Belo Monte legacy: Harm From Amazon Dam Didn’t End With Construction

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

     by  / Mongabay

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.

Ana De Francisco, an Altamira-based anthropologist and her son Thomas, visit the Belo Monte Dam in 2016. De Fransisco works for the regional office of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), an influential Brazilian NGO focusing on environmental and human rights issues. She has been doing research for her PhD on the displacement of ribeirinho (traditional riverine) communities in the Xingu region. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

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.

The boom didn’t last. The end of construction in 2015 signaled an exodus; 50,000 workers left, jobs vanished, violence surged in the city, as did a major health crisis that overwhelmed the local hospital when raw sewage backed up behind the dam.

Boys climb a tree flooded by the Xingu River in 2014. Today, one-third of the city of Altamira has been permanently flooded by the Belo Monte Dam that displaced more than 20,000 people, destroying indigenous and ribeirinho (river-dwelling) traditional communities. The effects were so severe that Norte Energia, the company behind the dam, has been required to carry out a six-year study to measure the environmental and social impacts of Belo Monte and to determine if indigenous and fishing communities can continue to live downriver from the dam. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

When Aaron and I arrived in Altamira in 2016, the city still held some charm. Families strolled a popular boulevard skirting the Xingu River in the evening, and restaurants stayed open until late. But Aaron, having spent two years in the region before me, saw a different Altamira. He described the city I was seeing as “hollow,” and noted the disappearance of vibrant communities of ribeirinhos, “river people,” who had lived for generations by fishing at the riverside, and had been displaced by the dam. Many were relocated by the Norte Energia consortium to cookie-cutter suburban homes on the edge of town, far from the river and their fishing livelihood, and without access to public transportation.

Ana de Francisco, an Altamira-based anthropologist and expert on ribeirinhocommunities, estimates that as many as 5,000 of these families were displaced.

Belo Monte was no Three Gorges Dam – the Chinese project that displaced over a million people in 2009 – but it did wreak havoc; destroying communities and traditional ways of life, while also damaging the Xingu’s aquatic ecosystem, which has unique fish and turtle species.

A map showing the Belo Monte mega-dam and reservoir where it bisects a big bend in the Xingu River hangs on the wall of a home in Ilha da Fazenda, a small fishing village a few kilometers from the dam. According to village leader Otavio Cardoso Juruna, an indigenous Juruna, around 40 families live in Ilha da Fazenda, which was founded in 1940. Ilha da Fazenda is a mixed village of indigenous and non-indigenous residents. Residents complain that although they were negatively affected by the dam like others in the region, they were not compensated because they were not designated as an “indigenous village.” There is no potable water, sanitation or healthcare in Ilha da Fazenda, and locals were forced to stop fishing after the dam reduced the river’s flow by 80 percent and massively depleted fish stocks. Otavia said villagers were forming an organization to negotiate for compensation due to the planned Belo Sun goldmine, the region’s next mega-development project. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

The consensus among environmental experts in Altamira is that Belo Monte with its deforestation and altered river flow also may have accelerated the regional effects of climate change, which were already being felt before it was built. Fish kills occurred and fish stocks plummeted, and turtles that fed on fish were no longer mating, disrupting the livelihoods of traditional communities up and down the Xingu.

The irony of Belo Monte is that the compensation doled out to indigenous communities during the dam’s construction – up to $10,000 dollars per month per indigenous group for two years – did much of the damage: the sudden surge in ready cash prompted a rush by rural communities to embrace modern consumer goods and services. As people were uprooted, there was an unprecedented rise in alcoholism, prostitution and inter-tribal feuds; conditions became so bad that it prompted a Brazilian public prosecutor to sue Norte Energia for causing “ethnicide,” – the obliteration of indigenous culture.
Partially republished with permission of Mongabay.  Read the full article, Belo Monte legacy: harm from Amazon dam didn’t end with construction

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *