Sinop hydroelectric dam (UHE Sinop) is located on the Teles Pires River, a tributary to the Tapajós River that passes the Amazon states of Mato Grosso and Pará, about 70 kilometers north of the city of Sinop. The dam with a capacity of 402 MW is part of a series of controversial dams along the Teles Pires river and in the Tapajós basin (see also related cases in the EJAtlas) and became opened in 2019. It should supply half of the population of Mato Grosso with electricity (about 1.6 million people).
The dam was built by Sinop Energia, which holds the operating concession for the next 35 years. Sinop Energia is to 51 percent owned by the French multinational Electricité de France (EDF), which had initially participated in the tendering process for the dam and, after failing to receive the concession, bought shares from the winning consortium, which is formed by the energy companies Eletronorte and Chesf .
Sinop Dam – opposition against a controversial project
The hydroelectric project and associated plans to privatize access to water were from the beginning highly controversial and have caused objections particularly from small farmers, river dwellers, fisherpeople and indigenous populations living along the Teles Pires River. A broad alliance consisting of trade unions, NGOs, religious groups, associations, indigenous people, fishers, scientists, as well as national movements such as the Movement of Dam Affected People (MAB) and the Landless Movement (MST), raised concerns against the planned mega-dams in the Tapajós basin. In Sinop, public protests against the dam intensified in 2010 and resulted in frequent demonstrations, usually attended by hundreds of people from different social groups. While they generally objected to the private hydroelectric development plans, they particularly criticized the short time span given to public audiences as well as the environmental impact assessment. At the end of 2010, the possible negative impacts of the dam projects in the region were discussed in a three-day public debate, held in Sinop and attended by 500 representatives of various social movements and organizations, who then launched the regional civil society network ‘Fórum Teles Pires Vivo’ . Mobilizations in the following years also included road blockades, as for example in 2013 when 200 members of MST and Comissão Pastoral da Terra stopped traffic at the BR-163 highway to demand political dialogue and indemnities for affected families whose lands had not yet been regularized . In 2015, farmer communities and the MAB protested outside the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) and the office of Sinop Energia. They, among others, demanded the regularization of their land tenure and the resulting right to resettlement and compensation for all affected people – demands that had all not been included in the project’s environmental management plan .
The dam risked disrupting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of farmer families and riverside dwellers. Farmers became either completely displaced or affected by restricted access to water. An example in Sinop is the village of Gleba Mercedes, an area that became settled by small farmers in the 1990s and became partly flooded by the dam reservoir. As of 2020, one year after the start of operations, a total of 214 families in the settlement had lost their land through the flooding, a total of 5,900 hectares. They were only offered minimal compensation (about a third of the valued that the public land reform agency INCRA had considered appropriate), to which they had to agree within five days. The situation was similar for affected families in other agricultural settlements. While according to the official discourse the indemnities would enable them to buy new land, the community says that offered compensations were extremely low, that not all damages and losses were taken into account, and that they might moreover lose access to water at the new location . After the opening of the dam, a number of families were still demanding fairer compensation and noted that they would not negotiate to become rich, but rather struggle to secure their source of livelihood and right to work. Many of them, however, had to stop their agricultural activities due to restrictions in the water supply. In fact, water access is now controlled by Sinop Energia and has to be formally requested, which has led to the criminalization of irrigation without permission. Confronted with the problems, families started to sell land at inferior prices .
International critique especially concerned the involvement of the company EDF, which receives more than 80 percent of its funds from the French government and uses its subsidiary EDF Norte Fluminense to operate hydroelectric dams in Brazil. EDF is part of a group of companies (along with GDF Suez, the controversial operator of Belo Monte) that pushed for hydroelectric development in the Tapajós basin and carried out a series of environmental studies for possible projects . While President Macron and other EU member states recently publicly criticized the destruction of the Amazon, projects such as the Sinop Dam are indirectly financed by Europe and, as Le Monde Diplomatique put it, signified the “announced death of a river” . In 2019, indigenous groups of the Teles Pires region and environmental NGOs such as International Rivers and Planète Amazon submitted a complaint letter to EDF and held a protest outside the headquarter in Paris, while the company was not willing to speak to them .
The opening of the dam and its impacts
At the beginning of 2019, the basin of Sinop Dam began filling, a process that came with a number of irregularities in environmental legislation. Most notably, only 30 percent of the vegetation had been removed before the flooding. This was because the operator has managed to circumvent the requirements of Brazil’s legislation according to which the entire vegetation had to be removed, while environmental experts considered this an environmental crime. Shortly after the filling of the reservoir, an estimated 80 million fish (about 13 tons) were found dead in the reservoir of the Sinop Dam. A month later, a massive fish die-off was again reported in the riverside village of 12 de Outubro. The massive deaths were attributed to a lack of oxygen in the water resulting from decomposing organic material and severely affected the livelihoods of people depending on fishing . The flooding moreover implied the destruction of about 17,400 hectares of forest .
As researcher Philip Fearnside notes, the oxygen levels were far below the legal minimum standard and the amounts predicted by models of the operator (with average levels 1 milligram of dissolved oxygen per liter instead of the required minimum of 5 milligrams ). A study by de Faria et al. (2015), cited by Fearnside, moreover shows that Sinop Dam is expected to have high emission levels of greenhouse gases, particularly in the first twenty years of the project. Out of 18 examined Amazonian dams, Sinop was ranked worst in terms of its global warming potential, with methane emissions particularly caused by the large amount of flooded vegetation and turbines that are installed in a position that allows for an easy release of methane into the atmosphere. Even in a 100-year comparison, the emissions are expected to remain above the levels of common thermal power plants. Besides, the dam also risks generating high concentrations of poisonous methyl mercury .
As a response, Sinop Energy was fined R$ 50 million (US$ 13 million) by the state’s environmental secretary (SEMA) for environmental destruction, which – according to the official version – were caused by errors in the opening of the spillway gates. In addition, the Public Ministry of Mato Grosso (MPMT) opened another lawsuit against Sinop Energia in which it accused the company of having inadequately monitored water quality and not sufficiently cleared the reservoir’s vegetation in order to decrease its expenses. Pointing to the various environmental problems of the dam, the MPMT in September 2019 demanded the suspension of the company’s operating license, which became approved by the Federal Justice. The case became transferred to the federal court but an agreement for environmental compensation of R$ 4 million in October 2019 allowed the operator to resume the dam operation .
In March 2020, a new massive fish-dieoff was revealed in the Sinop reservoir. About six tons of fish were reportedly killed by dam turbines due to an operating error. SEMA issued a fine of R$ 12 million, while the old fine had still not been paid. Operations were again stopped and should only be resumed in 2021, after the installation of an electromagnetic system and other security measures that Sinop Energia has to fulfill in the meantime .
After new incidents in September 2020, fishers held protests in Sinop to demand compensations, better monitoring onsite, and the installation of a canal that would allow fish to pass the dam. A protest leader noted that the fish mortality was not an accident but rather a default in how the dam is operated. 
Undermining of environmental licensing
Particularly controversial in this case is that SEMA explained the low oxygen levels only with the higher sediment levels while it had itself authorized the filling of the reservoir with insufficient removal of vegetation in 2019 (exactly one day before the Brumadinho dam disaster in Minas Gerais), based on a modeling study provided by the operator that explained the correlation between vegetation and oxygen in the water . The MPMT had previously pointed to insufficient environmental remediation measures and complying with environmental standards during dam construction; it juridically demanded both the removal of vegetation and the better compacting of soil . In addition, there seems to have also been negligence during construction works. For example, in 2015 a constructed dam barrier collapsed, shortly before authorities wanted to authorize the filling of the water reservoir .
Researchers such as Philip Fearnside have particularly criticized Brazil’s legislative and political undermining of the environmental licensing process, which also became apparent in the project development of UHE Sinop. For example, the leaving of dead trees in the river was explained as “beneficial” for fish as they would provide hiding places from predators, and the removal of only 30 percent of the vegetation was considered sufficient to guarantee sufficient oxygen. The researcher notes that such obviously false predictions are inherent to the current decision-making structure, weak enforcement of legislation, and the wrong incentives given by the environmental licensing system. The current framework would allow companies to circumvent environmental standards via third-party consultant reports that supposedly prove the environmental sustainability of a project is easily influenced by the respective project developer .
The increasing easing of environmental licensing has been attributed to a legislative change in the environmental licensing process in 2011 which shifted responsibility to the state level and away from Brazil’s federal environmental agency IBAMA (which at this point had already started the licensing process). The rationale of this change, as environmentalists critically note, occurred in the interest of the Rousseff government to rapidly approve the controversial Belo Monte Dam and a series of other Amazon dams. Hence, UHE Sinop became the first large Amazon dam licensed by a state agency. It is said that state environmental bodies, such as those of Mato Grosso, are generally less rigorous and often politically controlled, although also environmental licensing under the IBAMA has caused controversies and become increasingly flexibilized .