Independent Review Highlights the True Costs of Belo Monte Dam

Monday, October 12, 2009


The true costs of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Project, planned for the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon, have been revealed in a new independent review by a panel of 40 specialists. The panel found that the dam would have serious consequences for the region, its inhabitants, and ecosystems of the Amazon rainforest.

The panel - comprised of scientists from major Brazilian research institutions - reviewed the project's environmental impact assessment and delivered a 230-page report to Ibama, the Brazilian government's environmental agency, on October 1st.

One of the most alarming impacts identified by the specialists is that Belo Monte Dam would require diverting more than 80% of the flow of the Xingu, with impacts to fish, forests and navigation along a 100-km stretch of the river inhabited by indigenous communities. Impacts to fisheries would be severe, with the project causing the death of millions of fish along the river's Big Bend. The dam would cause the loss of biodiversity along the Xingu including the possibility of species extinction such as the zebra pleco and sheep pacu fish. The experts also found that the number of people who would be directly affected by the dam is likely far greater than the 19,000 indicated in official studies. More than 40,000 people could be affected.

Belo Monte Dam would be the world's third largest dam project. However, despite having an installed generating capacity of 11,231 MW, it would generate as little as 1,000 MW during the three to four month low-water season.

Francisco Hernandez, electrical engineer and co-coordinator of the panel, said: "The expert panel reports highlight the folly of Belo Monte. According to private investors, the project could cost up to US$19 billion, making it an extremely inefficient investment given that the dam will generate only a fraction of its installed capacity during the dry season. And this doesn't even take into account the enormous social costs and devastation that the project would cause. No one knows the true costs of Belo Monte."

Glenn Switkes, Amazon Program Director for International Rivers, said, "A major part of the energy generated by Belo Monte will likely go to fuel the expansion of aluminum smelters and other mining and metals processing plants in the Amazon. Brazil has less destructive and cheaper energy alternatives - the Brazilian people don't need Belo Monte."

The panel also questioned the project's technical feasibility. According to Hernandez, "Belo Monte's engineering viability is doubtful, since the project would be extremely complex - consisting not only of a single dam, but in reality a series of large dams and dikes that would interrupt the flow of water over an extensive area, requiring moving a volume of earth and rocks on the scale of that excavated for the building of the Panama Canal."

The project is the largest in the Brazilian government's Growth Acceleration Program, which focuses on large-scale infrastructure projects, yet there has been little public debate regarding Belo Monte and its impacts. Last week, Brazil's energy minister called critics of the dam "demoniac forces that are trying to pull Brazil down." Brazil's environmental licensing agency, Ibama, is currently evaluating the project and says it should be able to issue a provisional license soon. The government plans to offer the concession for the project by December.

Media contacts: 

Glenn Switkes, Amazon Program Director, International Rivers
(office) +55 11 3666 7084, (cell) +55 11 8460 9513,

Francisco Hernandez, cell: (+55 19) 9646 8743

Sonia Barbosa Magalhaes

Hermes Fonseca de Medeiros, Federal University at Altamira, tel: (+55 93) 3515 0264

Renata Pinheiro, Xingu Forever Alive Movement, tel: (+55 93) 3515 2406, cell: (+55 93) 9172 9776

Marcelo Salazar, Instituto Socioambiental, tel: (+55 93) 3515 1435 or 
(+55 61) 3035 5114, cell: (+55 93) 8119 0809

More information: 

Executive Summary of Expert Panel Reports in English

Complete Text of Expert Panel Reports in Portuguese

Quotes from the Expert Panel's Reports:

Jorge Molina Carpio, hydrologist: no technical justification is given to demonstrate that the project's so-called "ecological flow" will not severely impact the populations of the Xingu's Big Bend. "The Big Bend will suffer a reduced flow and a lowering of its water table along a stretch of about 100 km, causing various biological and social impacts, including problems for navigation, and effects on flooded forests." Also, "sediment buildup in the reservoir was not considered in the EIA."

Impacts on Fish and Aquatic Species:
Geraldo Mendes dos Santos, of the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA): "the flow that will be allowed to pass the dam will never be greater than 8,000 m3, only about one-third of the natural flood stage of the Xingu, which reaches 23,000 m3." This means that the Big Bend will never again enjoy the natural conditions under which its plant and animal life developed. "Certainly, many of the species that live in this stretch of the river will not survive under a flow regime imposed by decree or administrative norms, whether these come from decisions of the government, the companies, or even of scientists."

Paulo Buckup, President of the Brazilian Ichthyological Society: "the reduction in stream flow will cause the death of millions of fish along 100 km or more of the Big Bend, and there will be nothing that can be done to mitigate or compensate for this impact."

Hermes Medeiros, an ecologist from the Para Federal University, emphasizes that "the Xingu River basin has one of the greatest diversity of fish species that has been observed on the planet, with about four times the total amount of species found in the entire European continent. Aquatic mammals are mentioned in the EIA only in a descriptive manner. There is not a single paragraph evaluating the impacts the dam will cause them and the environment in which they live."

Impacts on indigenous people:
Antonio Carlos Magalhaes, anthropologist: "All the principal engineering works will be close to indigenous reserves, which will be affected by the physical impacts of the construction and above all, the social and cultural impacts of living close to the work site, in constant contact with the work force and those looking for work."

According to Magalhaes, this region would suffer a permanent drought, even leading to a shortage of drinking water. "The communities would lose their natural resources and water, directly affecting their livelihood. Yet the indigenous peoples, river bank dwellers and farmers of the Volta Grande are not considered in project studies as directly affected."

Socio-economic impacts:
Sonia Magalhaes, anthropologist from the Federal University of Pará state, and co-coordinator of the panel: "The EIA underestimates the rural population, and therefore the number of people directly affected by Belo Monte could be double the number indicated in the studies. Only through new studies can the real number be confirmed."

Oswaldo Seva, mechanical engineer from the Campinas State University: "logic and ethics demand that people affected by the drying out of the river and the water table are considered just as affected by the project as those whose land and resources are flooded. Official estimates are clearly far below reality."

Hermes Medeiros says that the EIA fails to analyze the probability of greater deforestation in the region, which has already increased since the project was announced. These predictions of deforestation are important, considering the proximity of the work sites and workers camps to protected areas and indigenous reserves.

Greenhouse gas emissions:
Philip Fearnside, Ecologist from the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA): "Hydroelectric dams emit methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times greater impact on global warming per ton than carbon dioxide. The authors of the EIA calculate low methane emissions because they only consider gas emitted on the surface of the lake itself and not from the huge amount of water passing through the turbines and spillway."