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Before and after: the site of Brazil’s Belo Monte dam

Indigenous Peoples

Belo Monte Dam construction site, Isla Pimental, Pará, Brazil in 2011 and 2012.

Photo: Fernando de Cunha
Brazil's ‘monster dam’ has been under construction for a year now, and the impact is already starting to show on the land and local communities.

Controversy has raged over the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazonian state of Para, Brazil for over two decades.

Indigenous and urban communities fiercely oppose what is due to be the third largest hydroelectric project in the world, requiring more earth to be moved for its construction, than was needed for the Panama Canal.

The contract is worth some $17 billion to the companies involved, including the British firm BHP Billiton, France’s Alstom and Brazil’s Vale. On the plus side, it will create thousands of jobs, and is seen as a huge economic boost for the region.

Producing green energy for a growing population and economy is a cornerstone of the ruling socialist Workers’ Party, led by President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is a global leader in renewables and over 80 per cent of its own electricity is hydroelectric. For a country with a population close to 200 million, this is a substantial amount of power.

Critics of the dam, however, say the negative social and environmental impacts would greatly outweigh the advantages. This is partly due to the highly seasonal flow of the Xingu River, which reduces to as little as 10 per cent during the dry season.

Belo Monte is in fact three dams, built at various intervals on the ‘big bend’ of the Xingu. It will flood swathes of virgin rainforest and dry up others, making the area uninhabitable. All this in the heart of the Amazon, the most biodiverse and ecologically important place on the planet.

Socially, Belo Monte will have a huge impact on the indigenous and urban populations in the district. Many have reported receiving very little information about the changes and the options available to them, including compensation.

Up to 25,000 members of tribal communities such as the Arara, Kayapo and Juruna would have to leave their ancestral lands. In 2014, most will have to migrate to urban areas where their traditional lifestyle of hunting, gathering and growing food is simply not possible. This in turn would lead to unemployment, poverty and further swelling of the already populous Brazilian cities.

The indigenous communities continue to battle on. Recent actions include a three-week occupation of the construction site, and taking construction engineers hostage.

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