Eye on the Amazon

Siemens, the Pope and the Law of the Jungle

Brazil's Belo Monte Dam. Photo credit: Todd Southgate

The gigantic concrete and steel walls of Brazil's Belo Monte dam complex rise out of the Amazon's Xingu River, a testament to the insanity caused by greed, corruption, and an authoritarian "development" model. Defying strident controversy and determined resistance since its inception, the $10 billion mega-project is nearing completion, with the last of its hydroelectric turbines slated to come online in 2019. Many believe the battle to defend the Xingu's ecosystems and communities has been drowned under the dam's stagnant reservoir, and yet the struggle for accountability and for environmental and social justice is, in fact, far from over.

In late 2014, the writer and journalist Carl von Siemens contacted Amazon Watch to accompany him on a research trip to the Amazon. More than a random correspondent, Carl hails from the founding family of German corporation Siemens, one of the planet's industrial technology leaders. Siemens holds a 35% stake in Voith Hydro, a key turbine, generator and engineering supplier to Belo Monte, and also delivered electrical equipment to the dam.

The following essay – first published in November 2015 in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag – documents Carl's findings from this journey to Belo Monte and the neighboring Tapajós River basin. It has been translated from the German by the author, assisted by filmmaker Carey McKenzie. His personal connection to the story provides a unique journalistic perspective on one of the planet's most polemic projects.

Belo Monte is being built where the Xingu, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon, unravels into a landscape of meandering rivers, channels, countless islands and oxygen-rich rapids nourishing endemic species. In Portuguese, the landscape is known as "Volta Grande" or "Great Bend." Dams of pharaonic dimensions will slice through the Great Bend and divert most of its waters into two canals. On the way to the turbines, the water will pick up speed, so that the size of the barrier lakes will be small in relation to the dam's generating capacity. But they will be big enough to flood 400 square kilometers of the region of Altamira; more than 20,000 people will lose the roofs over their heads.

Belo Monte is a project of the Brazilian government intended to ensure that, now and in the future, 80 percent of the energy needs of its emerging economy will be covered by hydro-electric power. The dam-building project is being managed by Norte Energia, a consortium created for this purpose. Its shareholders include the state-owned power utility Eletrobras, the mining giant Vale, and some pension funds. Construction work is being done by a group of powerful Brazilian construction companies that are said to enjoy lucrative links to politics. The necessary technology is being bought on the international market. Turbines will come from General Electric through French Alstom's power generation and electricity transmission business, Andritz in Austria, and Voith Hydro in Germany. Voith Hydro is a joint-venture of the industrial conglomerate Voith and Siemens, which was founded by an ancestor of mine.

Around 7 billion US Dollars will be spent on Belo Monte, most of it coming from the Brazilian Development Bank. But this figure does not account for the true cost of the project. It only describes the budget that will be split between profitable corporations that build the dam and compensation payments. Compensation is to be paid to the people living in the town and along the Great Bend such as fishermen and a few hundred indigenous people. It will not cover the collateral ecological costs, however, which will spread into the rainforest like a spiral of toppling dominos.

We calculate as if organisms had no worth

The Great Bend, around 130 river kilometers (80 miles) long, will either be flooded or filled with silt. New roads will provide access for cattle ranchers, mining corporations, and the timber mafia. Since the dam is being built on the headwaters of the Xingu, migratory fish throughout the 1,980-kilometer (1230-mile) length of the river will be affected, from the estuary to the Matto Grosso. Hungry people will drift to other shores and apply further pressure on fishing stocks. The forest threatened by flooding will have to be sold for timber or burnt down to forestall the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas, from rotting wood at the bottom of the lake. Each acre lost diminishes the water vapor that trees spit like geysers into the sky, where it condenses to form atmospheric rivers that travel south along the Andes to bless agriculture and existing hydroelectric plants with rain.

Some estimate of environmental costs could be reached using a calculation that multiplies each razed acre with its costs of reforestation. But we calculate as if these organisms were worthless. We calculate as if they did not even exist. In a region with the biomass of the Amazon, though, the loss is so significant that it cannot be ignored.

Even the gods are dying

It comes as little surprise that Belo Monte has grown into an engine of politics that, even before it has started to generate electricity, has generated emotions such as greed, anger and despair. Since construction work commenced in June 2011, distribution fights, dam occupations, and legal injunctions have dogged the project; sometimes populations affected had not been given a proper hearing and sometimes environmental legislation was violated. Work could only continue because of a special law that allows for the suspension of court verdicts when "national security" is claimed to be at stake.

Although there are numerous court cases pending against Belo Monte, it would not be correct to call the project a flagrant breach of the law. Rather, the dam is being built in a state that is akin to a state of emergency, a state in which the law has been, paradoxically, suspended by the law. "To be outside the legal framework and still be within: this is the topological structure of the state of emergency," writes Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Within this state, on the site of Belo Monte, the indigenous person steps onto the political stage.

For generations, he has defined his identity through the territory measured by his steps. Robbed of this land, he has little left but the bare life. Belo Monte poses an existential threat, which forces him to put his case to the constitutional court. He is compelled to claim participatory and territorial rights, which previously he had probably neither needed nor known. He has become a political person, but is simultaneously excluded from the benefits of citizenship, since the state of emergency rules over his domain. His gods too, will soon be dead. The pantheistic whisper of the wind in the trees, the rustle of an anaconda in the bush and the murmur of the Xingu on the pebbles will be drowned by the dull roar of turbines going about their business with robotic equanimity.

The missionaries returned with nature in their hearts

There is an unmistakable irony in the fact that the rainforest, from whence the indigenous person steps into modernity, is not a Garden of Eden, as its protectors often profess, but rather a model of the capitalism that destroys it. For it lies in the nature of the entrepreneur to generate constant mutations in his portfolio and offer them to the market, where he, just like any creature in the Amazon, struggles to survive amidst merciless competition.

On the site of Belo Monte, a swap of identities therefore begins. The indigenous person starts to become a citizen, while the entrepreneur hides his clothing underneath a stone and does not act under any law except that of the jungle. And exactly because the submission of nature and its peoples endows him with the feeling that he has prevailed, he will not see their "elimination through development" as a sin, but rather as proof of his own superiority.

At first it seems that Belo Monte is poised to become a rehabilitation program for left-wing social critique. In Brazil, resistance against the dam is led by socialist liberation theologists who call for the alleviation of the plight of the poor, in this world, not the next. Behind this lies a remarkable theological change. For half a millennium, missionaries rowed upstream and found Indians who had no concept of Original Sin. Underneath the evergreen canopy, they knew little of time, and it was impossible to convince them of the existence of a paradise which could only be entered after death. Their relationship with nature reminded the missionaries of the Holy St. Francis and the cohesiveness within their settlements seemed to emulate early Christian communities. The missionaries had set out to convert other peoples to their creed; not a few of them returned as indigenous people at heart.

Romantics at the Siemens annual general meeting

This combination of ecology, spirituality and social commitment found expression in the recent environmentalist encyclical of Pope Francis. In his Laudato Si': Encyclical Letter on care for our common home the Pope asks for "liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm," per which man exploits nature for his purposes while the poor suffer the worst of the catastrophic consequences.

"The alliance between the economy and technology," the encyclical says, "ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently, the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented."

I learned about the Belo Monte project from such "romantics" at the annual shareholders' conference of the Siemens corporation. "How can you deliver, through your joint venture Voith Hydro, turbines worth millions of euro to Belo Monte," a woman at the microphone asked, "and close your eyes to the effect the dam has on people's lives?"

When her colleague had his mic switched off, I turned my back on the shareholders' conference. With an environmental organization, I travelled to Brazil looking for an answer to that woman's entreaty.

Like migratory ants, an army of workers marches to the next dam

I spoke to passionate priests, strong women and weeping Indians. I stood on the site of Belo Monte where Caterpillars were eating their way through the forest, and I joined a boatload of activists to travel upstream on the Tapajós, a largely untouched river that is now in danger of being choked by a series of new mega-dams. Of course, I knew the activists would try to manipulate me with a choreography of hand-picked sob stories. But I also knew that these stories represented decisive aspects of truth. On everything and everybody fell the shadow of the dam - monstrous, silent, enough in itself, which subjected everyone, as in a novel by Joseph Conrad, to their own personal test.

By my decision to join with environmentalists, I had made an important change in my life. I did not work for any one of the suppliers, and I did not have any actual power. But I hoped to set an example, using my word to attract attention to the fate of the Amazon. While the activists started to drum and the boat carried us deeper and deeper into the forest, it dawned on me this would be a fight of David against Goliath.

The interests at work in the Amazon can combine the supremacy of their forces at strategic spots, so that one river after the next will fall victim to this salami technique. Today, one year after that boat ride, my journey has become the subject of a sermon given in a parish in Zurich, and Belo Monte approaches completion. Like an army of migratory ants, the workers will soon march on to the site of the next mega-dam and continue their work of destruction.

Left and right

My feeling of powerlessness was exacerbated by the fact that Belo Monte had been planned by a market-liberal government, but carried out by the socialist Workers' Party. Despite the protests of fringe groups, it is as much a project of the so-called "left" as it is of the so-called "right;" a project that harkens back to the United States' Hoover Dam and the Stalinist dams built to "transform nature into a socialist landscape."

Since governments of different political orientations have entered a zone of indistinguishability on the site of Belo Monte, it makes little sense to negotiate environmentalist issues within the traditional framework of "left" and "right." So, we should turn away from the actors of this drama and instead focus our attention on the stage upon which they perform. After all, loggers, corporations, and governments are especially dangerous if we allow them to operate in a condition of lawlessness. There are laws to protect at least the land mass of the Amazon, but they can only be effective if people take an interest in them.

Sovereignty is defined by the power to decide upon a state of emergency. The zone of indistinguishability on the site of Belo Monte seems to imply that the sovereignty of political alternatives is undermined by their dependence on that state. Both "right-wing" and "left-wing" positions are dwarfed by the machinery that forms the backbone of modern life. Around its mineral intelligence, modern forms of life crystallize as life crystallizes around the black smokers of the deep. The hunger for electricity of these machines is a liability we carry with us into the future, and from its satisfaction we will receive, like junkies, both pleasure and pain.

Citizens of the jungle

At Belo Monte, the writing is on the wall because, all over the Amazon, new dams are planned or being built. Should they become a reality, wilderness will turn into a man-made environment where water levels no longer oscillate to the pulse of wet and dry but obey the sober button of the engineer. A key role in the protection of the forests, rivers and animals will now be played by the indigenous person.

In the moment of contact, he finds himself on the threshold between two ways of life: life free from the grid, and life in technological order. On this threshold, the future of the project of modernity will be decided – the project to protect both the strong and the weak by according them the same civic rights. In Brazil, where one quarter of the land is environmentally protected by law, this project will only succeed if the indigenous person does not disappear into the favelas, but if she returns to his forest, to own it as a citizen. The state of emergency will not then be accepted as a necessity, but will be unmasked as an act of laziness, perhaps even of malfeasance. The entrepreneur will only be allowed to use the forest if he obtains permission, and without devouring it in the process. He will have started to behave like, traditionally at least, an indigenous person, and the swap of identities, which commenced on the site of Belo Monte, would be complete.

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