Belo Monte Dam Marks a Troubling New Era in Brazil's Attitude to its Rainforest

Karen Hoffmann, The Ecologist
Monday, August 15, 2011

Originally published in The Ecologist

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 Kayapó 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 Tucuruí will not happen again.'

His nephew Megaron Txukurramãe 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 Kararaô, 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 Kayapó 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 Kayapó. 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 Pará on record saying just that.

Tucuruí, 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 Belém, says researcher Philip M. Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon.