Banco Santander Is a Dam Disgrace

May 15, 2009

Protesting against the Madeira Dam

Protesting against the Madeira Dam

From Amazon Watch today comes a classic case of greenwashing. Banco Santander is funding the Madeira Dam project in Brazil’s Amazon region, which will be an environmental catastrophe and have serious implications for indigenous people living near the Madeira River.

But Banco Santander has also signed onto an agreement known as the “Equator Principles” which commits its signatories to protect fragile ecosystems and indigenous communities.

The principles are couched in lofty terms. Its preamble promises that signatories will “recognise that our role as financiers affords us opportunities to promote responsible environmental stewardship and socially responsible development” and states quite clearly that “We will not provide loans to projects where the borrower will not or is unable to comply with our respective social and environmental policies and procedures that implement the Equator Principles.”

The Madeira dam appears to contravene all of this. As Friends of the Earth’s Ronald Widmer puts it, “there are serious irregularities in the dams’ environmental licensing process” adding that “dam construction has already caused an environmental disaster, including the killing of over 11 tons of fish, which has led to fines of over R$ 9 million (US$ 4.26 million)” while “the region’s indigenous peoples say they have not been adequately consulted about the dams and have demanded that the licenses be revoked.”

Banco Santander made a great fanfare about signing the Equator Principles in April of this year, calling it a “step [which] confirms the bank’s commitment to sustainable development worldwide” but the Madeira project represents business as usual.

Mega-projects like Madeira have long been questioned as to their environmental benefits. As the New Scientist reported in 2005, “Hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels.” One study, of the Curuá-Una dam in Brazil’s Para state, found that the project had produced emissions equivalent to three times the amount that would have been generated by electricity produced using oil.

A 2009 study commissioned by the World Commission on Dams also found that of 30 dams studied in boreal and tropical regions, all resulted in decades of greenhouse gas emissions from methane produced in the dam reservoirs. Moreover, that study also concluded that “preliminary indications are that GHG emissions from reservoirs are likely to be of more concern in tropical countries” – countries like Brazil.

Meanwhile, Maderia is set to be a catastrophe for indigenous peoples. As campaigning group Survival International points out, “Four groups of uncontacted Indians will see their lands flooded by the Madeira hydroelectric dam planned in Rondônia state.”

Yet such issues don’t seem to trouble Santander, which will make a tidy profit from despoiling the Amazon. Amazon Watch, along with other environmental advocacy organizations, are taking the fight against the dam to a meeting of the Equator banks (many of the world’s most powerful financial interests are represented), yet more pressure is needed.

Also from Amazon Watch (and CBS), an extended look at Chevron Texaco’s fight to prevent Ecuador’s indigenous people obtaining justice for years of pollution. During drilling operations in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Texaco dug hundreds of dump-holes to hold toxic waste – and never cleaned them up.

It’s a grizzly tale, but it’s great to see Chevron’s PR flak squirming, and it’s really solid journalism.


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