Water, Forests, and People: Towards Integrative Research on Dams in the Brazilian Amazon

Emergent Brazil: Energy, Dams and the Amazon

Brazil’s emergent position as the sixth largest economy in the world calls for energy to support production and consumption at local, national, and international scales. One of the ways this need for energy will be met is through the development of a series of large hydroelectric dams in the Brazilian Amazon which will impact water resources, forests and land cover, and resident populations, many of whom are indigenous. Energy development in Brazil is part of broader programs for accelerated growth (“Planos de Crescimento Acelerado”, PAC 1 and PAC 2) in place, to support industrialization, development, and economic growth in the country. The Amazonian basin is one of the most important natural environments in the world, playing a key role in regional and global climate dynamics. The impacts of dams on river systems and local communities have been well-documented in many countries. However, the interconnection between changes in the river, land use, climate, local and distant communities have yet to be studied in an integrated fashion, particularly in the Amazon. With the dynamics of increasing climate change in this globally important region, the need for this kind of integrative research becomes urgent.


Map of government plans for infrastructure development in the Amazon, including Dams (UHE, blue triangles). Source: Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), 2007







Interdisciplinarity and Integrative Research

With an interdisciplinary team of researchers, the Amazon Dams Program aims to develop an innovative approach to the study and understanding of the transformation caused by the past, present, and future implementation of hydroelectric power plants by studying three watersheds in the Brazilian Amazon: Tocantins, Madeira, and Tapajós. This type of research is critical for the development of predictive understanding, monitoring, and mitigation plans for unexpected future consequences of building massive infrastructure in one of the most important natural environments in the world, which plays a key role in global climate dynamics. We propose that by including critical players in the research design, we can develop a shared understanding that will generate useful information to inform society and decision-makers. In this game of vital consequences, the academy and science have an important role to play in bridging disciplines, institutions and sectors, and enabling the generation and circulation of integrated information for academics, the public, policy makers, potentially-affected communities and society at large.

In the three basins being studied we will look at the integrated effects of dams on hydrology and river basins, the displacement of people, and changes in land use. As land use by human changes and locations of settlements change, the nutrient cycle is altered, affecting river ecosystem health and fish lifecycles. As forests and agricultural lands are flooded and reservoirs are created, carbon storage in biomass may decrease and methane production may increase. Flooding will also alter spawning grounds of migratory fishes and change food availability and decrease biodiversity of an impacted system.

We will analyze dams in different stages of planning, construction, and operation—both recently and long-term—in each river and across regions, comparing political and technical instruments used for pre-construction and mitigation plans and the social and environmental effects of each phase before, during, and after the construction process. We plan to work in the following rivers/regions and universities:

  • Tocantins River – UFT – Federal University of Tocantins (built/model) – green star
  • Madeira River and tributaries – UNIR – Federal University of Rondonia (built/in construction) – blue star
  • Teles Pires and Juruena rivers – Tapajós watershed – UNEMAT (planned/in construction) – red star


Map of Brazilian Amazon main watersheds with research locations marked with colored stars.