Brazil Belo Monte dam - 24,000 to be displaced

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Jul 2 01:11:16 BST 2012

Dam it: Brazil's Belo Monte stirs controversy

About 24,000 people will be displaced from towns in the Amazon to 
make way for the world's third biggest dam.
Gabriel Elizondo Last Modified: 20 Jan 2012 18:26

The Belo Monte project will be the biggest dam in Brazil and one of 
the largest on earth

Altamira, Brazil - Drive about 90 minutes outside this sultry 
Brazilian Amazon town, and into the thicket of the jungle, and a 
surreal, other-worldly scene appears.

It's a place where dozens of steel arms with giant claws from land 
excavators cut into the red earth, carving out deep holes.

There are earth movers, growling bulldozers and dump trucks crossing 
switch back roads that lead into colossal man-made craters, while 
clusters of hard hat-wearing engineers, glare down inspecting it all.

Belo Monte dam washes residents away

This is the scene at the opening phase of the building of the largest 
and most expensive project in Brazil, and one of the most 
controversial projects in Latin America: The Belo Monte Dam, along 
the Xingu River.

Officially the ground breaking quietly happened in June of last year, 
but the heavy construction ramped up during the turn of the year, and 
is moving full speed ahead at a blistering pace.

Five thousand men are working in two shifts, from 7 am until 5 pm and 
from 5 pm until 2:30 am, six days a week.

The construction area is gigantic, comprising three separate work 
sites sites that will eventually merge together to form two 
reservoirs 500 square kilometres in size linked by a channel 
comprising the Belo Monte Dam complex.

Twice a day, dynamite is used to blow up hard rock under the earth to 
make way for the dam.

A 'small city' is being built inside the work area to accommodate 
some of the 20,000 labourers and engineers who will be working here 
by November 2013.

When completed, Belo Monte will be the world's third largest 
hydroelectric dam and the latest cost estimate is $14bn.

The construction scene is all the more remarkable given that until a 
few months ago, Belo Monte's future still seemed in doubt, as the 
project faced a wave of judicial injunctions, and opposition from 
indigenous groups and environmental organisations both in Brazil and 
abroad.Belo Monte Dam:

Estimated Cost: $14bn USD

Workers: 5,000 now, 20,000 by November 2013

Schedule: First turbine to start generating electricity in February 
2015, final completion of project by
January 2019.

Size: Will be the world's third largest dam, behind China's Three 
Gorges and Brazil-Paraguay Itaipu. It's
currently the largest construction project in Brazil, and one of the 
largest in all of Latin America.

Who: Norte Energia, a consortium of over 10 of the largest 
construction, engineering, and mining firms in the world, mostly 
Brazilian. Norte Energia is a private ('special use') company set up 
especially for the Belo Monte Dam.

Location: Belo Monte is located on the Amazon's Xingu River. The 
nearest town is the city of Altamira (pop 98,750), roughly 50 
kilometres from the construction site. It's in the Brazilian state of 
Para (pop 7.6 million). There are 11 cities in the area of influence 
of Belo Monte.

About the Xingu River:  The Xingu River flows from the tropical 
savanna of central Mato Grosso state,
Brazil northward to the Amazon for 1,979 km (1,230 miles). According 
to NGO International Rivers, some 25,000 indigenous people from 18 
distinct ethnic groups live along the Xingu. Norte Energia says only 
2,200 indigenous people are in the Belo Monte area of influence.

History of Belo Monte project:  The idea of building a dam on the 
Xingu River was first proposed in the 1970s, during the time of the 
military dictatorship in Brazil. The idea was for several Dams on the 
Xingu, but it never went forward and the plans were just put on hold.

In 1989, an international mobilisation (called the Encontro do Xingu) 
led by the Kayapo Indians stopped state-owned electric company 
Eletronorte's plans to construct a six-dam complex on the Xingu.

During the 1990s there was more of a focus put on energy and plans 
for Belo Monte were again renewed. Former President Lula da Silva 
agreed to the Belo Monte Dam project.

With the project coming closer to reality, yet still working it's way 
through the legal and environmental and government bodies, in May of 
2008 there was a second Encontro do Xingu gathering and it was the 
largest indigenous gathering ever in the Brazilian Amazon.

Thousands of indigenous people protested against Belo Monte. But at 
the same time there were a series of high profile energy blackouts in 
major Brazilian cities, that talk of needing more energy was again renewed.

In April 2010 the Consortium Norte Energia was formed, made up of 11 
companies, and won the rights to build the dam. Ibama, the 
environmental regulatory agency, signed off on the project. July 23, 
2011 construction officially began, but ramped up in January 2012.

The judicial injunctions were primarily imposed by the federal 
prosecutors office in the state of Para where Belo Monte is located 
and they questioned the builders processes of environmental 
licensing, contracting bids and the rights of effected indigenous populations.

Renewable energy worth social cost?

Those regional injunctions were either thrown out by higher courts or 
appealed, which has allowed builders to proceed forward and project 
and air of confidence.

"In this moment Belo Monte has the perspective to fulfill absolutely 
all its timetables," Joao Pimentel, the director of institutional 
relations for Norte Energia, told Al Jazeera. "We haven't had any 
delays by any judicial action or for any other reason, and we never 
had any lost days of work. That's why Belo Monte is going to continue 
within the timeframe."

While Belo Monte is being built by Norte Energia - a consortium of 
more than 10 mining, engineering and construction companies - the 
project is heavily backed by the federal government and Brazil's 
President Dilma Rousseff, who have long said the dam is an essential 
component of Brazil's energy security.

Pimentel argues Belo Monte represents clean, renewable energy, and he 
points to the fact 86 per cent of Brazil's energy generation is from 
renewables, far higher than the world average.

"Brazil needs Belo Monte," Pimentel said.

Most environmentalists disagree, arguing that the ecological and 
social impacts of Belo Monte far outweigh any benefits.

"Belo Monte's social and environmental impacts are far greater than 
the Norte Energia propagandists would lead us to believe," Christian 
Poirier, Brazil programme coordinator for Amazon Watch told Al 
Jazeera. "They are in fact an unacceptable price to pay for a hugely 
inefficient mega-project carved into an extremely sensitive and 
precarious region."

Poirier says the Brazilian government has put too much emphasis on 
hydroelectric dams and not on wind and solar energy, which are 
generally considered to have less social and environmental impacts.

There is also the issue of displacement. According to Pimentel, about 
6,000 families, or roughly 24,000 people, are being paid-off to leave 
their homes to make way for the dam.

Elio Alves da Silva, 56, a fishermen in the community of Santo 
Antonio - which sits at the base of one the main work sites - is 
being pushed off the land where he has lived for more than 30 years.

Only 60 families live in the community, but more than half have taken 
the payout and moved.

Their homes are then quickly demolished by Norte Energia, and no 
trespassing signs put up. The church will be destroyed, and the tiny 
cemetery with about 20 gravesites has also been closed.

Payouts not enough

"Our community was one of the most talked about in the area," Alves 
da Silva told Al Jazeera. "Belo Monte is finishing our community. We 
had no option. For me, the saddest part of this story is to know that 
everything I helped create here I'm now seeing it all be destroyed. 
For me, this is the most difficult part."

There are a handful of people who don't want to leave, but last month 
the Brazilian government declared the entire Belo Monte construction 
area as well as surrounding 'areas of impact' part of the 'public 
interest,' meaning that residents have little legal recourse.

Mr Alves da Silva was offered about $11,000 for his home, but when he 
rejected that amount, Norte Energia offered a few hundred more 
dollars that he accepted, fearing there was no other option.

The money, he says, isn't enough to buy a proper piece of land, so 
he's moving 70km away to the only area he can afford, but will loose 
his livelihood of fishing.

"I consider myself as one of those who has been defeated," Alves da Silva said.

When thinking about his home being bulldozed, tears started to roll 
down his cheeks.

"It's difficult, very difficult," he said.

Pimentel argues that Belo Monte's social impacts will be marginal.

"The design of Belo Monte was changed in the last year precisely to 
reduce the social impacts," Pimentel said. "The population that has 
been or will be removed during the process of the building of Belo 
Monte will only be in those areas that are necessary for the 
reservoir. And that is a small population... Yes, there are social 
impacts of a big project like Belo Monte, but we are mitigating those."

Questions such as how much land will be flooded and how many 
indigenous people will be effected have been batted around for years; 
debates about effects of building a dam of such magnitude on the 
Xingu River date back to the late 1970s during the time of Brazil's 
military dictatorship.

But today Belo Monte is fast becoming a reality, not just a concept to discuss.

Unanticipated social consequences

Just this week the Arara indigenous community claimed that land 
runoff from the construction was dirtying the Xingu river water they 
use to fish and drink. The public prosecutor's office has asked 
environmental authorities to urgently look into the matter.

And the city of Altamira has suffered a transformation as thousands 
of migrants merge on the city for jobs on the dam. The prices at the 
few hotels in town have more than doubled, and there has been 
skyrocketing land prices and home rentals. New business are opening 
to meet demand of well-funded engineers migrating to the city from 
other parts of Brazil.Previous Al Jazeera reporting:

And there is also crime.

ISTOE, a respected national news magazine, recently reported that 
criminality in Altamira has skyrocketed - the number of weapons 
confiscated jumped 379 per cent from 2010 to 2011 - as thousands of 
migrants flooded the city looking for work on the dam project.

"The trafficking of drugs and the bank robberies have intensified in 
the Xingu region because of a higher number of people and the 
movement of resources generated by the work of the large construction 
project," Paulo Kisner, the local Federal Police boss in Altamira, 
told the magazine. "Investments in the cities of the Xingu area are 
not being made, and the consequence is the increase in cost of living 
for a majority of population that is poor."

Belo Monte officials strongly deny crimes rates in Altamira are 
related to the construction project.

A new study released by a respected Brazilian environmental research 
organisation claims that deforestation will spike in the coming years 
in the region around the dam with an estimated 800 square kilometres 
destroyed in a "best case scenario", or as much as 5,316 square 
kilometres in a "worst case scenario" depending on migrations patterns.

Perhaps shocked by the speed of construction, Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, 
the main local NGO fighting against the dam, stormed a part of the 
construction site in January and spray painted work vehicles with 
anti-dam slogans, temporarily halting work for about one hour.

'Battle for public opinion'

Last year, more than one million Brazilians signed a petition against 
the dam in less than a week and in 2010 American filmmaker James 
Cameron came to Brazil to take up the cause of fighting against the 
dam.  More information from outside sources:

Norte Energia website

Norte Energia video

International Rivers

Amazon Watch

Xingu Vivo Para Siempre

Meanwhile, Norte Energia is pushing ahead both on construction and 
the battle for public opinion.

The first turbine is expected to be operational by 2015, and the 
entire project complete by early 2019.

They say all plans are on schedule.

The company has started a television station in Altamira, TV Belo 
Monte, and also hired Luiz Carlos Barreto, a famous Brazilian cinema 
filmmaker, to produce promotional videos extolling the benefits of the dam.

But decades after this project first was considered, and with cement 
being laid and earth movers carving new paths for construction, some 
opponents of the dam say there is still a long battle ahead.

"The government and builders of Belo Monte appear to think that 
rushing this disaster's completion will make it a fait accompli," 
said Poirier, from Amazon Watch. "But I'm afraid what they are doing 
is provoking further conflict with affected people and the potential 
for a prolonged standoff."

For his part, Pimentel is convinced the benefits outweight the costs. 
If there is no dam, he said, "there will be a need for nuclear or 
coal power and that is worse".

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel
+44 (0)7786 952037
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