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Cut off, Amapá state endures a week without electricity

. Nov 10, 2020
Amapá energy crisis Residents of Macapá protest after days of power outage. Photo: Rudja Santos/Amazônia Real

Located on the Brazilian border with Suriname and French Guiana, the Amazonian state of Amapá has long suffered from precarious infrastructure, a lack of basic sanitation for a large chunk of the population, and general isolation, with 73 percent of the state covered by dense rainforest. Over the past week, that isolation has been felt more than ever, with most of Amapá left without electricity after a power plant caught fire.

The power outage has affected water supplies, telephone lines, and internet connections, among other services. Hospitals have canceled surgeries, the state has stopped tallying its coronavirus cases and deaths, even raising calls for the suspension of Sunday’s municipal elections.

Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, but they suspect it to be the result of lightning storms, which are<a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/01/27/brazil-lightning-capital-world/"> common in the region</a>.</p> <p>The federal government has been slow to respond to the crisis, and parts of the state are still without electricity eight days later. The length of the crisis has infuriated politicians from the state — such as Senate President Davi Alcolumbre — and led to dozens of protests by residents of the state capital Macapá, some of which ended in confrontation with the local police.</p> <p>According to Brazil&#8217;s Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque, two of the three 140-ton transformers which connect the state to the national power grid must be replaced — a process that can take up to 25 to 30 days, due to the logistical issues involved.</p> <h2>How the crisis in Amapá impacts national politics</h2> <p>With its small population and far-flung location, Amapá typically gains little importance in national politics. However, that changed when Mr. Alcolumbre was <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/02/02/senate-president-election/">elected by his peers</a> to lead the upper chamber of Brazilian Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Senate President has actively worked to solve the crisis, out of fears that it could hurt his brother&#8217;s chances to be elected mayor of Macapá in this weekend&#8217;s vote. He has tried to get the federal government to intervene more in the situation, by voiding the license of the private company running the state grid and having federally-owned firms take over operations.</p> <p>The crisis also raised concerns about the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/08/24/brazil-privatization-plan-pros-cons/">government&#8217;s privatizations plan</a>. State-owned power supply firm Eletrobras is the biggest asset on the list for sale, but the situation in Amapá — with a private company demanding salvation from the government — could raise opposition to the privatization. &#8220;Our goal remains unchanged. The state doesn&#8217;t have to be a business owner,&#8221; said Diogo Mac Cord, the Economy Ministry&#8217;s Privatizations Secretary.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-1024x683.jpg" alt="Amapá crisis" class="wp-image-52517" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-1024x683.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-1536x1024.jpg 1536w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o-600x400.jpg 600w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/50578444677_e9154e6451_o.jpg 1620w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Power outage in Macapá. Photo: Rudja Santos/Amazônia Real</figcaption></figure> <h2>A laundry list of problems</h2> <p>Speaking to our <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/05/15/privatization-petrobras-brazil-crisis/">Explaining Brazil podcast</a>, Sandro Cabral, head of the public policy master&#8217;s degree program at São Paulo’s Insper Business School, explained why Brazilians are so resistant to the idea of privatization. &#8220;In the 1990s, when privatizations took off, these deals were associated with a drop in quality of public services, combined with higher tariffs. While that has largely changed as of recently, that image has remained.&#8221;</p> <p>And the case of Amapá is a stellar example.</p> <p>The power plant which caught fire is run by Gemini Energy, purchased by vulture funds from Spain&#8217;s Isolux —&nbsp;which is in a process of court-supervised recovery. The damaged structure is the only one connecting the state to the national power grid, but one of its three transformers has not worked since December 2019.</p> <p>Even before taking over the Amapá plant, Isolux accumulated a <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/economia/conheca-historico-de-problemas-da-empresa-responsavel-pela-subestacao-que-deixou-amapa-as-escuras-24737885">series of problems</a> administering infrastructure ventures across the country.&nbsp;</p> <p>Due to delays in works, it lost the rights to operate over 1,500 kilometers of power transmission lines, as well as a major roadway in the state of Minas Gerais. Its inability to meet quality and safety standards also cost Isolux contracts to build two subway stations in São Paulo. Moreover, it left a consortium administering 680 kilometers of roads in Bahia, after experts called its involvement &#8220;problematic.&#8221;</p> <p>Meanwhile, back in Amapá, Isolux could be facing a BRL 15 million (USD 2.8 million) fine after courts demanded electricity be fully restored by the end of Tuesday. Power is returning in shifts: some residents are receiving electricity between midnight and 6 am, and from noon until 6 pm, while others have power between 6 am and noon, and 6 pm to midnight.</p> <p>Local people have complained about difficulty sleeping. The high concentration of mosquitos in the region — due to high temperatures — means that closing windows at night and using fans and air conditioners are indispensable to a comfortable sleep.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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