Thousands of people live in small villages in the banks of the Amazon river and its tributaries. Distant from urban centres, many of these communities are not connected to the electrical grid. To have light and electricity they rely on oil-fueled generators, which are both pollutant and expensive.
This shouldn’t be this way today. Almost 15 years ago, the government created a program to bring electricity to everyone in Brazil by 2008. Since then, the program has been extended twice and the due date is now 2022. During this period, the program has benefited almost 16 million people. However, the government estimates that about 2 million people are still off the grid. Most of them live in the Amazon region.
Ditching fossil fuels
The challenge of bringing electricity to remote places is also an opportunity to invest in clean energy. The conditions are perfect. On one hand, the costs and impacts of installing transmission towers and electrical wiring in those regions are very high. On the other, most of the places in need of electricity have abundant sources of renewable energy.
There are already interesting initiatives pointing this way. One of them is Xingu Solar, a project that is being implemented in the Xingu Indigenous Land, in the state of Mato Grosso. According to the Instituto Socioambiental, the NGO responsible for the program, 65 villages in the area now have solar panels. They provide energy to schools, health centres, internet points and seed warehouses. Less noisy and cheaper in the long-term than oil generators, the solar panels will offset the 600 tons of C02 that oil generators produce annually in the Xingu land.
A similar project is being developed by ICMBio, the public entity responsible for protected areas in Brazil, and the NGO WWF. The program Resex solar is bringing solar energy to communities living in extractive reserves. These are protected areas where only local communities are allowed to hunt, fish and practice subsistence agriculture. According to a recent survey by ICMBio, 48% of the 57,000 families that live in protected areas in Brazil have no access to electricity.
A complex political scenario
But as this discussion of investing more resources in alternative energies is taking place, Bolsonaro’s plans are more of the old business as usual. For the Amazon region, the government is reviving large infrastructure projects that could have very large environmental impacts.
One of them is the Bem Querer hydroelectric plant, in the state of Roraima. Supporters of the project argue that Roraima is the only Brazilian state that is not connected to the national grid. Their electricity has to be imported from neighboring Venezuela, which has proven problematic under the current political situation. But critics of the dam note that the impacts in the region would be enormous. Among other things, 519 square kilometers of forest would have to be flooded, an area about the size of the city of Budapest.
Another hydroelectric plant is being projected in the Trombetas river, a tributary of the Amazon river in the state of Pará. The government claims that the new plant would stimulate the economy in the region. But again, environmentalist worry the dam will affect protected areas and traditional communities in the region.