belomonte_280The construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazonian state of Para, Brazil has been a contested issue for over 20 years. After a long battle between residents of the region, NGOs and the Norte Energia Consortium, the full license to build was passed in June 2011. Opposition is still fierce from the indigenous and urban communities, affected by what is due to be the third largest hydroelectric project in the world, requiring more earth to be moved for its construction than that to build the Panama Canal.

The contract is worth some $17 billion for the companies involved, including British company BHP Billiton, Alstom (France) and Vale (Brazil). It will create thousands of jobs, and is seen as a huge economic boost for the region and the country. Producing green energy for a growing population and economy is a key policy of the Socialist Workers party, led by President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is a world leader in renewable energy, with one of the highest usages of hydroelectricity: over 80% of its electricity generated in this way. For a country with a population close to 200 million, this is a substantial amount of power.

Critics of the dam however, say the negative social and environmental impacts would greatly outweigh the advantages. This is partly due to the highly seasonal flow of the Xingu river, reducing to as little as 10% during the dry season, giving the dam an average capacity of just 40% of its maximum capabilities. Belo Monte is in fact three dams, built at various intervals on the ‘Big Bend’ of the Xingu, which would flood swathes of virgin rainforest and dry up others, making the area un-inhabitable – all in the heart of the Amazon, the most bio diverse and ecologically important place on the planet.

Socially, the issue with Belo Monte is with the effect it would have on the indigenous and urban populations of the district. Many have reported a substantial lack of information about the changes, options and compensation available to them. Up to 25,000 tribal communities such as the Arara, Kayapo and Juruna would have to leave their ancestral lands, migrating to urban areas where their traditional lifestyle of hunting, gathering and growing food is simply not possible. This in turn leads to unemployment, poverty and further swelling of the already strained population of Brazil’s cities.

The construction of Belo Monte has now begun, but the battle continues. The project will take at least three years to complete, so is therefore still in the early stages. It is unknown how this story of tradition versus progress will pan out.

Phil Clarke-Hill