The Dam Boom in the Amazon

A confrontation between the insatiable appetite for energy and the enduring need for habitability is under way in Brazil as it moves aggressively to harness the power of its rivers with plans for dozens of hydroelectric dams.

Such projects are engineering and aesthetic marvels that provide hydroelectric power and can also control floods and direct water for irrigation. But they also divert rivers, destroy animal habitat, displace entire communities and drown vast amounts of land beneath reservoirs.

One project has galvanized the anti-dam movement in Brazil – the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon in Pará State. At a cost of roughly $16 billion, it is one of 30 large dams that have been announced for Brazil's Amazon region.

At last month's United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development here, it was hard to miss the irony of delegates gathering to promote a "cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all" as opponents of Belo Monte protested in the streets of Rio and Indians occupied the dam site.

Belo Monte's first turbine is expected to be operational in three years, the entire project in seven. It will be the world's third largest hydroelectric dam, capable of generating more than 11,000 megawatts of electricity. (In New York, Consolidated Edison's record demand is 13,189 megawatts, set last July.)

The Brazilian government and executives at Norte Energia, the consortium of companies behind the dam, say the project is vital to meeting the energy needs of a country poised to become the world's fifth largest economy by 2017. They argue that in 10 years, Brazil will need 56 percent more electricity, and that hydropower is the cleanest, cheapest and most dependable option.

The finished dam will stretch nearly four miles across the majestic Xingu. It will also radically transform the land and the lives of at least 20,000 people, including thousands of Indians who have lived along the river for centuries. The project includes two dams, two canals, two reservoirs and a system of dikes. More earth will have to be dug than was moved to construct the Panama Canal, according to the environmental group International Rivers.

Other environmental groups say the dam will flood more than 120,000 acres of rain forest and release an enormous amount of the greenhouse gas methane from rotting vegetation suddenly placed on the bottom of a reservoir. Critics also say the seasonal variability of the river's flow will yield much less power than advertised.

Belo Monte is one of dozens of major dams under way or in the planning stages around the world. According to Philip M. Fearnside, a professor at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, Brazil's plan for energy expansion calls for 48 large dams by 2020.

Altamira, a long-neglected, sleepy city in the north of Brazil, has swiftly become a hub of industry. Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, is selling Belo Monte as a shining example of an aggressive "growth-acceleration program," one that will create jobs, raise living standards, close the gap between rich and poor and generate energy.

Such a narrative, as told in videos slickly produced by Norte Energia, glosses over Belo Monte's negative impact on the Xingu region, impossible to miss in Altamira.

When I arrived last November with the Canadian videographer Todd Southgate to document the growing conflicts created by Belo Monte, I found a city in chaotic transition. Pedestrians, bicyclists, horse-drawn wagons, cars and huge Belo Monte trucks competed for right of way at nearly every intersection, where traffic lights were broken or simply did not exist.

"You have an environmental impact study of Belo Monte that is 36 volumes, around 20,000 pages, and it's basically a work of fiction," said Mr. Fearnside. "Belo Monte is a spear point for dismantling the whole system of environmental licensing and regulation here."

In 2010, James Anaya, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, urged that concerted efforts be made to ensure that "adequate consultations" were made with the Indians and that there be consensus on the project. Based on my talks with indigenous leaders, it's clear these conditions have not been met.

AT Norte Energia's headquarters in Brasília, I met with João Pimentel, the director of institutional relations.

"Electricity to us means comfort – not only for us, but for everybody," he said. "It means my computer, it means my iPhone." Noting that Belo Monte had been radically scaled back from earlier plans, he said the dam's environmental impact would be minimal. The river will be navigable, he added, even during the dry season, and no indigenous lands will be flooded. "They will have their way of life preserved," he said.

Mr. Pimentel argued that the energy generated by the Belo Monte dam would provide dependable electricity to millions of Brazilians and help solve an embarrassing problem – blackouts. But Mr. Fearnside contends that only a quarter of the electricity the dam produces will go to the public. Roughly 30 percent will support heavy industries like aluminum smelting.

Where lawsuits against the environmental licensing process and other issues have stalled in Brazilian courts, opponents have drawn an eclectic coalition to their struggle. The movie director James Cameron and former President Bill Clinton are among those who have urged Brazil to reconsider.

Brazil has never wanted the international community to influence its environmental or other policies. Yet as the so-called country of the future continues to make its remarkable entrance onto the world stage – with a growing economy, the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later – it's whittling away at one of the planet's most vital resources, the Amazon, while ignoring the continuing drama facing the people who live along the Xingu River.

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