Debate on developmental goals and environmental impacts of Belo Monte Dam

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Introduction

The planned construction of Belo Monte dam for hydroelectric purposes has elicited varied reactions in Brazil. Questions have been on the dam’s licensing process and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). There have been legal disputes between the government and the Federal Public prosecutor’s office, industry owners, construction firms and investors. The plans for the dam have been met with intense resistance from the indigenous groups and local populations living in the Xingu River Basin. On the other hand, opinions have been floated that the dam will be a redemption rather than a catastrophe.

History of Belo Monte

The first plan for the dam was drawn in 1975, and the project was named Kararao and was to produce 11,000 megawatts. The dam was to be one of the six dams to be built along Xingu River (Bingham, 18). If all these dams were built, they would occupy 20,000 km square of the rainforest and would invade the protected areas, indigenous land, and displace 12 indigenous groups. In 1989, adverse impacts of the project on the indigenous groups were realized in Altamira, Para (Baptista and Thorkildsen, 2). This attracted international attention and non-governmental organizations, celebrities such as rock star Sting, Annita Roddick, and others environmental activists lobbied against the project causing the World Bank to withdraw its loan.  Since Eletronorte had been involved in the construction of other dams such as Tucurui and Balbina and the government’s financial burden the project was put on the shelves. After thirteen years, the dam resurfaced with a different name; Belo Monte. Pressure from the civil society group forced numerous technical improvements over the years.

Developmental goals of Belo Monte Dam

The Belo Monte dam project involves two dams; one river channel forms the reservoir. From the lake, the water is diverted through two artificial channels to a second dam where hydroelectric power generation takes place. These changes have reduced the reservoir size thus avoiding flooding of the Paquicamba indigenous area while increasing the generation capacity to 11,233 megawatts (Baptista and Thorkildsen, 3). The construction of Belo Monte dam was ratified by the National Council of Energy Policy in 2008 but was due to changes based on political undertones.

Social and Environmental Impacts of Belo Monte Dam

Though the Eletronorte engineers have succeeded in improving the Belo Monte project, the project has social and environmental impacts. Since around 80% of the river will be diverted to generate hydropower, Valto Grande do Xingu will suffer from the lack of adequate water. Additionally, Arara da Volta Grande and Paquicamba and other riparian communities that depend on the river for subsistence farming, transport and income will be affected.  Altamira city will be submerged causing a displacement of at least 20,000 people (Fearnside, 238). The construction of Belo Monte dam will lead to migration of individuals, and this will overload public services offered in Altamira. Land conflicts will increase due to invasions on indigenous land as people try to get land to engage in irrigated farming. The security has become weak with the number of crimes doubling between 2011 and 2014 due to the increase in population from 100,000 to nearly 150,000 inhabitants (Baptista and Thorkildsen, 2011, 3).

With poor infrastructure development to cater for the increasing populations, Bel Monte has contributed to the increase of diseases that affect thousands of the total population. The most common diseases include malaria, dengue and diarrhea which affect mainly children and adults. The health facilities are not well equipped and are stretched due to the huge population. Cases of malnutrition have been on the increase due to indiscriminate consumption of industrial products, low agricultural production, and interrupted fishing and food pantries (AIDA, 2016).

Belo Monte Dam was to function without a sizable reservoir to regulate the water flow. This made power generation highly dependent on the rainy seasons, and thus the project would not be economically viable. Therefore, this calls for the construction of an additional dam upstream to regulate the water flow. This way the two dams would be of economic benefit. This is a clear indication that once Belo Monte is constructed, other upstream dams are likely to be constructed (AIDA, 2). Even with the government’s promise that only Belo Monte Dam will be built in Xingu River, that does not guarantee that the government will uphold its words. Similarly, the government had failed before in keeping its promise when Balbina Reservoir was filled beyond its capacity and when Tucurui was built without an environmental assessment. Therefore, a similar situation is likely to happen in constructing more dams in the Xingu River (Bingham, 20).

Construction of Belo Monte dam will mean destruction to vast amounts of rain forests and biodiversity (AIDA, 2016). The construction will cause the extinction of several plants and animal species. The probability of having more dams being built upstream will result in adverse human and environmental impacts such as damage to forests and fisheries across the region. Additionally, Belo Monte will contribute to climate change (AIDA, 3). The decomposing vegetation from the flooded areas will produce methane gas which is a greenhouse gas. To facilitate their interests, the government has undermined any civil society, community leaders and indigenous people efforts to prevent the construction of the dam. AIDA (2016) states that the government has used the military, issued threats, and beaten protesters. Though the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) financed the construction of the dam and is accountable for the social and environmental impacts caused by Belo Monte, they have denied the public from accessing the amounts disbursed.

Conclusion

Belo Monte Dam has been portrayed as the energy security of Brazil and as the only alternative to fossil fuels. The government is thus ready to exploit the 120 million megawatts locked up in the Amazon Rivers. The Xingu River has been viewed as an untapped natural resource. Its exploitation is portrayed to be in the interest of the whole nation. However, the developmentals have clearly omitted the negative impacts that the dam projects have had on the indigenous populations (Bingham, 22). People have been denied their means of survival. Diseases have increased, and the risk of climate change has grown. The government has ignored indigenous group’s ties to their land and old sites. Considering that the disadvantages of the dam override the benefits derived from electricity generation, the Belo Monte Dam should not have been constructed.

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  1. AIDA. Belo Monte Case, Brazil. 2016
  2. Baptista Mathias Fernando and Thorkildsen Kjersti. The Belo Monte Dam: A camel in the tent?    Norwegian Latin America Research Network. 2011, pp.1-6
  3. Bingham, Alexa. Discourse of the Damned: A Study of the Impacts of Sustainable Development Discourse on Indigenous Peoples in the Brazilian Amazon in the Context of the Proposed   Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam. Polis Journal.  2010, Vol 4.
  4. Fearnside, P.M. Belo Monte: Actors and Arguments in the Struggle over Brazil’s largest Amazonian Dam. – Die Erde, 2017, 148 (1): 230-243.
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