In a surprise move, the Brazilian government has announced that the era of building big hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin, long criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups, is ending.

“We are not prejudiced against big [hydroelectric] projects, but we have to respect the views of society, which views them with restrictions,” Paulo Pedrosa, the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told O Globo newspaper.

According to Pedrosa, Brazil has the potential to generate an additional 50 gigawatts of energy by 2050 through the building of new dams but, of this total, only 23 percent would not affect in some way indigenous land, quilombolas and federally protected areas. The government, he says, doesn’t have the stomach to take on the battles.

“I don’t think any more big hydro dams will be built,” said Mauro Maura Severino, a lecturer in electric energy at the University of Brasilia. ”Brazil should move towards clean energy, like solar and wind.”

João Carlos Mello, from Thymos Energia, a consulting company, agreed: “The future lies with renewable energy, such as wind, and much smaller dams. The tendency will be to generate the energy much nearer to where it will be consumed.”

The government’s hydroelectric dams policy change announced this week will surely be greeted as a hopeful sign by environmentalists and indigenous groups. But experts warn that a much bigger strategic policy shift is needed regarding infrastructure planning and agribusiness before the Amazon can be deemed safe from major deforestation.

Hydroelectric dams have caused great damage to indigenous and traditional communities and the environment, but they are only one of many serious Amazon threats – new roads, railways, waterways, mines and other infrastructure all result in great destruction. While the just-announced shift in hydropower policy is important, experts agree that major changes are needed before one can talk of a real conservation breakthrough in the Brazilian Amazon.

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