The Brazilian government is about to decide whether to construct Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon, a massive project that would become the world’s 3rd largest hydroelectric dam.
As any large scale engineering project that is going to alter the natural environment and uproot indigenous and riverbank communities en masse, there is a lot of controversy swirling around the proposition.
Last week, Avatar director James Cameron released his new film, “A Message from Pandora,” a short film spotlighting the ecological, social and financial costs of this behemoth and the battle that is being waged to stop it. Here’s a short preview:
According to Amazon Watch, the $17 billion project would divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile (100km) stretch; its reservoirs would flood more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and local settlements, displace more than 40,000 people and generate methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Not only that, but this dam project is just one of more than 60 dams the Brazilian government plans to build in the Amazon over the next 20 years.
To be sure, this is a complex issue, and proponents of big dams often maintain that the benefits are so large that they substantially outweigh the costs of the immediate human and environmental disruption. Touting the creation of clean hydroelectric energy, new jobs, and increased access to fresh water, their calculation is that standards of living will be raised and society as a whole will be better off if these dams are built.
But cost analysis is a tricky sport, and results often vary depending on who is doing the assessing. For example, a study by the Conservation Strategy Fund found that once you include the costs of the impacts on competing economic activities and the environment and the risks of cost overruns, construction delays and lower-than-expected generation, the chances for economic success are minimal. Unless you use the most rose-colored modeling system, CSF concludes that Belo Monte will not be sustainable without the proposed Altamira (Babaquara) dam which would have a reservoir more than 10 times the size of Belo Monte’s and flood 30 times the area submerged by Belo Monte, indigenous teritories of the Araweté/Igarapé Ipixuna, Koatinemo, Arara, Kararaô and Cachoeira Seca do Irirí natives.
The Common Good: Whose good, and whose commons?
This, of course, brings us to the issue of environmental justice. The practice of telling indigenous people to suck it up in the name of progress is certainly nothing new. Sometimes it’s even a well-intentioned offer of a slice of this perceived progress. But is it okay to force people off their land simply because the ratio of beneficiaries to affected persons is 50:1, 100:1, or even 1000:1? And what if they don’t want to move away from the land that has not only sustained them physically but spiritually since long before the agents of “progress” arrived?
Progress offers few options for native river dwellers whose only asset is the fertile land of their ancestors and their subsistence skills. You either take your small settlement and move into a city slum, or you refuse to leave, come hell or high water.
Drowned Out – a film about the true story of one family’s inspired stand against the destruction of their land, homes and culture by the Narmada Valley Dam in India. Photo ©Karen Robinson
Submergence & Satyagraha (non-violent protest) in the Narmada valley (Aug-Sep 2002)
Photographs © Narmada Bachao Andolan
courtesy of Friends of the River Narmada & International Rivers
Considering these options, it’s understandable that for the indigenous tribes who inhabit the Monte Belo region this is a fight for their survival. In their view the Xingu River is sacred and the Brazilian government is violating their rights. Together with the riverbank settler populations they are determined to defend their sacred river and their way of life, and they are asking the world to join them in stopping the dam. We’re talking about up to 40,000 people who are in danger of being displaced.
Says James Cameron:
I hope AVATAR fans will watch A Message from Pandora and join me in this critical fight to urge the Brazilian Government to reconsider the Belo Monte dam and to encourage governments everywhere to choose greener energy alternatives like energy efficiency, wind and solar energy. In AVATAR, I refer to Earth as “the dying Planet.” In reality, our Earth IS in peril. The quality of life for our future generations on this planet depends on the actions we take over the next decade. There is no time to lose.
Do we really need it?
Aside from the questionable economic benefits, there don’t seem to be any benefits from this dam project in the fight against climate change. According to Éric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the green image of hydro power as a benign alternative to fossil fuels is false. As The New Scientist reports, hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels. (this is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. After this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir’s bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane, which is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam’s turbines.)
And it’s not like there aren’t any alternatives. A WWF-Brazil report states that by investing in energy efficiency Brazil could reduce its energy demand for electricity by 40% — the equivalent to 14 Belo Monte hydroelectric plants — by 2020. Also, Brazil has enormous potential for solar and wind energy, and according to Afonso Henriques Moreira Santos, Ex-director of the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency, large dams such as Belo Monte were not necessary to meet the government’s goal of 6% growth per year. Rather, he argued that Brasil could grow through increasing its installed capacity in wind power, currently only at 400 MW.
Alternatives: Think Broader
Beyond all the numbers crunching, Belo Monte symbolizes the ongoing rift between the western-industrial quest to find solutions to the world’s problems with ever-more daring and grandiose engineering stunts, and the indigenous sacred connection to the natural pulse of the earth. It’s obvious that we can’t all live a subsistence life, nor would we want to. It’s also clear that we can’t simply engineer ourselves out of a global ecological crisis by approaching the problem with more of the same technologies that helped to cause them, just faster, higher and bigger.
So much of our energy waste and pollution comes from trying to put squares on round surfaces, from hauling 5000 pounds of metal to pick up a loaf of bread from the store, from being oblivious to nature’s simple flow. Why spend $17 billion on generating enough energy to power poorly designed cities when you could just invest the money into smart redesigns so you wouldn’t need all that external energy in the first place? Instead of forcing riverbank communities from their well-functioning ecosystem into impoverished city life, why not use their intimate knowledge of living in balance with nature to redesign our cities into leaner and cleaner ecosystems that do not depend on megadams for energy?
The answers have to come from a shift in consciousness, a re-imagining of what’s possible, drawing deeply from our collective wisdom rather than the continuing pursuit of specialized, dis-connected and static fixes. To use a medical analogy, we’ve got to stop performing surgery on a broken heart. What if western ingenuity had a dialog with indigenous wisdom so that the tremendous technological prowess could be guided by a more holistic view of the world and manifest in more nimble and intuitive ways?
The good news is that Brazilians have shown that they can integrate these ideas and create settlements with much lighter footprints on the planet. Just look at Curitiba, arguably one of the world’s most sustainable cities, a place where 99% of inhabitants want to live. So really, in the spirit of looking creatively and comprehensively at the underlying roots of the problem rather than just pulling out another band aid, this is not just a call to stop a dam but to start imagining more Curitibas.