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THE GREAT RIVERS PARTNERSHIP brings together diverse stakeholders and best science to work toward sustainable management and development of the world’s most critical river systems.

 Tapajós River Basin

Tapajós River - © Marcelomdrs/Flickr


The Tapajós-Curua-Una River Basin drains the central Brazilian shield through three states (Mato Grosso, Pará and Amazonas) and 65 municipalities. The major rivers in the basin are: Tapajós, Curua-Una, Jamanxim, Juruena and Teles Pires. The Tapajós is one of the largest tributaries to the Amazon Basin and has a very rich and diverse flora and fauna, transitioning from Brazil’s cerrado savanna to Amazonian lowland rainforest and savannas. This partnership work is expected to directly benefit the whole basin, including 42 indigenous lands and 30 conservation areas (national and state reserves), and eventually will be able to influence dam and agriculture planning in the whole Amazon Basin. 

Economic Viability

The basin supports robust agricultural production. In fact, soybean production—which already occupies most of the cerrado southern portion of the basin in Mato Grossois expected to expand towards the north, along the BR-163 highway corridor in Pará State, mainly as a result of the road’s paving (approximately 1,600 km long). 

As part of the Brazilian Energy expansion Plan, 40 large dams on the main rivers and 52 small and micro dams are being planned in the Tapajós River Basin without a basin-wide strategic vision. Through a recent agreement signed with the Brazilian Ministry of Environment and World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy will have the opportunity to participate in the establishment of criteria to evaluate environmental performance of these dams, and ultimately may be able to influence the dam planning process for the whole Amazon.  


The Tapajós-Juruena ecoregion contains a diverse fauna of fishes with 324 valid species currently recognized, 65 of which are endemic. During the last 10 years alone, 35 new endemic species have been described, suggesting that the diversity is far higher than previously estimated and far from being completely catalogued. This ecoregion ranks within the top 25% in terms of of global importance for both freshwater and terrestrial biodiversity rarity. It is likely that a conservative estimate of the total number of fish species occupying the basin surpasses 500. The lower Tapajós River also harbors the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), a vulnerable species endemic of the Amazon basin. 

Main Tapajós-Curua-Una Basin environmental services include: maintenance of biodiversity, water cycling and carbon stocks, soil protection, ecosystem and habitat protection, maintenance of biodiversity corridors.  The large forest areas along the Tapajós River corridor are considered as essential to the maintenance of climate functions and are extremely susceptible to climate change. Loss of these forests is expected to lead to a severe savannization process in the region, and reduction in the rainfall precipitation in the central-west part of Brazil where key agricultural areas for grain cultivation are located provoking severe impacts on harvested yields. 

Conservation Challenges

The Tapajós-Curua-Una Basin still contains large areas of natural pristine terrestrial landscapes and undammed free flowing rivers that are under strong pressure from unplanned development in the basin. The lack of territorial planning and definition of highly sensitive and important ecosystems constitutes the biggest challenges to allow for a basin-wide conservation outcome.

Management Challenges

The area lacks a formal governance structure to congregate basin stakeholders to develop policies for system-scale management. In Brazil, under the water law, civil society basin committees have the legal prerogative to define water resources uses and user fees (such a structure has yet to be established for the Tapajós-Curua-Una) and is urgently necessary to work as a convening platform for local stakeholders to interact with both federal, state and municipal institutions, to advance a basin-wide discussion on both regional and local development plans, and how those may affect the geography of the basin.

The Tapajós-Curua-Una Basin project will serve as a model to demonstrate large-scale sustainable development, focusing on the two most prominent challenges affecting the whole basin–agriculture and hydropower. Built on collaboration with other stakeholders, it will pioneer the use of a foundation of ecological, social and economical information to support sustainable and integrated development plans for the region, working subsequently as a springboard to extend sustainable development across the entire Amazon Basin.                                                                                                                                                   

Background photo: © International Rivers / / CC BY-NC-SA