dams is predicted to have some impact on the surrounding forests.

WWF’s position

WWF does not oppose the construction of dams in principle, as dams provide important services to society. Nevertheless, WWF believes that energy efficiency and energy conservation should be at the forefront of every nation's energy policy, which should also include comprehensive analysis of other renewable energy alternatives to hydropower and to fossil fuels and strategies to avoid or minimize negative social, cultural and environmental impacts of dams, in particular, in the Amazon.

In addition, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) should be of a high standard and conducted over an adequate area. Although not required by the Brazilian legal framework or by BNDES, the developers have commissioned a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Madeira complex covering the whole Madeira basin. Unfortunately, this study was never used to promote adequate civil society participation and to reach social agreements with affected local communities.

Taking action

By producing this documentary film, WWF is drawing attention to the potential social and environmental impacts related to the construction of the dams, and to inform potential project financers about these impacts. The film will also be used as a tool for capacity-building and knowledge-sharing with the communities directly, indirectly and potentially affected by the dams.

Since the time of filming, construction on the two dams has begun, and it is expected that the flow of the Madeira River will be fully closed off by the end of 2011. At this point environmental impacts will be more visible and expanding gradually. The dams are expected to be operating by 2013.

Yet while construction of the dams has moved forward, the film’s importance has not been lost, but rather strengthened as the Madeira case is emblematic of a broader infrastructure development wave that the Amazon region is experiencing. A series of transformative infrastructure projects, if not properly planned, could cause more damage than good to Amazon countries, their people, their natural treasures, and to the health and of the Amazon basin as a whole.

Learn more about WWF’s work in the Amazon