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When completed, the Belo Monte Dam will flood more than 500 square km of the Amazon region

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Belo Monte dam marks a troubling new era in Brazil's attitude to its rainforest

Karen Hoffmann

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 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.

'Tucuruí 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 Tucuruí have not yet been learned.'

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 Pará, the Wild North of Brazil. Lately, the region has experienced paroxysms of violence inextricably linked to environmental debates.

On May 26, Brazil’s 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 Pará, wields much power in Congress.

Less than 24 hours later, forest activist José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria Elena do Espírito Santo, were murdered in Marabá, Pará, 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 Pará.

On June 1, the day IBAMA approved Belo Monte’s construction, Joao Vieira dos Santos (alias Marcos Gomes da Silva), another Pará forest activist, was killed. A week later, Obede Loyola Souza was shot dead — yet again, in Pará. 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 Pará business class, with real signs in their eyes, is in favor of the dam. 'Belo Monte is 30 years late,' Jose Maria Mendonça, vice-president of the Federation of Pará 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. Pará 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 Pará 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 Kayapó 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 Pará. 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 ever.

That night, waiting for the music to start, bored teenagers hung around in the rain. The speeches seemed interminable. The mayor of Uruará 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 Uruará. 'Joelma is in favor of Belo Monte!'

Legal challenges


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. Security Council.

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 Pará is at times openly racist. Said the Calypso chanteuse, with the development resulting from Belo Monte, 'We'll show that Pará 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 Highway.

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 – 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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