Dam It: Brazil's Belo Monte Stirs Controversy
About 24,000 people will be displaced from towns in the Amazon to make way for the world's third biggest dam
- January 20, 2012
- Gabriel Elizondo
- Al Jazeera
Altamira, Brazil – Drive about 90 minutes outside this sultry Brazilian Amazon town, and into the thicket of the jungle, and a surreal, other-worldly scene appears.
It's a place where dozens of steel arms with giant claws from land excavators cut into the red earth, carving out deep holes.
There are earth movers, growling bulldozers and dump trucks crossing switch back roads that lead into colossal man-made craters, while clusters of hard hat-wearing engineers, glare down inspecting it all.
This is the scene at the opening phase of the building of the largest and most expensive project in Brazil, and one of the most controversial projects in Latin America: The Belo Monte Dam, along the Xingu River.
Officially the ground breaking quietly happened in June of last year, but the heavy construction ramped up during the turn of the year, and is moving full speed ahead at a blistering pace.
Five thousand men are working in two shifts, from 7 am until 5 pm and from 5 pm until 2:30 am, six days a week.
The construction area is gigantic, comprising three separate work sites sites that will eventually merge together to form two reservoirs 500 square kilometres in size linked by a channel comprising the Belo Monte Dam complex.
Twice a day, dynamite is used to blow up hard rock under the earth to make way for the dam.
A 'small city' is being built inside the work area to accommodate some of the 20,000 labourers and engineers who will be working here by November 2013.
When completed, Belo Monte will be the world's third largest hydroelectric dam and the latest cost estimate is $4bn.
The construction scene is all the more remarkable given that until a few months ago, Belo Monte's future still seemed in doubt, as the project faced a wave of judicial injunctions, and opposition from indigenous groups and environmental organisations both in Brazil and abroad.
The judicial injunctions were primarily imposed by the federal prosecutors office in the state of Para where Belo Monte is located and they questioned the builders processes of environmental licensing, contracting bids and the rights of effected indigenous populations.
Renewable energy worth social cost?
Those regional injunctions were either thrown out by higher courts or appealed, which has allowed builders to proceed forward and project and air of confidence.
"In this moment Belo Monte has the perspective to fulfill absolutely all its timetables," Joao Pimentel, the director of institutional relations for Norte Energia, told Al Jazeera. "We haven't had any delays by any judicial action or for any other reason, and we never had any lost days of work. That's why Belo Monte is going to continue within the timeframe."
While Belo Monte is being built by Norte Energia - a consortium of more than 10 mining, engineering and construction companies - the project is heavily backed by the federal government and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who have long said the dam is an essential component of Brazil's energy security.
Pimentel argues Belo Monte represents clean, renewable energy, and he points to the fact 86 per cent of Brazil's energy generation is from renewables, far higher than the world average.
"Brazil needs Belo Monte," Pimentel said.
Most environmentalists disagree, arguing that the ecological and social impacts of Belo Monte far outweigh any benefits.
"Belo Monte's social and environmental impacts are far greater than the Norte Energia propagandists would lead us to believe," Christian Poirier, Brazil programme coordinator for Amazon Watch told Al Jazeera. "They are in fact an unacceptable price to pay for a hugely inefficient mega-project carved into an extremely sensitive and precarious region."
Poirier says the Brazilian government has put too much emphasis on hydroelectric dams and not on wind and solar energy, which are generally considered to have less social and environmental impacts.
There is also the issue of displacement. According to Pimentel, about 6,000 families, or roughly 24,000 people, are being paid-off to leave their homes to make way for the dam.
Alves da Silva, 56, a fishermen in the community of Santo Antonio - which sits at the base of one the main work sites - is being pushed off the land where he has lived for more than 30 years.
Only 60 families live in the community, but more than half have taken the payout and moved.
Their homes are then quickly demolished by Norte Energia, and no trespassing signs put up. The church will be destroyed, and the tiny cemetery with about 20 gravesites has also been closed.
Payouts not enough
"Our community was one of the most talked about in the area," Alves da Silva told Al Jazeera. "Belo Monte is finishing our community. We had no option. For me, the saddest part of this story is to know that everything I helped create here I'm now seeing it all be destroyed. For me, this is the most difficult part."
There are a handful of people who don't want to leave, but last month the Brazilian government declared the entire Belo Monte construction area as well as surrounding 'areas of impact' part of the 'public interest,' meaning that residents have little legal recourse.
Mr Alves da Silva was offered about $11,000 for his home, but when he rejected that amount, Norte Energia offered a few hundred more dollars that he accepted, fearing there was no other option.
The money, he says, isn't enough to buy a proper piece of land, so he's moving 70km away to the only area he can afford, but will loose his livelihood of fishing.
"I consider myself as one of those who has been defeated," Alves da Silva said.
When thinking about his home being bulldozed, tears started to roll down his cheeks.
"It's difficult, very difficult," he said.
Pimentel argues that Belo Monte's social impacts will marginal.
"The design of Belo Monte was changed in the last year precisely to reduce the social impacts," Pimentel said. "The population that has been or will be removed during the process of the building of Belo Monte will only be in those areas that are necessary for the reservoir. And that is a small population... Yes, there are social impacts of a big project like Belo Monte, but we are mitigating those."
Questions such as how much land will be flooded and how many indigenous people will be effected have been batted around for years; debates about effects of building a dam of such magnitude on the Xingu River date back to the late 1970s during the time of Brazil's military dictatorship.
But today Belo Monte is fast becoming a reality, not just a concept to discuss.
Unanticipated social consequences
Just this week the Arara indigenous community claimed that land runoff from the construction was dirtying the Xingu river water they use to fish and drink. The public prosecutor's office has asked environmental authorities to urgently look into the matter.
And the city of Altamira has suffered a transformation as thousands of migrants merge on the city for jobs on the dam. The prices at the few hotels in town have more than doubled, and there has been skyrocketing land prices and home rentals. New business are opening to meet demand of well-funded engineers migrating to the city from other parts of Brazil.
And there is also crime.
ISTOE, a respected national news magazine, recently reported that criminality in Altamira has skyrocketed - the number of weapons confiscated jumped 379 per cent from 2010 to 2011 - as thousands of migrants flooded the city looking for work on the dam project.
"The trafficking of drugs and the bank robberies have intensified in the Xingu region because of a higher number of people and the movement of resources generated by the work of the large construction project," Paulo Kisner, the local Federal Police boss in Altamira, told the magazine. "Investments in the cities of the Xingu area are not being made, and the consequence is the increase in cost of living for a majority of population that is poor."
Belo Monte officials strongly deny crimes rates in Altamira are related to the construction project.
A new study released by a respected Brazilian environmental research organisation claims that deforestation will spike in the coming years in the region around the dam with an estimated 800 square kilometres destroyed in a "best case scenario", or as much as 5,316 square kilometres in a "worst case scenario" depending on migrations patterns.
Perhaps shocked by the speed of construction, Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, the main local NGO fighting against the dam, stormed a part of the construction site in January and spray painted work vehicles with anti-dam slogans, temporarily halting work for about one hour.
"Battle for public opinion"
Last year, more than one million Brazilians signed a petition against the dam in less than a week and in 2010 American filmmaker James Cameron came to Brazil to take up the cause of fighting against the dam.
Meanwhile, Norte Energia is pushing ahead both on construction and the battle for public opinion.
The first turbine is expected to be operational by 2015, and the entire project complete by early 2019.
They say all plans are on schedule.
The company has started a television station in Altamira, TV Belo Monte, and also hired Luiz Carlos Barreto, a famous Brazilian cinema filmmaker, to produce promotional videos extolling the benefits of the dam.
But decades after this project first was considered, and with cement being laid and earth movers carving new paths for construction, some opponents of the dam say there is still a long battle ahead.
"The government and builders of Belo Monte appear to think that rushing this disaster's completion will make it a fait accompli," said Poirier, from Amazon Watch. "But I'm afraid what they are doing is provoking further conflict with affected people and the potential for a prolonged standoff."
For his part, Pimentel is convinced the benefits outweight the costs. If there is no dam, he said, "there will be a need for nuclear or coal power and that is worse".