Damned Project

Judge Sets Back Push to Halt
Newest Power Plant in Brazil

Brazil’s energy needs have pit the administration of President Dilma Rousseff against environmentalists and indigenous populations. Smack in the middle of this struggle sits the estimated $13 billion Monte Belo project, which is to become the world’s third largest dam.
The dispute has had its share of victories for each side, and the latest ruling, by a Supreme Court judge, has gone the government’s way, as it allowed the controversial project to resume construction. That may be far from settling the matter, however, as even Hollywood celebrities have joined in the fray.
The vision of Brazil as a self-reliant energy powerhouse has been a national theme even before it restored its democratic rule in the 1980s. To take advantage of an abundance of river basins to meet growing consumption needs has been an integral component of every president’s agenda ever since.
But most of this vision implies the construction of mega dams in areas surrounding the Amazon, and the impact on the environment and indigenous communities could be damaging and irreversible. Instead, critics say, Brazil should build a series of smaller and less costly projects, that wouldn’t be so disruptive.
Behind the apparent clash of two different views about how Brazil should tackle its energy needs, there’s also the charge, commonly leveled against the Rousseff administration, of playing favors with Brazil’s cultural and geographic differences. While the wealthier south usually sees its energy demands met, vast extensions of the north remain underserved and lawless.
This time around, what particularly distinguishes the dispute over Belo Monte is the reenergized activism of native Brazilians, the ‘indians,’ who up to the 1970s, were all but absent of any political machinations concocted in the air-conditioned offices of the capital Brasilia. Even, and in special, those involving their lands.

Brazil’s complicated and still unresolved relationship between its indigenous past and two centuries of continuous urbanization, continues to pose new questions to its new generations and reboot middle class. Now, despite most of indian land being finally defined, at least on paper, other factors are continuing to play a decisive role.
One, of course, is the issue of big landowners and their ruthless rule over large swaths of the jungle in the north. Since the early 20th century, they dispose of the Amazon and its resources at their will, and can be credited for much of its destruction. Their iron grip extends to lucrative deals with corporations and indiscriminate exploitation of its mineral-rich soil.
Also, as a direct result of such unregulated push to use the forest as a cash cow, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved to the area from the 1960s on, attracted by false promises of work and unlimited wealth. Instead, many found themselves trapped for life, in the slavery and sub-human working conditions that characterized projects in the area.
The Serra Pelada gold reserves, and the brutal rush that followed its discovery in the early 1980s, became a symbol of everything that was despicable about Brazil’s approach to the development of the Amazon. While that particular project is now abandoned, others remain active and still unregulated, as tributes to unjustified expectations and human exploitation at its worse.
That also creates inevitable clashes between miners and other floating populations of the jungle against its most ancient inhabitants, the natives, with nasty consequences. Reports on bloody battles and massacres of entire families are not uncommon, and nothing indicates they will stop.
Lawlessness and contract killings rule the jungle. Even before community organizer Chico Mendes was murdered in 1988, and many more who followed, routine assassination was the most likely end to dissent, with impunity following it closely. The latest example of that was on display just last weeks, when the alleged murderer of American Dorothy Stang, shot dead in 2005, was ordered to be released from prison by a local judge.

Brazil’s proverbial laid back attitude, its bouncy and vital popular culture, and its natural geographical beauty mask a constant struggle between its continental-size social shortcomings, and a rising minority of the affluent and the super-wealthy. Helped by its economic stability, such persistent contradictions have at times stood in the way of its newly-acquired global projection.
The Rousseff administration has followed the prescription of previous President Lula da Silva’s dual populism and economic pragmatism, and to a great extent, it has worked. The country that remain relatively unscathed by the recent global financial crisis, is getting ready to host within a few years, two major world-class sports events, the World Cup and the Olympic Games. But if at least in theory, Brazil looks in good shape to fulfill its longtime ambition of becoming a world power, in equal footing with the U.S. and the G-8 countries, much of its approach to economic growth remains pegged to an outdated system of political ‘clientelism,’ in detriment of a more progressive and transparent idea of development.
One of Brazil’s biggest challenges resides precisely in the way it needs to balance the protection of its natural resources, with the growing needs of the population. The path it chooses to develop the means to become energy self-sufficient, for example, is also vital to promote the well being and integration of its enormous cultural diversity.
Despite expectations to the contrary, Brazil has recently decided to invest yet again in carbon fuel sources of power, opting for a complex long-term exploitation of oil reserves deep below its coast. State-run Petrobrás is engaged into a multiyear plan that promises to give the country a leadership role among petroleum-producing nations.
It’s also a costly and risky procedure, with a potential to catastrophic results, as most of such oil reserves are dangerously close of Brazil’s two biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, home to over 30 million people. A large accident could potentially derail the country’s ambitions for at least a generation.

Under such perspective, harnessing the energy provided by the country’s great many rivers and assorted bodies of water offers just the gentle and sustainable approach to development not present in Petrobrás’s strategy. After all, the logistics, environmental impact, and costs of building river damns are considerably easier to tackle than what it’s required to extract oil.
That is, all conditioned to size. And that’s the major flaw of a project such as Belo Monte. To reach its planned installed capacity of 11,233 megawatts, the Para’s Xingu River dam would require the initial flooding of 150 square miles of virgin forests, and the project would also need to be implemented with the construction of additional dams.
What’s to become the third-largest dam in the world, behind China’s Three Gorges, and Brazil’s own Itaipu, would cover an excess of 6500 km2 of rainforest. And despite being located in the still pristine regions of the north, it’d disproportionately benefit Brazil’s big cities in the south.
Since the Xingu River basin is home to some 25,000 indigenous people from about 40 ethnic groups, the flooding of the area would cause at least an equal number of people to be displaced in the process, according to conservative estimates. More would also be affected along the Xingu’s 2,271 km of extension, from Mato Grosso state to the Amazon river.
Already affected by soy monocultures and cattle ranching, there’s little doubt that the human toll of relocating such a high number of people, many of which not really used to be in such close contact with the mainstream of the Brazilian society, has all the makings of a cultural disaster.

The biggest criticism of Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Ayres Britto‘s decision to overturn a ruling suspending the Belo Monte‘s construction was that he didn’t address the concerns of indigenous and environmental groups in Brazil and abroad. These groups have promised to file a new appeal.
Prior to his decision last Monday, Justice Britto was also criticized for having informally consulted with government officials, while refusing to meet with representatives of indigenous communities affected by the project. The original scheduling of construction may have been compromised for good, though, as work may not be able to resume before the raining season starts.
In the meantime, much wrangling is expected over President Rousseff’s perceived lack of a clear environmental stand, when it comes to protection of the Amazon Rainforest. Just a few months ago, she too was criticized for not vetoing a new Forest Code bill, seen by environmentalists as industry-biased and weak in its penalties for illegal logging and deforestation.
Whatever happens to Belo Monte, which will very likely receive a go-ahead regardless of its opposition, and to the code, still pending in congress, may reflect how badly Brazilians are invested in the protection of the country’s natural forests. But so far, interest and activism remain restricted to few institutions, outside those directly affected by government policy.
As far as conspiracies go, there’s a movement that claims that a coalition of foreign countries, led by the U.S., is highly interested in turning the Amazon into an international-controlled area. Phony and exacerbated sentiments of outrage and patriotism have followed such hollow assertions.
But while there’s no evidence in those claims, despite the support they enjoy among the Brazilian cultural fringe, the depletion of the Amazon Rainforest is, indeed, a reality. And so is the combination of apathy, misguided decisions, and mismanagement from the part of the Brazilian society.
One would hope that, instead of sheltering paranoid and xenophobic feelings of exceptionalism, Brazil would take the humble step of assuming responsibility for the care and protection of its valuable jungle and dwindling indigenous peoples. The so-called ‘lungs of the world,’ the Amazon, won’t survive without the help of every world citizen. But Brazilians should lead by example.

Read Also
* Rainforest at Risk
* Forest Stumps
* Green Myopia
* Amazon News
* Hello Goodbye
* Rain Check

One thought on “Damned Project

  1. […] projects can be also credited to, or at least have been inspired by, the uphill battle to save the forest to its peoples which he championed and paid for with his life. As for the Brazilian government, it […]


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