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Building Belo Monte

Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff. Photo: Pablo Manriquez. flickThe Brazilian government is moving ahead with plans to build what will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric project – the Belo Monte Dam. The Belo Monte project is highly controversial, and has been challenged by indigenous groups and environmental organisations for more than twenty years. Nevertheless, it is now one of President Dilma Rousseff’s most prestigious projects – but what are the costs for the region and its inhabitants?

The original plans for the Belo Monte project date back to the 1980’s, when Brazil was ruled by the military. Ever since, the following governments have unsuccessfully tried to speed up the project by creating various types of national investment programs. However, the project has begun to move forward more rapidly over the past two years.

The Belo Monte project as a whole includes the building of two dams, two canals, two reservoirs and an extensive system of dikes along the Xingu River, located in the northern state of Pará. With an estimated cost of over 16 billion USD, proponents of the Belo Monte project call it the most competitive alternative for generating electric energy and present it as a clean, modern way of addressing climate change.

Though there are economic gains, the dam is expected to have devastating effects on the Pará region’s wildlife and indigenous communities. If it were to be built, the Belo Monte Dam is likely to not only flood over 60 000 hectares of land, but also cause a permanent drought around the Xingu’s “Big Bend”, an area that has been the home of indigenous groups such as the Arara and the Juruna for generations. The flooding expected to be caused by the Belo Monte Dam would force more than 20 000 people to relocate, as well as posing a threat to numerous land-living and marine species over a large part of the central Amazon. Moreover, there are many questions still to be answered regarding the indirect environmental impacts that the development of the region and the influx of hopeful job seekers might bring. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the Pará region have been far from sufficiently consulted, something that leaders from the Xingu area and other interest groups have criticized the government heavily for. Public hearings have been rare, and reports from the few hearings given show that questions from the public have tended to be evaded, or simply dismissed.

Ever since the first provisional license was granted in 2010, the Belo Monte project has been subject to legal scrutiny. Different federal courts in Brazil have blocked plans for construction, citing environmental issues as primary concerns – however, the most recent court decision blocking the project was revoked in late 2011.

Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron at protests in Brasilia, 2010. Photo: International Rivers. flickr The controversies surrounding the building of the Belo Monte Dam have attracted attention from Hollywood. Director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver have both pledged their support in fighting the building of the dam. After traveling to the Xingu River, Cameron and Weaver created “Defending the Rivers of the Amazon”, as an attempt to spread awareness of the potential consequences of the Belo Monte Dam.

What the actual environmental impact will be will not be visible until after the project is completed – if it ever is – and the government has yet to account for how the electricity produced will be utilized. Since there will be power lines built to connect the Belo Monte Dam to the central grid, energy from the dam could be transported all over Brazil. While the government claims that the energy produced will benefit ordinary Brazilians, critics claim that in reality, a substantial part of the Belo Monte electricity will be used to power inefficient, energy-intensive industries, such as metal processing and mining.

Xingu River in Brazil’s Amazon. Photo: International RiversDespite mounting protests around the world and considerable legal obstacles, the Belo Monte project is continuing on and could have reached a point of no return. President Dilma Rousseff has invested a lot of her political credibility in the Belo Monte project, as she, during her tenure as minister of energy successfully fought an international classification of big hydroelectric dams as clean energy. As President Lula Da Silva’s Chief of Staff, Rousseff was in charge of the growth acceleration plan, which granted the Belo Monte project its first license.

As of today, the Belo Monte project is expected to be one Dilma Rousseff’s greatest achievements as president. Being considered clean energy, it would contribute significantly to Brazil’s commitment to reduce emissions by 36 % in 2020. In her presidential inauguration speech, Rousseff said “I consider that Brazil has a sacred mission to show the world that it is possible for a country to grow rapidly without destroying the environment”. However, one might wonder if the Belo Monte project really can be considered a part of that “sacred mission”, considering its social and environmental impact, or if it in itself is proof of that attaining quick growth without destroying the environment is an unfulfillable goal. It might be, at least for President Rousseff.

RASMUS KJULIN

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