Shane's World Right Arrow CatfishologyRight Arrow Hydroelectric dam constructions in Amazonas

Article © Janne Ekström, uploaded December 23, 2007.

In starting out, I’d like to point out that this article is not meant to start any inflamed “political discussions”, this has, and is, already been achieved for many years now by other organizations that conduct that kind of campaign. This article is meant to provide facts and examine how, maybe, we can positively influence the forthcoming impact to the life in the Rio Xingu and Rio Madeira basins. No construction work has started yet but the Brazilian government has made several decisions during 2007 that make it possible to begin construction in both these rivers in the very near future.

Much has been said on internet forums about the Belo Monte dam project in Brazil, now it seems to be a reality. What many maybe don’t know is that Brazil also has plans to build other dams in the Rio Madeira; Santo Antonio and Jirau will be two massive dams in this river. The project includes two additional dams upstream in Bolivia and will open up a 4200 km waterway for transport of soybeans, timber and minerals to the Atlantic and Pacific ports. The project is one of the Initiatives for the Integration of South American Infrastructure (IIRSA), proposed by the South American governments of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. The Rio Madeira is the biggest tributary to the Rio Amazonas and covers almost 25% of the amazônia rainforest - the impact on flora and fauna will be far greater then the Belo Monte dam.

The government in Brazil has announced earlier this year that they will take the final decisions after many years of protests from nature and native organisations by the end of 2007. This opens up the possibility to start the bidding and final contractual agreements for construction and operation into 2008-2009. Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA) have had several meetings during the year to discuss the terms of reference for the impact assessment that is required and no work can start before that is set in place.The general consensus is that the government will put the dams in no matter what the impact assessment is. The government in Brazil has established a new institute “Instituto Chico Mendes”, which is now the agency in charge for issuing permits (including for both sampling and for construction), analyzing EIA(Environmental Investigation Agency), applying penalties etc. It seems that from now on IBAMA is only responsible for inspection of wildlife and managing the National parks, in that case the government together with the new institute will be able to make their own decisions whatever IBAMA decide.

Rio Xingu together with its biggest tributary, the Rio Iriri, likely has the highest diversity of all river systems in South Americawhen it comes to the family Loricariidae; almost 80 species from the Rio Xingu basin occur in the ornamental trade today, other fish families represent more then 400 species that have been recorded. A study made of Laboratório de Biologia Pesqueira e Manejo de Recursos Aquáticos, Universidade Federal do Pará, Belém Brasil, in the Rio Xingu river system showed fish species from 14 orders and 47 families; the most diverse orders were Characiformes (210 species), Siluriformes (146 species), Perciformes (62 species) and Gimnotiformes (20 species). Of the 467 species identified, 69 were common to the whole river basin. The same study estimated that there are around 600 different species of fishes in the Rio Xingu basin. A similar study for Rio Madeira estimate that there are around 750 fish species in Rio Madeira basin, the diversity of freshwater species makes Rio Madeira basin one of the richest in the world. The enormous dams will not only have a devastating affect on fishes, there are also around 800 different kinds of birds in the Madeira region and the region is considered as one of the worlds premier bird habitats. Above this there are of course many other animals that will be negatively affected by dam construction in the Rio Madeira.

Many of these species are even today undescribed and there are still many undiscovered fishes to be found in the rivers of South America, the threats of hydroelectric dam’s in the amazônia rainforest increase the pressure on the scientific community to concentrate their work into this area; to find and describe new species before they become extinct in the nature. Still today there are huge areas unexplored in the Rio Madeira and Rio Xingu basins - even by collectors for the ornamental trade. Remember as well, that many species, and especially in the family Loricariidae, live in deep, fast flowing water where gillnets or cast nets do not reach, diving and hand picking the species is often the only alternative method of collection for the trade.

What can we do?
The ultimate completion of the dams is perhaps a foregone conclusion. At this stage, the main concern is that organizations whose stated goals are to conserve biodiversity in the Amazon are fully aware of the unique fauna of the Middle and Lower Xingu and in the whole Rio Madeira basin; those that may take appropriate steps to ameliorate future impacts to that fauna. The first of those measures would certainly involve surveys to simply document the various components of that fauna.Other such future measures might include the regulation of minimum flows from the dam and captive breeding programs for the conservation of endangered species.

By in large, conservation decisions in South American are based on terrestrial fauna/ecosystems, with fishes being an afterthought.However, the Belo Monte dam in Rio Xingu and Santo Antonio / Jirau dams in Rio Madeira illustrates, perhaps for the first time, the degree to which an element of Neotropical biodiversity that is of global significance is under direct threat from an Amazon development initiative. The terrestrial defenders, including the various native tribes of the Xingu, are highly organized and highly effective, having stopped this dam at several points in the past. It seems to fall on our shoulders, and those of every aquarist who has ever marvelled at the beauty of a Hypancistrus zebra, to act and voice their concern before it is too late.

It should be an obligation for aquarium associations and communities all around the world to show their concerns and to contact organisations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and others to point out that the dam constructions in these rivers is not only affecting the terrestrial ecosystem; that Rio Madeira and Rio Xingu have the greatest diversity of freshwater fish species in South America and in the world, particularly the families Characidae, Loricariidae, Cichlidae and Anostomidae that will have much more difficultly in surviving in deep, slow or standing water. Make it clear that many species are endemic and not yet scientific described in areas where the dams will be built. If you have regional representatives of these organizations, perhaps you or your aquarist society could contact them and express your concerns for what is happening in Brazil. They in turn can hopefully bring considerable pressure to the authorities in Brazil, if they build the dams that they take into the consideration how life is affected in the river. For example in the Rio Xingu, suggest the necessity the creation regulation of minimum flows from the dam into the large big bend (Volta grande, Cotovelo) and the rapids where many endemic species live; otherwise the area risks drying out almost completely during the dry season. Other constructions that help fish survive would create possibilities for migratory fish species to reach their natural breeding habitats above the dams in Rio Madeira basin.

Aquarists who are concerned about conservation of their fishes in the wild should contact these organizations and thank them for their conservation efforts to date. In my view, we can encourage them to focus their attention on ornamental freshwater fish conservation and opposition to dam construction.

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