Tapajos River.
Tapajós River Tapajós River in Itaituba, Brazil. © Ludus Videos

Stories in Brazil

Hope for Sustainable Development: The Tapajos River

New dams slotted for development on the Tapajos River would produce 29 GW of new energy for Brazil,

If there’s one thing to understand about the Amazon Rainforest, it’s that rivers rule.

The rivers of the rainforest are HUGE. They shape the land, determine where communities are established—or not—and help businesses decide where to set up shop. Development decisions are all determined by access to, navigation through and resources provided by the rivers.

The Tapajos River—one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon—is certainly a river that is shaping development in Brazil. At 1,200 miles long, the Tapajos touches three Brazilian states (Mato Grasso, Para and Amazonas) and runs through 65 municipalities.

With the river itself spanning such a distance, you can imagine the size of its basin. The basin is 193,000 square miles, which is about three times the size of Florida or roughly the size of France, and is home to rich and diverse habitats, with two-thirds rainforest and one-third Cerrado, or Savanna. And, wildlife abounds. There are 324 identified fish species, and the region ranks within the top 25 percent for global importance of rare land and water species.

Another important species to mention is humans. There are 1.4 million people living in the Tapajos River basin, including 10 indigenous tribes. All of these people rely on the river for food, water, energy and jobs.

One-third of our world’s soy along with other agriculture commodities is produced in the Tapajos River basin. Transportation development to get those to market is a key issue for the future of nature and people in the region.

Over the past several years the Tapajos has been one of the development targets of energy plans in Brazil. 44 large dams and 80 small dams were slotted for development on the river. Currently, Brazil is looking at a pause in its large generation infrastructure development, and there is an opportunity to step back and greatly improve the plan.

It may be inevitable that with the demand for agricultural and energy development comes threats—threats to wildlife, habitat and indigenous peoples. However, The Nature Conservancy believes that development can and should be done in a way that also provides benefits to people and the environment.

The Conservancy is working in the Tapajos River Basin with local and indigenous communities, businesses and government to promote the need to assess development plans through a systemic view of the region that considers that the effect of several of the projects planned for the basin is cumulative. Having a complete assessment of the Tapajós is fundamental to ensuring that development happens with as little impact as possible, and the best possible benefit to conservation of its natural values.

Conservancy efforts include ensuring that soy farmers are compliant with the Forest Code, Brazil´s national environmental law. Our work also includes the development of the Tapajós Basin Blueprint, a tool to help public and private sectors, as well as civil society, identify priority areas for conservation, restoration and economic activities in the region. With the blueprint, the Conservancy hopes to create plans that avoid development in biologically diverse areas, mitigate impacts with smart infrastructure and compensate for habitat loss by protecting habitats elsewhere.

With its work in the Tapajos basin, the Conservancy hopes to use transformative science to create conditions that allow people and nature to thrive together.

Read our Blueprint for Sustainable Development in the Tapajos River Basin: Developing a future for the Amazon.