The Belo Monte Dam on Brazil’s
Xingu River has long been a cause of uncertainty and controversy in northern
Amazonia. Since the project’s inception in 1975, a debate between the Brazilian
government and local tribal leaders and activists has been ongoing. Most
recently, the Brazilian Supreme Court lifted the project’s suspension. Though still facing opposition, frequent
disruption, strikes by workers, and the occasional delay of operations, the
dam’s construction is currently underway.
If completed, the
Belo Monte will be the third largest hydroelectric dam on the planet, diverting
over 62 miles of water. Not only will the famously diverse Amazonian ecology be
affected, indigenous peoples will also be displaced.
Over 85% of Brazil’s electrical
power comes from hydroelectric turbines. The Federal government feels that the
addition of a dam of this size and its connection to the country’s main grid is
an important step toward the goal of energy independence, particularly in
the northern Amazon.
Environmentalists counter with
concerns about the dam’s design. Due to the region’s water cycle and seasonal
rainfall, the dam would only be operable for part of the year. The flow of the
Xingu does not lend itself to hydro electrical efficiency, and details of the
proposal suggest a strong likelihood of going over budget (which is currently
over US$12 billion). It is estimated
that up to 40% of the power produced by the dam would consumed by the mining
industry. This battle also has a symbolic importance- the dam’s completion will
pave the way for more dams of its kind, and a successful protest will serve as
a blueprint for future environmental victories.
While NOLS does not operate on the
Xingu River, NOLS Amazon does send students on river travel,
backpacking, and cultural sections in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso,
just to the south of the dam’s proposed location. We are following the process closely as this is the first of more than
60 dams being considered over the course of the next 20 years. Some of the
proposed dams would indeed affect our course area, including the Juruena River
and the Aripuanã River (the latter of which has five dam proposals alone).
The Rio Juruena could be dammed in the future, which would impact NOLS courses like this one. Photo: Dalio Zippin Neto
The outcome of the Belo Monte Dam
project and the fate of the Xingu River and its people are uncertain. We hope
that reasonable, peaceful, and genuine negotiations will continue and result in
an acceptable compromise, sooner rather than later.