In June 2012, the words “Pare Belo Monte” could be seen over the Pimental Construction site of the Belo Monte dam project. The words, meaning “Stop Belo Monte,” were spelled out by the bodies of 300 indigenous protestors who had occupied the construction site.
Protests and lawsuits have abounded since 2005 as the Belo Monte dam has moved from the proposal phase to construction. While the Brazilian government continues construction, considering Belo Monte to be an integral part of its plans to reduce carbon emissions and maintain energy security, indigenous populations and environmental groups vehemently oppose the project, fearing it could lead to irreversible and dire consequences for the Amazon’s unique ecosystem and the local indigenous peoples who rely on the river for survival.
Opponents claim the dam could displace up to 40,000 people and impact nearly 579 square miles of the Amazon River basin, a unique and fragile ecosystem along the Xingu River. The government claims that once active in 2015, Belo Monte will provide nearly 60 million Brazilians with clean and affordable energy. With so much to gain and so much at stake, the construction of the Belo Monte continues as protesters rally with the cry: What is the price of development?
The Belo Monte dam
Belo Monte is located on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon. The dam is estimated to cost a total of US $22.5 billion, and when completed it will be the third most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world, behind China’s Three Gorges Dam and Brazil’s Jirau dam on the Madeira River. The project is part of Brazil’s Accelerated Growth Programme (PAC), a plan put in to place by former President Lula da Silva in 2007 with the aim of accelerating the country’s economic growth. The government claims that Belo Monte and future hydroelectric projects in the Amazon are absolutely integral in helping the country meet its emissions reduction goal of 38 percent by 2020.
Belo Monte’s design and construction is immensely complex. The project includes two dams, two artificial canals which will divert 80 percent of the Xingu River, two reservoirs, and an extensive system of dikes. Overall, the project will require 1500 square kilometers of land and will move more earth than was dug and moved in construction of the Panama Canal. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, at full capacity the dam is designed to generate enough power for 18 million Brazilian households. However, Belo Monte is designed as a “run-of-the-river” dam, which means the flow of the river powers the dam without the need of an extra reservoir to generate power. This leaves the dam vulnerable to drought, low river flow during the dry season, and reservoir siltation which may limit it’s generating capacities even further. Brazil’s government remains dedicated to hydroelectric power, with plans in place for 60 more dams throughout the Amazon in the future. But opponents of the dam claim the potential benefits of Belo Monte are far outweighed by its negative environmental impacts.
Because the project necessitates the destruction of more than 500 square miles of rivers and forests in one of the world’s most diverse and fragile ecosystems, opponents claim that Belo Monte will not be as “green” as many people hope. While the government argues that Belo Monte will release limited amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG), many scientists call this claim into question.
A report by the activist group International Rivers claims that vegetation destroyed during construction and flooded by the reservoirs will release excessively large amounts of methane, a GHG25 percent more potent per ton than carbon dioxide. World Environment Magazine quotes a report from researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research which estimates that the world’s 52,000 large dams produce 104 million metric tons of methane each year, roughly 4 percent of total human-induced emissions. The report by International Rivers claims that according to research Brazil’s Tucurui dam, built in 1980, contributes one-sixth of Brazil’s total GHG emissions. Their report suggests a different strategy than hydroelectricity: by diversifying sources of renewable energy to include solar, wind, and biomass, and investing in energy efficiency, Brazil could cut its expected energy demand by 40 percent.
Among those who protest the Belo Monte and other dam projects throughout the Amazon most vehemently are the thousands of indigenous people who live along the Xingu and its neighboring rivers. As foreign activists continue their protests on environmental grounds, Brazil’s indigenous peoples have a far more personal and local stake in Belo Monte’s construction.
The indigenous impact
Belo Monte will disrupt the Xingu River’s water flow, causing the river’s “Big Bend” to completely dry up. This will impact the livelihoods of hundreds of indigenous peoples who rely on the river for survival and transportation. The Enawene Nawe tribe experienced a similar problem when dams on their river, the Juruena, depopulated their fish resources so devastatingly that Brazilian authorities had to deliver emergency aid in the form of farmed fish. Belo Monte might also cause flooding in the nearby city of Altamira, possibly requiring the relocation of people and damage to the city’s infrastructure.
This sort of issue is not a new phenomenon, as similarly protested dams have been constructed in Brazil and around the globe. According to a report released by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), an offshoot of the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “large dams have had serious impacts on the lives, livelihoods, cultures, and spiritual existence of indigenous and tribal peoples.”
International humanitarian and Brazilian laws require that development projects that will directly affect indigenous peoples must be discussed with those to be impacted. Although the Belo Monte report released by the Ministry of Mines and Energy claims that the government has reached out to local communities at over 30 meetings between 2007 and 2010, the indigenous feel that an open debate on the dam has yet to take place. Dom Erwin Kräutler, the Bishop of Xingu, claimed in an open letter that “the indigenous people have never been heard. Some meetings took place to inform the indigenous population about the project. Some, who made their opposition to the Belo Monte dam explicit and whose objections were noted in the minutes, were told by FUNAI [the National Indian Foundation] officials that indigenous hearings would be held later. But these never happened.”
In August 2012, a regional federal court ordered an immediate suspension on construction of Belo Monte for failing to consult with indigenous groups, but two weeks later the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court which allowed for the project to resume building. This ruling prompted outrage by indigenous groups and, in October 2012, 150 indigenous and local fishermen reoccupied the Belo Monte site, paralyzing construction for 10 days. Following on the heels of this peaceful protest was more violent action, when in November workers burned vehicles and broke computers during labor negotiations.
Once completed, the Belo Monte dam could displace up to 40,000 people and disrupt the lives of 7 native indigenous communities. Although the government claims that these individuals will receive a cash compensation or be relocated to urban areas with improved infrastructure and housing, local fishermen and indigenous populations argue that nothing can compensate the loss of their livelihood and culture. In a discussion with former President Lula da Silva, Jose Carlos Arara of the Arara tribe stated: “Our ancestors are there inside this land, our blood is inside the land, and we have to pass on this land with the story of our ancestors to our children. We don’t want to fight, but we are ready to fight for our land if we are threatened. We want to live on our land in peace with all that we have there.”
Hydroelectric dams have proven to be an effective form of clean energy, yet they have also caused damage to environments and ecosystems, and have uprooted and displaced thousands of indigenous peoples around the world. Will Brazil’s drive to develop the Amazon in the push for energy security lead to the positive outcome expected, or will the negative environmental and social impacts prove to undo Belo Monte’s environmental potential? Can the government put a price on the Amazon and the indigenous peoples who also rely on the Xingu River for their security? As construction barrels on, only time will tell what the true cost of Belo Monte will be.