No one in the developing world is against hydroelectric projects, which bring the benefits of power and development.
Except perhaps the locals.
Brazil’s proposed Belo Monte Amazon dam is experiencing an “occupy” moment, with 100s of Xingu River basin indigenous peoples and riverine community members gathering to protest the facility’s construction.
The 11,000 megawatt dam Belo Monte Dam is to be built in Altamira, in Para state in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, and if built, will be the world’s largest hydroelectric project.
The protesters have blocked the Trans-Amazon Highway (BR-230) around Sao Antonio village, where it passes through the dam’s construction site. Local indigenous politician Juma Xipaia said, “Belo Monte will only succeed if we do nothing about it. We will not be silent. We will shout out loud and we will do it now. We only demand what our Constitution already ensures us: our rights. Many documents and meetings have already transpired and nothing has changed. The machinery continues to arrive to destroy our region.”
Why Belo Monte, which has been planned since 1975? The facility won’t come cheap, as construction costs are estimated at $16 billion and the transmission lines an additional $2.5 billion.
Brazil currently receives more than 80 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams, but given its booming economy, is expecting shortfalls to begin in roughly four years. Brazilian energy experts estimate that the Amazon’s tributaries and rivers contain up to 70 percent of the country’s untapped potential hydropower.
The proposed facility has become Brazil’s biggest environmental hot potato, as since 2009 federal judges in Para have repeatedly ruled against the project, only to be consistently overruled by higher courts in the capital Brasilia. But for downstream Brazilians, 52 percent of the country supports Belo Monte, according to a poll earlier this year conducted by the Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest circulation newspaper.
Cue the Hollywood environmental lobby. Last year “Avatar” and “Titanic” film director James Cameron visited the Xingu River basin communities and was motivated to film a brief documentary, “Message from Pandora,” castigating those naughty Brazilian officials supporting Belo Monte’s construction. British rock star Sting and Avatar actress Sigourney weaver have also weighed in against the project.
The issue is percolating north of the border, as on 26 October the Brazilian government boycotted a closed hearing convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States in Washington DC. Winning the PR war for the moment, Juruna indigenous people spokesman Sheyla Juruna told reporters, "The government's constant refusal to dialogue and its undiplomatic posturing shows its negligence as it sidesteps the law and ignores the rights of local peoples. I am appalled by the way in which we are treated in our own land without even the right to be consulted on this horrific project."
Belo Monte raises many disquieting issues. On 25 October Brazilian Energy Minister Edison Lobao says it’s the right of Brazil’s government to decide if it wants the dam built.
Unlike many proposed hydroelectric projects, Belo Monte’s environmental impact is limited to Brazil, as the waters to be harnessed are not trans-boundary rivers, unlike similar projects such as Tajikistan’s Rogun, which would affect downstream nations Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or Turkey’s massive GAP hydroelectric projects on the Tigris and Euphrates unsettling Syria and Iraq, or Ethiopia’s proposed Give II and Millennium dams generating anxiety in the lower Nile’s nine riverine states.
That said, Belo Monte is being constructed to meet future energy needs, not current shortfalls.
On 17 October a lawsuit filed in 2006 by the Para state’s Federal Public Ministry reached the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region in Brasília, which questioned the National Congress Act 788/2005 authorizing the construction of the dam without previously consulting the indigenous peoples of the municipality of Altamira and neighboring areas, alleging that this violated the indigenous peoples’ constitutional under Article 231 of the country’s constitution.
Belo Monte is, at the end of the day, a project designed to meet future national energy needs, far from Brazil’s population centers, as evidenced by the multi-billion dollar construction costs for transmission lines. While the project is indeed indigenous, the potential bad publicity fallout is most assuredly not, and Brazil, ramping up to host the World Cup in three years time, hardly needs images of photogenic Indians being hustled off their land to support a massive energy project not required by the nation at the present time.
Time for Brasilia to listen to listen to the courts. Brazil’s international image, already burnished to a high sheen by the presidency of Lula da Silva, would soar even higher – but if Brasilia’s bureaucrats remain tone-deaf, then beware the wrath of Sting, the star of Alien and the director of both “Avatar” and “Titanic.”
And Cameron’s on good terms with the Terminator.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com