A rendering of the proposed Belo Monte Dam

Massive Brazilian Dam Could Wreck Indigenous Way of Life

ICTMN Staff
6/23/11

In a disturbing post to National Geographic News Watch, Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier lays out the likely effects of the Belo Monte dam on the indigenous people who live on the river to be dammed—the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon. "What the dam will mean to the people who live along the river below the wall is a seasonal state of drought," she writes. "The thousands of indigenous people and peasants who scratch a living out of the forest and the river will see their main source of drinking water and food dwindle." Mittermeier goes on to describe the resulting transportation issues as "more dramatic," pointing out that travel for these tribes is done by boat, not road; a diminished river will inflict an unsustainable insularity, and relocation for these tribes will be all but inevitable.

On May 31, the Brazilian government granted Norte Energia SA a permit to begin construction on the dam, an unpopular project that has weathered, in the words of Sheena Rossiter of Bloomberg News, "36 years, countless petitions and protests, and several supreme-court cases brought by environmentalists and indigenous populations." Indeed, as we reported in an earlier post, opponents of the dam are amping up protests over the lack of consultation and potentially illegal maneuvering prior to the granting of the permit.

Rossiter's article is a comprehensive summary of the issue of the dam; it's also useful for those of us who cannot read Portuguese.

Belo Monte will be the third-largest hydroelectric dam in in the world, generating more than 11,000 megawatts of energy. It will also require the flooding of 200 square miles of dry land. Critics say it will cause massive displacement of the indigenous population, but the government seems to disagree. Rossiter quotes Energy and Mining Minister Edison Lobao from an article (in Portuguese) at globo.com:

"No dam in the world has been preceded by so much care and so many studies. There are 35 years of studies around Belo Monte. There have been 30 public hearings held about the construction of Belo Monte. About the indigenous communities, there are 11 in the area. No indigenous reservation will be flooded by Belo Monte. No indigenous person will have to leave where they are today."

A report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs paints a radically different picture, estimating that 50,000 people will be displaced, many of them members of the region's 24 indigenous tribes.

Critics also raise the environmental concern that methane that will be produced in the flooding of the land. Joe Leahy of FT.com writes that "The submerged vegetation and organic matter in their catchment areas produce methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The dams’ turbines also release methane already trapped in the water." Philip Fearnside, an ecologist with the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, told Leahy that "For the first 41 years, it will be negative as compared with fossil fuels."

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