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The Rivers of the Amazon

Map of Xingu basin, showing proposed dams
See larger image

The Amazon basin, home to half of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforests, is an immense region nearly the size of the continental United States. The countries of the Amazon basin include Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana. It is home to indigenous tribes, river bank dwellers, and to growing urban centers.

Increasingly, the region is also being targeted for large dam projects. Nearly two–thirds of Brazil’s remaining hydroelectric potential is found on the rivers of the Amazon basin, and pressure from developers is mounting to construct some of the world’s largest dams on its rivers. New feasibility studies are being carried out on the Xingu, Madeira, Tapajós, Teles Pires, Trombetas, Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, where mega–hydroelectric dams would flood significant areas of the rainforest, affecting the Amazon’s fragile web of aquatic and terrestrial life, as well as displace indigenous and river bank communities. The rivers of the Amazon are the arteries regulating the rainforest’s hydrological balance; and provide food, transportation, and drinking water to the region’s populations.

These rivers are some of the world’s mightiest, beginning with the Amazon itself, which flows more than 4,000 miles (6,500 km) from its principal source in the Andes mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon produces approximately 20 percent of all the water that the world’s rivers pour into the oceans. On average, 28 billion gallons of water flow from the Amazon into the sea every minute – 10 times the flow of the Mississippi! Deforestation is on the rise – government figures show that in 2004, 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest was felled. But despite an onslaught of development that has, in the past decade, included colonization projects financed by agencies such as the World Bank, industrial logging, large– and small–scale mining, extensive cattle ranching, and most recently soy plantations, a huge amount of the Amazon rainforest remains intact – best estimates are that roughly 85% of the original forest cover is still standing.

A principal factor in the Amazon’s survival has been its remoteness, but now a series of large–scale projects threaten to transform the Amazon into a center for extraction of primary materials for export to the industrialized world. These projects require energy and the means to transport large volumes of soybeans, timber, and minerals, and for this reason the rivers of the Amazon are at the heart of current development schemes, principally those which are part of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) being promoted by the Andean Development Corporation and the Inter–American Development Bank.

Some Key Amazon Dam Projects

The Xingu hydroelectric complex has been on the drawing board since the 1970s, but only recently has there been a renewed effort by Brazil’s electric sector to revive plans for a series of 6 large dams in the basin, which would flood thousands of square miles of rainforest including indigenous reserves.

The Trombetas River is home to many communities of quilombolas, or descendents of escaped African slaves, who settled in the rainforest on the northern drainage of the Amazon. They successfully fought plans to dam the river in the 1980s, and now once again Brazil’s energy planners are looking to the region for hydropower.

The Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, which empty near the mouth of the Amazon, are targeted for dozens of large dams.

The principal consumers of this enormous hydroelectric energy would probably be electricity–intensive industries, including the aluminum industry and other mining and mineral processing interests, which are planning expansion of their Amazon operations.

Other large dams in the Amazon are being planned in Ecuador, Guyana, and Surinam.

Additional Information

Glenn Switkes, Latin America Campaigns Director

International Rivers Network


Phone: +55 11 3822 4157