3rd World Congress of Environmental History

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“Itaipu or Sete Quedas”: An Environmental History of the World’s Most Productive Hydroelectric Dam

Mon, July 22, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Centro de Filosofia e Ciencias Humanas (CFH), Sala 323 do CFH


In the 1970s and 1980s, the Brazilian military government built a profusion of large hydroelectric dams. In 1990, after the dust had settled on the most ambitious of these projects, hydropower made up 96 percent of Brazil’s electricity supply.The largest of the military government’s dams is Itaipu, a binational dam that the Brazilian and Paraguayan governments built on the Paraná River. Itaipu has the potential to produce 14,000 MW of energy, enough to power New York City or Portugal. Since the mid-1980s, Itaipu has undergirded urbanization and industrialization in Brazil and Paraguay, but it also unleashed a host of unwelcomed environmental consequences.

Itaipu flooded the land of the Avá Guarani and 40,000 Brazilian farmers and sent displaced families to land with poor soils. For the Avá Guarani, the quantity of their land dwindled alongside its quality. The indigenous group asked Itaipu to replace the 1,500 hectares that the reservoir inundated, but instead Itaipu gave them 250 hectares, which was insufficient to sustain the mobile agriculture they practiced.

Itaipu also flooded Sete Quedas, a series of waterfalls that were once the world’s largest by volume. Inundating Sete Quedas erased both a natural wonder and a natural barrier to fish and insects. Sete Quedas marked the beginning of a stretch of the Paraná River that was narrow and fast, which was poor mosquito habitat. Once Itaipu’s reservoir filled, the river became wide and calm, perfect habitat for the malaria-carrying Anopheles darlingi mosquitoes. Displaced farmers returning from Amazônia brought malaria with them and the disease surged in reservoir-side municipalities in the late 1980s.

This overview of Itaipu’s environmental history will discuss the Brazilian and Paraguayan military governments' motivations for building a large dam at Itaipu, the dam’s environmental footprint, and its impact on Brazilian environmentalism and popular opinion towards large dams.