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© naturepl.com / Kevin Schafer / WWF

The Amazon Basin contains the world’s largest river. A series of 44 dams have been proposed for one of the Amazon’s tributaries, the Tapajós River, and several of its own tributaries – the Teles Pires, Jamanxim and Juruena Rivers. If these hydropower projects go through, they are expected to flood Indigenous lands, national parks, and other protected areas.

The São Luiz do Tapajós Dam is one of the proposed dams. At 53 meters high and 7.6 kilometers long, the dam is designed with a hydropower capacity of 8,000 MW. It is also expected to inundate almost 732 km2 (half the size of the municipality of Sao Paulo). The dam site falls within the boundaries of the Amazonia National Park. Between 2011 and 2012, the Brazilian Congress amended the boundary limits of the Park – moving the boundaries away from the banks of the Tapajós, to allow the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam to proceed. Other protected areas were also amended including the Itaituba (I and II) and Crepori National Forests, and the Tapajós Area of Environmental Protection.

However, in the spring of 2016, Brazil’s National Environment and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (IBAMA) put the project on hold, suspending its license due to “the infeasibility of the project from the prospective of Indigenous (the Munduruku) Peoples’ issues”. This was announced following the release of a report from the federal agency for Indigenous affairs (Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI) advising that 178,000 hectares along the Tapajós River called Sawre Muybu should be demarcated and protected as the traditional Indigenous territory of the Munduruku people, according to Brazil’s constitution30. It is not clear if this decision is just a temporary set-back to the project, or whether it will proceed once certain legal and regulatory hurdles are cleared. It is also not clear whether the protected area designation (Amazonia National Park) contributed to the decision to suspend the project.

© Zig Koch / WWF

Two other hydropower plants – São Simão and Salto Augusto Dams – that were proposed for the Juruena River, a tributary of the Tapajós, were dropped within the 10-year energy plan for Brazil which was released in 2014. While this represents a postponement of those projects until at least 2023, if the proposals do proceed after that, reservoirs would inundate approximately 40,000 hectares in the Juruena National Park (established in 2006) as well as other state parks and Indigenous territories. In addition to inundating protected areas, the dams would cause the fragmentation of the currently free-flowing Juruena and disrupt fish migration.

The story of hydropower development in the Tapajós, including the amendment of national park and other protected area boundaries, underscores that rivers within protected areas may not have durable protection. Longterm conservation of free-flowing rivers in Brazil may require specific designation of protection for a river (i.e., complementary to the protected area status for the surrounding land) or protection via the hydropower planning process, in which certain rivers are removed from eligibility for development.

A Story of Water: The Tapajós River Basin

The Tapajós Basin is one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River, covering 492,000 square kilometers and forming one of eight areas of endemism in the Amazon. The dozens of dams and infrastructure projects proposed for this magnificent basin pose a major risk to the thousands of riverside communities, including the Munduruku people, the hydrology, and the wildlife that depend on this basin as well as the larger Amazon system. In 2016, WWF-Brazil generated the "Conservation Vision for the Tapajós Basin"  to provide to decisionmakers recommendations for how to most sustainably steward the Tapajós. For an illustrated story of this effort, read our Story Map.