Teles Pires Hydroelectric Dam is located in the Tapajós basin, at the border of the states Pará and Mato Grosso and in proximity of two indigenous territories. Its construction, which was promulgated as part of the national Program for Accelerated Growth (PAC), has harmed biodiversity and fisheries, caused forest clearance, and destroyed an indigenous sacred site. This was no surprise as numerous objections concerning socio-environmental impacts and irregularities in the licensing process were previously raised, but became silenced after political and corporate pressure. The dam was opened in 2016 and has a capacity of 1,820 MW .
It is the largest of a series of hydropower projects along the Teles Pires river (forming the so-called ‘Complexo Teles Pires’), with other already installed ones being the nearby São Manoel Dam (746 MW – see related conflict) and, further upstream, Sinop Dam (461 MW – see related conflict) and Colíder Dam (342 MW). Further on being planned are Magessi Dam (53MW) in Mato Grosso as well as the Foz do Apiacás Dam (275 MW) and Salto Apiacás Dam (45 MW) on the Apiacás river, a principal affluent of Teles Pires. The dams are part of plans to develop a navigable waterway for soy export from Mato Grosso to the Atlantic Ocean (‘Hidrovia Teles Pires-Tapajós’), as they would allow barges to pass rapids and waterfalls, and a total of 43 large dams planned in the entire Tapajós basin (see the related conflict of the currently stopped São Luiz mega-dam) . The dams have been a priority in Brazil’s energy policy as the arrival of industries in the region has subsequently augmented energy demand and prices .
Teles Pires Dam was built and is now operated by Companhia Hidrelétrica Teles Pires S.A. (CHTP), which is almost entirely owned by Teles Pires Participações S.A., a consortium formed by the energy company Neoenergia and the state-controlled corporations Eletrosul and Furnas; while also the notorious construction company Odebrecht owns a small share . Involved in the assessments was the company Leme Engenharia, which has close links to ENGIE (formerly GDF/Suez) and had previously worked with Odebrecht on other hydro-dams .
In 2010, the dam received its first environmental license, following based on impact assessments that were objected by technicians from IBAMA and FUNAI. That led to disputes with the federal government and the public Energy Research Company, responsible for planning Brazil’s energy supply. In 2012, also the Federal Justice pointed to “infringements of constitutional principles of public order, impartiality, and environmental morality”, aiming to immediately halt works on the dam – but a lower court ruling was overturned by the federal government which framed the project as a matter of national security .
Opponents among others criticized that the decision to build the dam was politically motivated and that technical, economic, and environmental viability studies only came after. Experts from universities in Mato Grosso and Pará noted that the studies clearly underestimated environmental and social costs and did not take into account any local knowledge, for example on fisheries and the particular fauna of the Tapajós-Xingu bioregion . The license was also granted without assessing the impacts on the indigenous communities, as the operator simply used the assessment conducted for the nearby São Manoel and Foz do Apiacás dams, where anthropologists spoke out against the constructions .
Construction works finished in 2015, despite strong opposition by the Kayabí, Munduruku and Apiaká indigenous groups and traditional communities, who were never consulted – violating Brazil’s obligations of Article 6 in the ILO Convention 169 to guarantee free, prior and informed consultation – even though the dam had clear adverse impacts on their livelihoods, spiritual practices, and way of life.
Since the early stages of the project, the groups launched protests and issued public statements to express their opposition. This also included collective mobilization of indigenous and other groups against several infrastructural projects in the region, such as the planned Teles Pires-Tapajós waterway, the advancing of São Manoel Dam, and the planned, controversial São Luiz and Jatobá dams . In addition, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has been initiating multiple lawsuits against the advancing of constructions .
In the case of Teles Pires Dam, indigenous groups especially lamented the destruction of Sete Quedas (locally known as Karobixexé), a waterfall area along the Teles Pires river considered a sacred site by the Kayabí, Apiaká and Munduruku people. The dam operator argued that the area is not used or frequented, even though it has been widely known as a sacred indigenous site that is used for funeral rituals. It received no protection as it is situated just outside the indigenous reserve . Besides dynamiting the site, CHTP also removed indigenous funeral urns, which was presented as a “rescue” by the company but considered as robbery in the eyes of the Munduruku community. In the following, archaeologists removed a total of 270,000 artifacts – which became partly transferred to a local museum to “protect” these .
Regarding environmental impacts, it was feared that the dam reservoir would produce large amounts of methane from the decomposition of uncleared, flooded organic material. It was estimated that – contrary to legal requirements – only half of the vegetation was removed, leading to massive fish death after the rapid flooding. This would also increase water temperatures and reduce the amount of oxygen, leading to acidification. The dam also impacted fish migration, altogether increasing the vulnerability of fishes, which can now only survive if they managed to reproduce downstream. The Munduruku community lately reported a decline in the fishery and a decrease in water quality, impacting their access to food and water .
CHTP controversially obtained carbon credits under the UN Clean Development Mechanism and was awarded several sustainability awards, including one by the Chico Mendes International Research and Social Institute, which publicly celebrated the project for its socio-environmental responsibility. Critics however spoke of a catastrophic example of how sustainable development discourses leave out indigenous realms . The dam operator denied a correlation between the dam and increasing deforestation in the municipality of Paranaíta, saying that it had taken all measures to mitigate deforestation and rigorously complied with all obligations . To do so, it had also launched a program to mitigate the impacts on indigenous livelihoods, but leaders of the three affected groups criticized the lack of participation in the initiated activities and flaws in the implementation, for example when it comes to promised improvements in indigenous villages .
Communities and civil society organizations in the region have been organizing in the Fórum Teles Pires, a collective network founded in 2010 to defend the rights of those affected by hydropower plants and other large-scale infrastructural projects in the region. It includes indigenous and traditional communities, peasants, fisherfolk and riverside dwellers, academics, civil society organizations such as Comissão Pastoral da Terra, Instituto Centro de Vida, International Rivers and Centro Popular do Audiovisual, and social movements such as the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra .
Over the past years, the Munduruku community continued to demand an apology and compensation for the damages to their livelihoods and especially the destruction of Karobixexé and the removal of funeral urns during the construction of the Teles Pires and São Manoel dams. In December 2019, a group of 70 Munduruku – for the third time in three years – held protests in the town of Alta Floresta to demand the return of sacred objects. After several days of protest, the group occupied the Natural History museum to reclaim urns and other artifacts. At the same time, they reported increasing intimidation and surveillance exerted by hydropower companies .