In the Spotlight: Belo Monte Dam

Compiled by Lauren Phelps – Brazil Institute, 06/26/2012

The construction of Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam, officially given the green light a little over a year ago, is certainly one of the most controversial topics trending in national news. The dam, which is being constructed on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, has received renewed attention most recently during a spate of protests during last week’s Rio +20 conference in Rio de Janeiro. The protestors occupied the construction site and opened a channel in the earthen dam. They hoped to harness the attention of world leaders assembled in Rio to discuss sustainable development goals, with energy development key among these.

Protests and strikes have been ongoing since the approximately $US 18 billion project was announced, with the pros and cons being widely disputed. On the one hand, the dam is projected to create up to 40,000 jobs and could generate up to 11,233 MW of energy, alleviating the burden on the Itaipu Dam while supplying the energy demanded by Brazil’s burgeoning industrial sectors and residential areas.

Despite these projected benefits, however, the dam is also expected to flood the surrounding forested areas, displacing up to 20,000 people. The project mandates that Norte Energia, the company building the dam, devote at least $US 800 million to protecting the environment; however for the families at risk and environmental activists, this fee does not make up for the potential damage. Though the Brazilian government has released a document elucidating the benefits of the dam and assuring that these indigenous communities will not be severely impacted, many are still worried. Several indigenous communities in the surrounding areas are not only threatened with displacement, but maintain that the Xingu River is vital to their community’s traditions and everyday life. The dam is also expected to lead to the extinction of several fish species and harm current fish stocks, affecting the local fishing industry.

Another issue cited by critics is the precedent set by the dam; if this project is successful, the Brazilian government has up to 60 other hydroelectric projects in the works that will have further environmental implications and will likely increase the flooded areas by a large percentage.

Along with environmental protection groups, many celebrities have gotten involved in protests against the dam, including US filmmaker James Cameron, Bianca Jagger, and Sting. Despite this criticism, construction on the dam continues, and it is set to begin generation in January 2015.

(To better view the pros and cons of the dam’s construction, the website MYOO has created an interesting infographic that illustrates the data on Belo Monte’s costs and benefits.)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user International Rivers.


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