As Rio+20 Gets Underway, Brazil's "Pandora" Dam Swarmed By Activists

Protesters planted 500 native açai trees and erected 200 crosses to honor the lives of those lost defending the Amazon.

Around 300 activists protested hydroelectric dams in the Brazilian Amazon on Friday less than 24 hours after the nation's president, Dilma Rousseff, praised them as sources of clean and renewable energy at the U.N. Rio+20 conference.

Using pick axes and shovels, people who are being displaced by the Belo Monte hydroelectric project removed a strip of earthen dam to restore the Xingu River's natural flow. Part of the river will be diverted to make way for the reservoir that will power the dam.

While no indigenous tribes that live along the river will have to relocate, their livelihood could be affected if river bed's run dry during the Amazon's dry seasons and fish species die off all as a result of the diversion along Xingu River tributaries like the Bacajá.

Brazil's massive $18 billion Belo Monte dam, also known as the "Pandora" dam thanks to director James Cameron's Aug. 2010 short film that likened the government run project to his blockbuster film Avatar, has legal opposition from federal prosecutors in the dam's home state of Para as well as a host of mostly multinational environmental groups like Amazon Watch and International Rivers.

Amazon Watch said in a press release on Friday that protesters planted 500 native açai trees to stabilize the riverbank that has been partially dug up by early-phase construction of "Pandora". They also erected 200 crosses on the river banks of the Xingu to honor the lives of those lost defending the Amazon.

An American nun named Dorothy Stang was murdered by cattle ranchers in February 2005 right outside where Belo Monte is currently being built, in Altamira, Para. Stang was a staunch defender of small stakeholders in the region and indigenous peoples who still live largely off the land in what is the world's largest rainforest.

Also on Friday morning, hundreds of residents of Altamira held a march to the headquarters of dam-building consortium Norte Energia, SA, made up primarily of government energy companies, privately held construction firms, and mining giant Vale, which holds a 9.5 percent stake in Belo.

The actions today are part of a Xingu River celebration commemorating 23 years since the residents of Altamira and vicinity first defeated the original Belo Monte dam. The original project was much larger and called for more clear cutting of the forest around the river.

Antonia Melo, the coordinator of the Xingu Vivo Movement said, "This battle is far from being over. This dam will not be built. The people who live along the banks of the Xingu, who subsist from the river, who drink from the river, and who are already suffering from of the most irresponsible projects in the history of Brazil are demanding: Stop Belo Monte."

Within the power structure in Brasilia, their call is falling on deaf ears.

Dilma spoke at the U.N. Sustainable Development Conference, known as Rio+20, on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro where she reaffirmed her commitment to preserving the Amazon while praising the Belo Monte dam at the same time.

Life is improving in the Amazon. Incomes are rising. Jobs are no longer scarce. Education levels are rising, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistcis, IBGE. Plus, according to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, satellite data showed recently that Amazon deforestation declined 75 percent between 2004 and 2011.

Brazil depends on hydroelectric dams for electricity. Roughly 88 percent of the country is powered by hydroelectric dams, the only large scale, low cost renewable energy source currently in the market. While many companies are investing in a favorite power source of environmental activists, solar, it is much more expensive per megawatt and can never replace hydro power or hydrocarbons in any short amount of time.

Due to the slowdown in economic activity in Brazil and around the globe, Brazil actually enjoys and energy surplus. But that is expected to be neutralized within the next two years, according to government data, unless the country continues to build small and midsized power plants.

"Pandora" is far from small. She's more than 11,000 megawatts and will be the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world, trailing the Itaipu dam in Brazil and the 22,000 megawatt Three Gorges dam along the Yangtzhe River in China.

Dilma said the environment cannot stand in the way of development. "The environment is part of a country's development and social inclusion policy," she said. "The biggest struggle for Rio+20 participants is to find a model that preserves the environment, but encompasses development, growth and social inclusion."

Brazil's foreign ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo expressed concerns during a press conference in Rio on Thursday that the advanced economies might use the financial crisis as a means to derail progress on a more unified global environmental policy.

"We cannot be held hostage to the retraction resulting from financial crises in rich countries. We are here to think about the long term and not about crises that may be overcome in one or two years," Figueiredo said, adding that early discussions regarding implementation – which includes debates on finance and technology transfers – still remain a divisive issue among countries and will require even more intense efforts during the last two days of the Preparatory Committee meeting, ending today.

The Rio+20 conference officially starts on June 20.

Dilma is scheduled to return to Rio then to participate in a summit with other heads of state on that day.

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