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Altered cities

A statistical model indicates that building a hydroelectric plant does not, in the long run, benefit the surrounding area

Aimorés hydroelectric plant in Itueta (Minas Gerais State), in 2004: data do not support the use of financial compensation as beneficial to the local area

Lalo de Almeida / FolhapressAimorés hydroelectric plant in Itueta (Minas Gerais State), in 2004: data do not support the use of financial compensation as beneficial to the local areaLalo de Almeida / Folhapress

The construction of hydroelectric plants, always associated with the idea of Brazil’s economic development, has also been advocated as a factor in local economic progress, that is, in the areas surrounding the reservoir. This idea has been promoted by the federal government and stated in the text of Growth Acceleration Programs (PAC) 1 and 2, of 2007 and 2010, and repeated when initiating the licensing of hydroelectric plants, such as the one in Belo Monte, which is currently under construction in Pará State. Determining, in numbers, the validity of this statement is the goal of the research project entitled, “Development performance of Brazilian municipalities affected by hydroelectric plants,” headed by Evandro Mateus Moretto, coordinator of the graduate studies program in Environmental Science (Procam) of the Institute of Energy and Environment at the University of São Paulo (IEE-USP) and a professor at the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH-USP).

So far hydroelectric plant impact studies have dealt with the environmental consequences. These studies lacked the tools to test the changing indicators of human development, which accompany a plant’s construction and operation, including the possible effects of financial compensation received by municipalities that had flooded areas. The model adopted by Moretto, whose project ends in February 2016, involves 159 plants that were opened before 2010 with an installed capacity equal to or greater than 20 megawatts, constituting a universe of 647 flooded municipalities and 1,154 unaffected neighboring ones.

To perform the analysis, the model applied 256 variables used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), available for the years 1990, 2000 and 2010, for the production of the Human Development Index (HDI), which includes dimensions such as wealth, longevity and education. Variables—systematized by UNDP from official measures, such as the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) and the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA)—were used to compare groups of flooded municipalities with their neighbors, to determine if the development during the period of analysis within each of the hydroelectric plant regions was the same or different between the two groups of municipalities.

An analysis of the group of 159 hydroelectric plants showed a strong downward trend in HDI performance during installation of the plants, because of significant impacts from the installation and operation of construction sites. “In general, the indicators improved in both groups of municipalities, but grew less in the group closest to the construction sites, which would be the municipalities flooded at the end of the start-up period,” notes Moretto. In the case of the water complex of Pelotas-Uruguai, on the border between Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina states, for example, it was possible to single out the municipalities where the power houses of the four hydroelectric plants were located; they stood out in some indicators, such as higher GDP growth compared to other municipalities. This is probably associated with the same economic dynamics that plant construction implants into the local community. In these municipalities, employment opportunities grow, but only during construction, employing several hundred workers. Opportunities decline after the plant goes into operation, which involves not more than 20 people in some cases.

A specific analysis of the impact of financial compensation to flooded municipalities revealed no statistical correlation between the funds received and improvement in the 256 HDI variables; this is a strong indication that the funds are not being properly used by local governments to implement their development agendas.

“We can now say that hydroelectric plants do not lead to the local development envisaged in official planning documents, but we still can not establish exactly what the cause-and-effect relationship is between the plants and each of the variables,” says Moretto. Therefore, fieldwork is needed. Beginning in April 2016, a partnership between USP and the University of Florida plans to perform an exhaustive case study in three regions where hydroelectric plants are currently in operation and at one plant under construction in the state of Rondônia, in addition to the river basins of Teles Pires, in Mato Grosso State, and the Tapajós River in Pará State. The project will involve about 15 researchers, has not yet been formalized, but is already in progress.

Daniel Rondinelli Roquetti, an environmental manager, for his master’s thesis under the guidance of Moretto, made some on-site observations; he studied the socio-ecological impacts of the construction of the Barra Grande plant, which is part of the complex studied by Carina Sernaglia Gomes between Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul states. He found that construction of the plants in the municipalities of the region caused, “a social transformation associated with illegal markets,” in addition to an increase in crime and in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Simone Athayde, of the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Florida (USA), found even worse effects on the indigenous peoples of the regions affected by hydroelectric plants on the Xingu River, for example, including the Belo Monte complex in the state of Pará. “The negative impacts even affect these peoples’ environmental knowledge system and there is no compensation for that; it is incalculable from a monetary point-of-view,” says Athayde.

Athayde and Moretto are not opposed to hydroelectric plants as the main option for Brazilian governments to generate power. “There is no doubt that they contribute to Brazilian economic development, but there is no evidence that they benefit the regions in which they are built,” says Moretto. He supposes that the official talking points want to make the historical association that has always existed between dams and the development of local communities. “But the benefit of hydroelectric plants is not the same as for other types of dams, the purpose of which is irrigation or to supply public water in the immediate area, for example; in Brazil, the purpose of these plants is to generate electricity for regions outside the local area.”

Development performance of Brazilian municipalities affected by hydroelectric plants (nº 2013/14111-9); Grant mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Evandro Mateus Moretto (IEE-USP); Investment R$35,466.16.