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Mato Grosso State Secretariat for the Environment State (SEMA-MT) denies and archives the environmental licensing process for the hydroelectric plant planned for the Arinos River, located in the northwest region of Mato Grosso.



Dafne Spolti, OPAN, dafne@amazonianativa.org.br (Portuguese and English)

Bruna Pineiro, FORMAD, comunica.formad@gmail.com (Portuguese) 

Isadora Soares, International Rivers, iarmani@internationalrivers.org  (Portuguese, Spanish and English)

Brazil – After more than a decade of community mobilization and resistance, the Brazilian State Department of Environment of Mato Grosso (SEMA) halted this week the environmental licensing process for the proposed Castanheira hydroelectric dam. The decision was taken after the Federal Public Defender’s Office (DPU) and the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) called for the project’s suspension over its potential to negatively impact Indigenous communities.

In its decision, SEMA cited the lack of adequate technical studies and failure to provide required information as a grounds for denying the dam project, which the federal government had prioritized under its Investment Partnerships Program (PPI).  SEMA’s decision to deny the license came as the result of tireless work by civil society, which questioned and took legal action against the project.

“This is a project that from the beginning was poorly prepared, with outdated studies, a series of gaps, and a lack of information for communities,” said Liliane Xavier, from the Juruena Vivo Network. “It is a real achievement that our voice was heard and respected by the authorities,” she said, though noting that this decision is long overdue.

“We were thrilled to hear the news,” said Dilma Maria Mani, from the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous community. She recounted the visit of the developers to her land and the role of women in rejecting the project. “We told the developers that we don’t want the project. Today, men thank the Kawaiwete women, who made this decision without fear,” she said. Yet despite the community’s rejection of the dam, project preparation continued.

About the Castanheira dam

The Castanheira dam was planned to be built in the state of Mato Grosso on the Arinos River, a tributary of the Juruena in the Tapajos Basin. The project would have flooded nearly 100 km2, directly affecting urban and rural residents, farmers and businesses in the municipalities of Juara, Novo Horizonte do Norte, and Porto dos Gaúchos.

The Indigenous Component Study (ECI) carried out for the project highlighted risks and threats to Indigenous communities, including the holding the traditional tracajás festival on Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Land (IL). For the Rikbaktsa, the project would risk the loss of feather art, hunting, and fishing. “Among the immense impacts, what worried us, the Rikbaktsa, the most was the loss of the raw material that only exists there in that river, particularly the tutãrã, shells that we use in the traditional marriage rituals of our people,” emphasized Professor Juarez Paimy, from the Erikpatsa IL. In addition to the Rikbaktsa, the Munduruku, Apiaká, and Tapayuna peoples would also have been directly affected by the Castanheira dam.

A community triumph

The executive secretary of the Mato Grosso Socio-Environmental Popular Forum (Formad), Herman Oliveira, highlighted the victory of grassroots social movements, with support from civil society, in preventing the project from advancing.

Oliveira applauded the efforts of civil society within Consema, the State Environmental Council, where they were alerted about projects under preparation such as Castanheira – reinforcing the importance of active civic engagement. “The collective effort and spirit of civil society in contesting the project was essential,” he recalled. “This was apparent in our final meeting with SEMA, where we laid out the range of problems that would stem from licensing and possibly constructing the dam,” he further explained, citing the study that was presented to SEMA’s technical team in May 2023 that pointed out flaws in the assessment of cumulative impacts of the project.

​​Genir Piveta de Souza, from the Pedreira community in Juara, reflects that there are other less destructive energy generation options available “We don’t need to destroy nature, animals, fish, and take people from their land where they live and make a living, like us here in the community, the people from the village, the people on the other side of the river.” She emphasized that the Castanheira dam not proceeding will also serve to discourage the development of further hydropower projects planned on the river.

Jefferson Nascimento, from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), commended SEMA for acting appropriately to deny the environmental license, and noted this victory serves as a lesson for civil society on the importance of organizing. “This shows that the struggle can really pay off, and gives us encouragement to continue the fight.” However, he cautioned that despite this important victory, more work remains to remove Castanheira from the government’s Ten Year Energy Expansion Plan. “We have to celebrate this moment, this achievement of this struggle. And God willing, we will have the greater victory of canceling this plant once and for all,” Genir Piveta de Souza also said.

Liliane Xavier, from the Juruena Vivo Network, argued that environmental licensing processes and others with impacts on communities’ lives should be developed in a participatory manner and follow the law. “We are not against progress, but it must be responsible progress, which truly cares about the lives of people who live and work in this region, and that respects the laws, norms, and conventions to which Brazil is a signatory,” she concluded.

Global community celebrates

The decision also has a broader importance in the basin and for Brazil as a whole. Castanheira was to be among the first of more than 170 dams to be built in the Juruena basin, so this represents an important step in protecting a vital biodiversity hotspot that boasts among the greatest diversity of fish species while preserving river connectivity. The victory also comes at a time when the future of new hydropower development in Brazil has come under increased scrutiny.

“We should see this as a watershed moment to begin charting a new path for the Amazon,” says Flavio Montiel from International Rivers. “The time of mega-dams belongs in the past, and it’s past time to embrace sustainable energy options that can meet the needs of communities, that respect Indigenous rights and do not harm our rivers, and that are not deepening our overdependence on climate-vulnerable hydropower.”

The success in preventing the Castanheira from proceeding has many lessons to take into the future. “This is testament to the impact of community mobilizing to defend its rights and its rivers,” adds Montiel. “It also demonstrates the need to adopt permanent protections for rivers throughout Brazil to prevent these types of flawed projects from being developed in the first place.”

Photo credit: Arinos Rivers (Pablo Albarenga / OPAN)