Featured image: A girl stands alone in a flooded home in the Palifitas neighborhood of Invasão dos Padres, Altamira. The neighborhood has now been completely destroyed by the Belo Monte dam. The area where the community once stood is being turned into a public park by the Norte Energia consortium which built and operates Belo Monte. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
The future of Brazil’s mega-dam construction program is unclear, with one part of the Temer government declaring it an end, while another says the program should go on. More clear is the ongoing harm being done by the giant hydroelectric projects already completed to the environment, indigenous and traditional communities.
A case in point: the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and reservoir, located on the Amazon’s Xingu River, and the third largest such project in the world.
Photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim and I spent three months in the Brazilian Amazon, between November 2016 and January 2017, documenting Belo Monte after it became operational.
We were based in Altamira, a once small Amazonian city that saw explosive growth when the Brazilian government decided to build the controversial six-billion-dollar mega-dam.
The dam was built in a record three years, despite widespread outrage and protests from locals, along with the environmental, indigenous and international community. Major public figures including rock star Sting, filmmaker James Cameron, and politician and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger waged a high-profile media campaign against the project, but even these lobbying efforts weren’t enough to change the direction of the Dilma Rousseff administration, which was ruling Brazil at the time.
Ultimately at least 20,000 people were displaced by the dam, according to NGO and environmental watchdog, International Rivers, though the local nonprofit, Xingu Vivo, puts the number at 50,000. Eventually, the project succeeded in staunching the once mighty Xingu, a major tributary to the Amazon and lifeblood to thousands of indigenous and forest-dwelling communities.
Altamira, which lies just downstream from the dam, was transformed overnight becoming a raucous boomtown: the population shot up from 100,000 to 160,000 in just two years. Hotels, restaurants and housing sprang up. So did brothels. According to one widely circulated anecdote, there was so much demand for sex workers in Altamira at the time, that prostitutes asked local representatives of Norte Energia, the consortium building the dam, to stagger monthly pay checks to their employees, so as not to overwhelm escorts on payday.