If you’ve watched the video, ">"Defending the Rivers of the Amazon" (also available &feature=player_embedded">here, and on the dedicated Pandora website), you will understand that the fight to stop the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in Brazil – one of the most beautiful and unspoiled tributaries of the Amazon River – is not just about a damned dam, but about a patch of land and its people that, once lost, can never be recovered.
The dam will flood 516 square kilometers (almost 200 square miles) of land in Para state, displacing 25,000 indigenous (native) people from 18 distinct ethnic groups, as well as uncounted species of animals and such a host of plants that one or two might hold the cure to cancer, if we’d had time to identify them.
The message of Belo Monte’s desecration is being delivered by none other than James Cameron, film director and producer of Avatar, which highlighted the cruel tragedy of indigenous people confronted with “superior” civilizations.
International Rivers is also doing its bit, and all are backed by a panel of 40 Brazilian scientists who, in 2009, concluded that the Belo Monte’s true cost had not been adequately calculated in terms of either natural or human ecosystems.
The dispossessed include people Raoni Metuktire, a Kayapo Indian leader who was featured on a Survival International exposé as saying that she had always prevented her people from fighting.
“But now it is time to take back what belongs to us.” Metuktire adds.
The dam itself will produce 11,233 megawatts (MW, or 11 terawatts, per month) of electricity, or enough for 23 million homes. And, while environmentalists agree that hydroelectric power is about as clean as energy gets, experts like those at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change point out that it will make Brazil’s energy infrastructure even more lopsided and insecure, since the country already gets about 80 percent of its energy from hydro.
To support this position, Christian Poirer of Amazon Watch points out that, in months with little rainfall, the Belo Monte might produce as little as 1,000 MW. But the people will still be landless and unable to grow food.
Approval for the dam was a long time coming. Advocates (power companies and the like) butted heads with opponents for two decades, arguing the pros and cons. One of the most relevant (and negative) reports came from Éric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who noted in 2005 that hydropower- rather than being a benign alternative to fossil fuels – produced significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, sometimes even more than fossil-fuel plants.”
And Philip Fearnside, from Brazil's National Institute for Research in the Amazon, in a study estimating the greenhouse effects from another dam in Pará, showed that hydro power could potentially be more than three-and-a-half times as pollutive as oil-fired electricity generation.
Belo Monte was given the go-ahead in August, when Norte Energia, a consortium formed by state-controlled Companhia Hidro Electrica do Sao Francisco, won an open (and previously disputed bid) at a reported $20-billion price tag (not the $17 billion quoted in the media). The $20 billion is based on the actual, agreed-upon price of $57.12 per megawatt-hour (MWh) generated, and not the quoted price of $46.20 MWh. The agreement was signed by Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva.
If the dam is built, it will be the world’s third largest, after the Three Gorges dam in China (100 terawatt-hours, or TWh) and the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil/Paraguay border (75 TWh), which became operational in 1978.
To counter criticism of Belo Monte, the Brazilian government has mandated Norte Energia spend $800 million to mitigate environmental and societal degradation, but who will watch to see that the company complies (and who will watch the watchers)?
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Image one: Iatipu Dam