Sold as Cheap, Green Energy Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam Is Too Costly to Indians and Amazon

Kayapo Indians in war danceThe April 20th date, already changed from March 30th, that was scheduled for staging an auction to bid for the rights to build and operate the controversial Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian state of Pará has been further delayed due to the popularization of the issue by such well-known figures as Avatar director James Cameron.

The increasing cost of production originally brought about the postponement, with potential investors such as GDF Suez (among others) threatening to back out of the auction as the new estimated price nears 20 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 11.2 billion).

Earlier this year, the Brazilian government authorized the initial process of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River to begin even though it has drawn heated opposition from local communities, environmentalists and indigenous rights activists.

These groups have defended Amazon rights for many years; however, as environmental topics become more pressing in today’s world, the proponents of renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric dams, have taken strong positions worldwide as the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.

Even though Brazil is currently becoming an economic powerhouse, it maintains low emission levels, with only 1.86 metric tons of CO2 emissions per capita (i.e. ten times less than the United States).

Moreover, Brasília has worked toward becoming environmentally responsible, as it voluntarily committed to cut its emissions by approximately 40% from projected 2020 levels. Thus, the development of a hydroelectric plant satisfies the call for clean, new energy resources while simultaneously fulfilling the growing need for energy.

However, while the advantages behind clean, renewable energy will be made available by the Belo Monte Dam, the dam itself could contribute to severe flooding and wreak harm on the ecosystems in the flood plain of the Xingu River, as well as give off damaging amounts of methane. The flooding and the environmental ramifications, consequently, could profoundly affect the lives and welfare of the local population.

Indigenous Biosphere

Due to the call for renewable energy, the Brazilian government accelerated the development of the Belo Monte Dam. On February 1st, the Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA) issued the first license needed for construction of a hydroelectric plant. IBAMA has worked on this matter for years and recently issued the license after numerous discussions and compromises.

In the months prior to February, the process had been stalled in order to ventilate some of the issues surrounding the long lasting effects that the dam would have on indigenous communities. It was soon being whispered that senior IBAMA officials had prepared their resignation papers due to the politics and pressures of the licensing process.

This arose from the conflicting arguments that inevitably accompany the controversial approval process to bring the hydroelectric dam into existence. In order for the project to effectively commence, there are still two other environmental licenses that must be obtained, as well as some 40 conditions that the contractors must satisfy.

The government has already been accused by the Catholic Bishop of the Xingu Prelacy for permitting the project to move into the production stage while overlooking the adverse effects that could jeopardize the environment and bedevil the indigenous inhabitants who would be forced out of their homes.

The Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy stated that the dam is expected to commence production in 2015, and it will cost around 20 billion reais (US$ 11.2 billion at the current rates), though both are still being disputed and subject to change.

According to Guardian News, Brazil’s Minister of Environment Carlos Minc declared that the company that wins the contract will have to spend around US$ 800 million to counter the environmental damage anticipated by the project. Yet, Minc was also quoted as saying that no indigenous person will be displaced and that they will only be affected indirectly by the project.

However, other sources such as the Berkeley, California-based NGO International Rivers have concluded that the devastation of these tribes will be inconceivable and vast. The natives in the Volta Grande region alongside the Xingu River will have no water, fish or means of transport through this region after the dam diverts the river.

The lack of accessible water will also prove extremely detrimental to the farmers, the lack of fish will take away a source of food, and the lack of transport will further alienate the tribes from the outside world.

A letter, written to President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva from 140 groups and organizations against the construction of the dam, mentioned that, “the formation of small, stagnant pools of water among the rocks of the Volta Grande will be a prime environment for the proliferation of malaria and other water-borne diseases.”


BBC News states that the Belo Monte Dam will provide 11,000 KW of electricity – enough energy for 23 million homes. The dam will be the third largest in the world after the Three Gorges in China and Itaipu in Southern Brazil. However, while the facility will provide enough energy for 23 million homes, the dam is not as efficient as its advocates have claimed.

It will generate less than 10% of its capacity during the three to four months of the low-water season, and thus will not have the ability to sustain the same amount of power generation year-round. Due to this utterly predictable cycle, other dams will need to be built upstream in order to maintain a constant yearly flow at the power source.

According to Amazon Watch, an NGO fighting to protect the rainforest and indigenous peoples living in the region, the Brazilian government has plans to construct additional hydroelectric facilities at Altamira (6,588 MW), Ipixuna (1900 MW), Kakraimoro (1490 mil MW) and Jarina (620 MW).

These supplementary structures will flood various Kayapo reserves and the land of the Araweté, Assurini and Arara native peoples. According to The Rio Times, the dam would flood 500 square kilometers of land, which is home to 24 different indigenous tribes, and would directly impact the Paquiçamba reserve of the Juruna indigenous people – thus forcing 12,000 people to relocate.

Projections say that more than 6,000 km² of forests in Altamira would be damaged, and one third of the population would be relocated with a possibility that up to 40,000 people could be displaced or greatly affected by the inauguration of the dam. Francisco Hernandez, an electrical engineer who analyzed the project observed:

    “Belo Monte is a project of doubtful engineering viability, an extremely complex project which would depend on the construction not only of one dam, but rather a series of large dams and dykes that would interrupt the flow of water courses over an enormous area, requiring excavation of earth and rocks on the scale of that carried out for digging the Panama Canal.”

Furthermore, there are at least 70 additional dams planned for the Amazon regions of Brazil according to BBC News. Thus, it can be concluded that the installation of the primary Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River is only the first step in a series of construction projects that will occur all along the rivers in the Amazon and will adversely affect the people while simultaneously creating dangerous assaults on the ecosystems of the Amazon rainforest itself.

Environmental Devastation

It is evident, that the Brazilian government has chosen to ignore the negative impacts of the Belo Monte Dam on both the indigenous population and the environment. The fact that the dam is likely to have a dramatically negative effect on the environment is a paradox in itself because it has been promoted to its own population, as well as the international communities, as a means to fight Brazil’s energy crisis through clean energy production.

For instance, according to the environmental source International Rivers, Belo Monte’s energy production process will result in the release of large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming 21 times more than CO2. The methane emissions will result from the flooding of the dam.

Predictably, after the water inundates the region, the trees and plants rot and then, as they decay, the resulting carbon settles on the bottom of the reservoir where it further decomposes without the benefit of a source for oxygen. This would prevent a build-up of dissolved methane. As the water passes through the dam’s turbines, the previously built up methane is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

International Rivers, cites studies which show that through investments in energy efficiency, “Brazil could cut demand for electricity by 40% by 2020 and save US$ 19 billion in the process. The amount of energy saved would be equivalent to 14 Belo Monte dams.”

These studies raise significant questions about whether or not the Amazon rainforest and its natives should bear the burden of the dam’s negative effects for the renewable energy source that otherwise would come from the Belo Monte Dam, rather than artful conservation practices.

However, since Brazil and the world have energy depletion concerns as well as fears concerning climate change, in their minds, a controversial power source like a hydroelectric dam would seem to be a clean, effective alternative at the right price.

A perfect example of a failed hydroelectric facility is the condemned Uribante reservoir-fed dam in Venezuela. Due to climate change and lack of rainfall it has failed to supply water to two thirds of the population that depends on it. Today, Hugo Chávez has declared Venezuela to be in a state of emergency because of the severe drought and is looking into wind and nuclear power to fill the new void.

Pressing issues concerning the welfare of the indigenous population and environmental protection have been prevalent for years in regards to the planning of the Belo Monte Dam that is finally on the verge of being launched. The Belo Monte project has been on the drawing board for decades, but it has not been approved due to the rejections by the environmental communities and other agencies and organizations that have protested its designed construction.

The first license was not granted until February 1st of this year due to the long process of drafting agreements and obtaining signatures while creating plans that would appropriately protect and limit the stress affecting the native people and the environment of the affected region.

Furthermore, as Brazil continues to grow economically and as it seeks international acknowledgement, a project as extensive as Belo Monte will attract immense media coverage, especially as negotiations continue.

IBAMA’s agreement to pursue the construction of the Belo Monte Dam has allowed the process to continue to the next steps; it now seems as though the dam is well on its way to construction.

However, even though the dam has made progress, it does not appear that the debates and opposition arguments have entirely disappeared, as seen with the recent delay. Issues faced by indigenous peoples, as well as the ever-increasing evidence of environmental problems that faces the world today, ensures that a fight for the protection of those likely to be adversely affected by its completion will continue.

Nevertheless, at this point, marginalized groups seem destined to have to face the eventual triumph of the project despite however many rational arguments against the resolution of Belo Monte’s realization exist. Thus, the inevitable dismantlement subsists at the cost of massive construction on the Xingu River for a supposed source of clean energy.

Leland Garivaltis is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:



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