Brazil's Belo Monte Dam

Sacrificing the Amazon and its Peoples for Dirty Energy

Traditional fishing in the Xingu. Photo Credit: Christian Poirier

The Brazilian government is building the world's third largest hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, a major Amazon tributary. Now over fifty percent complete, the Belo Monte Dam complex is designed to divert eighty percent of the Xingu River's flow which will thus devastate an area of over 1,500 square kilometers of Brazilian rainforest and cause the forced displacement of up to 40,000 people. This project gravely impacts the land and livelihoods of thousands of riverine, urban families and communities, and indigenous peoples from several neighboring areas.

The Xingu River basin is a living symbol of Brazil's cultural and biological diversity; it is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups. The Xingu flows north 2,271 kilometers from the central savanna region of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River. Nominally protected throughout most of its course by indigenous reserves and conservation units, the Xingu basin is severely impacted by cattle ranching and soy monocultures. Belo Monte is the first in a planned network of mega-dam projects which will pose additional devastation to an already threatened region.

A project hailing from Brazil's military dictatorship, Belo Monte continues to exhibit the same alarming authoritarian tendencies associated with this brutal regime. To understand more about the history of this project, explore an interactive timeline, which chronicles thirty years of injustice surrounding the approval and construction of the mega-dam.

No one knows the true cost of the Belo Monte Dam. What is clear is that Belo Monte will be one of the largest, most devastating infrastructure projects ever built in the Amazon. As costs rocket above all previous estimates and the full extent of its impacts across the region become more evident, it's clear that Brazil doesn't need Belo Monte, and that the project brings destruction – not development – to a precious region.

Since the initiation of construction in 2011, the city of Altamira has witnessed a massive influx of migrants, provoking a spike in criminal activities, as well as the collapse of health, education, and sanitation services. For local indigenous communities, especially the Juruna and Arara peoples of the Xingu's "Big Bend" region, alcoholism, depression, internal divisions and conflict have become commonplace, leading to a process of cultural disintegration. Dam construction has profoundly impacted the quality of the river's water, jeopardizing both water and food security for indigenous and traditional peoples who rely on the Xingu for drinking, bathing, fishing, and transport. The construction of Belo Monte has already led to a drastic reduction in the river's once biodiverse fish species and it portends more serious impacts if completed.

Recent technical studies concerning Brazil's electricity sector demonstrate viable opportunities to implement new energy efficiency standards and adopt energy alternatives with low socio-environmental and financial costs when compared to hydroelectric dams. However, the Brazilian government has proven unwilling to debate its currently flawed energy model, which as is, aims to sacrifice the last remaining wild rivers of the Amazon. The devastating example of Belo Monte may soon befall the Tapajós River should urgent action fail to be taken.

Amazon Watch has led an international campaign to stop Belo Monte since 2010. Our efforts have been instrumental in shining a spotlight on the inherent human rights and legal violations behind the dam and the environmental chaos it has left behind in its wake. Amazon Watch continues to work alongside a coalition of Brazilian and international organizations to support the struggle of local social movements and affected communities against Belo Monte.

The Xingu River. Photo Credit: Maira Irigaray

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