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Belo Monte, A Controversy Thirty Years in the Making

Angela Eklund

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A license to build the world’s third largest dam in Brazil was approved Feb. 1 by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), despite 30 years of public opposition.

A license to build the world’s third largest dam in Brazil was approved Feb. 1 by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), despite 30 years of public opposition.

The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Project is the most monumental development in Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program, and the most controversial one. Proposals for the construction of a dam for the Xingu River in the Amazon have been fought since the 1970’s by indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and even famed rock star, Sting.

A panel of 40 specialists from major Brazilian research institutions conducted an independent review of the project that assessed the impact of Belo Monte, and revealed that the damages would exceed the alleged benefits. “No one knows the true cost of Belo Monte,” says Francisco Hernandez, electric engineer and co-coordinator of the panel. The project would cost approximately 19 billion dollars, “requiring moving a volume of earth and rocks on the scale of that excavated for the building of the Panama Canal,” Hernandez added.

According to the 230-page report given to IBAMA for review, the loss of biodiversity due to Belo Monte would threaten species native to the region, such as the zebra pleco and the sheep pacu fish.

International Rivers, an advocate group that has fought projects like this since 1985, reported that 80% of the water in the Xingu River would be diverted for the project, displacing much more than the 19 million inhabitants of the region.

Megaron Tuxucumarrae, a Kayapo chief, says, “We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia. We are opposed to dams on the Xingu, and will fight to protect our river.”

The experts found that more than 40,000 people could be affected. Even two senior IBAMA officials chose to resign in November instead of support the project, according to a press release from PR Newswire in Washington. The officials “had been subjected to political pressure to approve the license,” the article explains.

An $800 million donation to offset environmental damages is required of the private investors that choose to build Belo Monte when the project is auctioned off in April. “There is not going to be an environmental disaster,” Brazil’s environment minister Carlos Minc told Brazilian television. According to the Brazilian energy ministry, production would begin in 2015.  However, the 23 million homes that will be powered by the dam’s hydroelectric energy do not justify the investment to build the dam, because energy production would fall dramatically during the 3-4 month dry season, down to 10% of its maximum production.

Many environmentalists are concerned that this could be a repeat event of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chinese officials recently acknowledged the environmental and social damage caused by the project. Warnings from scientists were ignored, as they are being ignored by IBAMA, and catastrophic events have occurred because of this ignorance.

Massive landslides and dangerous geological events have resulted in death, in one case as many as 30 people from one landslide. Entire ecosystems have been altered and in some cases, have disappeared altogether.

Will Brazil allow history to repeat itself? Belo Monte is only one of at least 70-100 large dams being planned for the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse and valuable regions in the world. The controversy is unlikely to fade, but with the license, there will be little in the way of Belo Monte.

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The Student News Source of the University of New Haven
Belo Monte, A Controversy Thirty Years in the Making