Belo Monte dam marks a troubling new era in Brazil's attitude to its
15th August, 2011
Belo Monte is just one of a dozen giant dam projects Brazil plans to
build in the Amazon region in the coming decades and opens up the
world's largest tropical rainforest to oil and mining exploration
The Kayapï¿½ chief stands, and a hush comes over the circle. All the
other caciques wait expectantly for Raoni Metuktire to speak.
Instead, he starts to dance, whooping and shouting, a dance for the
enemy. Afterwards, he speaks. 'I will go there, to Belo Monte, and
warn my family,' he says, the disc in his lower lip punctuating his
words. 'What happened with Tucuruï¿½ will not happen again.'
His nephew Megaron Txukurramï¿½e translating, Raoni exhorts the chiefs
gathered at the 50th anniversary of Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park: 'I
want you to feel strong, you are great! I want to see you fighting!'
Raoni and Megaron are intimately familiar with the Belo Monte dam.
They've been fighting it for decades. Belo Monte's first incarnation
was called Kararaï¿½, a name that was quickly changed after indigenous
people pointed out that the word, in Tupi, means 'war.'
In 1989, a major protest was held in the town of Altamira. Even Sting
showed up at the event. In a memorable speech, a Kayapï¿½ woman said:
'Electricity won't give us food. We need the rivers to flow freely.
Don't talk to us about relieving our 'poverty' - we are the richest
people in Brazil. We are Indians.' (See 'Adios Amazonia?' in the
Ecologist, Vol 19 No 2, March/April 1989)
That protest put the brakes on Belo Monte for two decades. But now,
the project is on the fast track once again.
The picture has changed significantly since 1989. Then, the funding
was mostly international: loans from the World Bank and international
companies like Lloyds of London, Midlands, and Citibank. This made the
project more susceptible to international public pressure.
This time around, the dam is being funded by Brazilian government and
business. The consortium that's building the dam, Norte Energia, is
mainly funded by the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES),
reportedly with a push from President Dilma Rousseff, formerly
Minister of Energy.
Belo Monte's price tag is a substantial R$30 billion, but its actual
cost is even higher. The enormous dam - it will be the third largest
in the world - will both flood more than 500 square km, including
parts of Altamira, and dry up more than 100 km of the Xingu River.
The particular section of the river most affected, called the Big
Bend, happens to be home to indigenous and riberine communities such
as the Juruna, Arara, and Kayapï¿½. The project would cause the
disappearance of entire species of birds, reptiles, and fish, and
displace tens of thousands of people.
And Belo Monte is just one of dozens of giant dam projects Brazil
intends to build in the Amazon region in the coming decades.
First dams then mining
The obvious argument in favor of hydroelectric projects is that Brazil
needs more energy to power its astonishing ascent. But critics say
that energy could be recouped in other ways. 'Brazil could be hugely
more efficient in its transmission and consumption of energy,' says
Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director of International Rivers.
Where, then, will the 11,200 megawatts generated by Belo Monte go?
'Belo Monte is a pretext for mining and oil exploration in the Volta
Grande,' says Sheyla Juruna, a leader from the Juruna tribe. One
journalist tells me she has the governor of Parï¿½ on record saying just
Tucuruï¿½, the older dam project of which Raoni spoke, was built in the
1980s on the Tocantins river to convert bauxite into aluminum. It
caused major flooding along its 125-km reservoir and caused loss of
forest, displacement of indigenous peoples and riverside residents,
eliminated fisheries, created breeding grounds for mosquitos, and
caused mercury methylation with potentially grave public health
consequences for fish consumers in urban centers like the city of
Belï¿½m, says researcher Philip M. Fearnside of the National Institute
for Research in the Amazon.
'Tucuruï¿½ mainly benefits multinational aluminum companies,' he says,
adding, 'The need for fully informed public discussion of the
ambitious hydroelectric plans that have been made for Amazonia is
urgent. Unfortunately, many of the lessons of Tucuruï¿½ have not yet
Murders and the Forest Code
The town with the fortune or misfortune to be closest to Belo Monte is
Altamira (pop. 105,000 and growing every day). Altamira is situated in
the state of Parï¿½, the Wild North of Brazil. Lately, the region has
experienced paroxysms of violence inextricably linked to environmental
On May 26, Brazilï¿½s Senate approved changes to the Forest Code that
rolled back forest protections in place since 1965. The rural bloc of
cattle ranchers and farmers, a stronghold in Parï¿½, wields much power
Less than 24 hours later, forest activist Josï¿½ Claudio Ribeiro da
Silva and his wife, Maria Elena do Espï¿½rito Santo, were murdered in
Marabï¿½, Parï¿½, their ears cut off as a mark of execution. This began a
chain of killings that has continued unabated and unpunished:
On May 27, land rights activist Adelino Ramos was killed in Rondonia.
The next day, Eremilton dos Santos, a possible witness to Da Silva's
death, was murdered in Parï¿½.
On June 1, the day IBAMA approved Belo Monteï¿½s construction, Joao
Vieira dos Santos (alias Marcos Gomes da Silva), another Parï¿½ forest
activist, was killed. A week later, Obede Loyola Souza was shot dead ï¿½
yet again, in Parï¿½. And on July 24, rural farmer Francisco Oliveira
Soares was murdered in what police ruled was a conflict over land
rights. Guess in which state?
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Parï¿½ business class, with real signs
in their eyes, is in favor of the dam. 'Belo Monte is 30 years late,'
Jose Maria Mendonï¿½a, vice-president of the Federation of Parï¿½
Industries, told a local daily. 'While the world is questioning
nuclear energy, Brazil has this opportunity to generate clean energy
and contribute more and better jobs, starting with the mineral
industry. Parï¿½ society can't let these compensatory measures slip
through their fingers.'
Without question, the dam is bringing money into the region. But this
influx comes with its own problems. Celso Rodrigues, a taxi driver
who's lived in Altamira 17 years, says that with the frenzy of
activity around the dam, crime has risen substantially. It's no longer
safe for him to pick up passengers in the street - he only operates by
phone. 'The dam brings lots of outsiders to town, but the problems
aren't just caused by them - it's even family,' he told me. 'But
development brings these things, right?'
According to the coordinator of local NGO Movimento Xingu Vivo Parï¿½
Sempre (Xingu Alive Forever Movement), Antonia Melo, the town has
suffered with the growth of urban occupations and homeless
populations. 'With the installation license of Belo Monte, the
situation is bordering on a public calamity,' she says.
At the peak of the construction activity, forecast for 2013, Norte
Energia's own figures estimate that between workers and family
members, the total number of people attracted to the region will be
96,000, doubling Altamira's population.
Bribes and charm
At the Xingu festival, Raoni was far from the only speaker to denounce
Belo Monte. But there is another difference between the fighting
Kayapï¿½ of 1989 and the tribes' attitude today: When I asked Megaron
what his people planned to do to stop Belo Monte, he demurred, noting,
'They are getting R$30,000 a month [from Norte Energia].'
And, says Sheyla Juruna: 'Better health, education, employment -
everybody wants that. We Juruna aren't against development. But it
divides people. Many don't want to speak out against Belo Monte, for
fear of not receiving benefits.'
Besides payoffs, Norte Energia is operating a charm offensive,
distributing videos, sending press releases to environmental NGOs, and
putting on concerts.
Brega means 'cheesy.' It also refers to the most popular style of
music in Parï¿½. Calypso, a local band, are the reigning kings of brega.
So Norte Energia brought them to Altamira for a pro-Belo Monte
concert, the biggest event the town had seen in quite awhile, possibly
That night, waiting for the music to start, bored teenagers hung
around in the rain. The speeches seemed interminable. The mayor of
Uruarï¿½ shouted, 'Whoever is against Belo Monte is against the region,
against Amazonia, against sustainable development!'
Even the headliner got in on the rhetoric. 'In the capital they have
air conditioning and internet,' recited Calypso's buxom blond singer,
Joelma. 'Belo Monte will get you these things. Belo Monte is the
solution.' Her head hung down as if she were reading a text, or ashamed.
'You hear?' repeated the representative from Uruarï¿½. 'Joelma is in
favor of Belo Monte!'
Inside Brazil, there is much resistance to the dam, if not in the
highest echelons of government. Objections have been raised on
scientific, legal, and economic grounds.
Eleven civil actions lawsuits against the Belo Monte Dam, filed by the
Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, are still pending in Brazilian
courts. In May, 20 Brazilian scientific associations sent a letter to
President Rousseff, requesting the suspension of the process of
licensing the dam.
'The Brazilian government is trying to frame itself as concered with
balancing environmental sustainability with economic growth. We want
to shine a spotlight on these inconsistencies,' says Christian
Poirier, Brazil campaigner for the NGO Amazon Watch. 'It's a waste of
money - companies have pulled out because they can't afford the
spiralling cost. The expense falls on the Brazilian taxpayer to
subsidize this boondoggle in the Amazon.'
'In response to the escalating assault on the Amazon and its peoples
being perpetrated by the Brazilian government, Amazon Watch will
continue to work with its partners on the ground to shine a spotlight
on these environmental crimes in order to shame Brazil on the
international stage,' he added.
After the approval of the license to build Belo Monte on June 1,
protests were held all over Brazil. From the chic Avenida Paulista in
Sao Paulo to Salvador, Bahia, and Washington D.C., many Brazilians far
from the front lines are against the dam.
Internationally, the dam has been criticised by everyone from Amnesty
International to James Cameron, director of Avatar, who has visited
Altamira several times.
In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended to
Brazil that it take urgent action to guarantee the rights of
indigenous peoples before going ahead with dam construction, as
required by the Brazilian Constitution as well as the UN Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Convention 169 of the
International Labor Organisation.
Brazil responded by withdrawing its commissioner, a step that could
jeopardise its chances at a coveted permanent seat on the U.N.
One typical response to international attention is that it's just
foreign meddling, trying to keep Brazil from rising to first-world
status. And the United States, for example, has already done the same
thing, so who are they to talk? I overhear a conversation on a plane
leaving Altamira: 'In the U.S. they've already gotten rid of their
forests. They want to be the guard of the world. We need to be armed.'
Evictions and Occupations
Altamira has many low-lying neighborhoods made up of palafitas, houses
built on stilts over creeks. Parts of the city below 100 meters of
elevation will be flooded. These areas already flood during the rainy
season, so they don't stand a chance against Belo Monte. Norte
Energia, in its public statements, has played up the 'precarious
circumstances' of the families that live in these neighborhoods. Even
those that won't be 'relocated' are being forced out by skyrocketing
rents due to the massive influx of people to the city: In all, more
than 6,000 families will be affected, according to Xingu Vivo.
Families with nowhere else to go have resorted to occupying vacant
land in Altamira. This has led to violent clashes with police. On June
22, about 150 families were violently evicted from land they had
occupied. Without a warrant, civil and military police used rubber
bullets and tear gas to evict the occupiers. Forty people, including
three minors, were arrested. The previous day, about 120 families were
removed and three people were arrested. Witnesses said the military
police used pepper spray.
'Educating' the indigenous population
As for the indigenous who will be affected, the attitude toward them
in Parï¿½ is at times openly racist. Said the Calypso chanteuse, with
the development resulting from Belo Monte, 'We'll show that Parï¿½ is
not just Indian' - echoing a quote from Norte Energia director of
construction Luiz Fernando Rufato in O Globo: 'It's inevitable that
the Indians, eventually, will have to change their way of life. Are
they going to live their whole lives hunting with bows and arrows and
living in villages?'
Even the Brazil's government agency that ostensibly protects
indigenous peoples, FUNAI, has its hands tied, two employees told me
separately. 'There's the official line, and then there's what we
really think,' said one. FUNAI is traveling around Brazil to 'educate'
Indians on the benefits Belo Monte will bring them, in an
uncomfortable throwback to the days when they were given the ignoble
task of 'pacifying' indigenous tribes ahead of the Transamazonica
According to Norte Energia's schedule, the drainage of Altamira will
happen in June 2014. Belo Monte will begin commercial operations at
the first turbine, at Pimental Site, on February 28, 2015. The last
turbine is set to be installed at Belo Monte Site on January 31, 2019.
Despite the compensation measures, it seems Belo Monte will not go
forward without meeting fierce resistance.
'Our culture is not for sale. My mother, older people, who are
connected to their land ï¿½ how they can build their lives elsewhere?'
Sheyla, the tribal leader, asks.
'My fight continues, not just for me, but also for my sons,' she says,
adding, 'I'm not afraid to die.'
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