Brazil's biggest infrastructure project -- the $11 billion Belo Monte dam -- is also its most controversial, and one showcased at the international summit on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro held 20 years after the Earth Summit.

Striking a balance between economic drive and environmental protection is the challenge nations are pondering this week in Brazil at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the U.N.-backed Earth Summit.

Brazil faces that issue in its own backyard -- the Amazon. Deforestation has received plenty of attention in recent years, but lesser known is the plan to build 60 dams there -- including the $11 billion Belo Monte project.

Expected to be producing electricity by 2015, Belo Monte will be the world's third largest dam. And if the name sounds familiar, it's because Sting and other celebrities helped block the dam in 1989.

But the project is back and, for Brazil's government, Belo Monte means thousands of local jobs and enough clean energy to power 27 million homes -- not to mention goodwill among those potential voters.

For some 20,000 people living near the site, Belo Monte means an altered way of life. Damming the Xingu River, some 2,000 miles north of "Earth Summit II" in Rio de Janeiro, will create a reservoir that floods existing homes and rainforest as well as reduce a 90-mile stretch downriver to "a tiny fraction" of its normal flow, says Philip Fearnside, a researcher at Brazil's National Institute for Research in Amazonia.

Tribesmen living near the dam site were among those who on June 15 occupied an area along the Xingu River in protest.
Some 90 miles of river, which includes 2 indigenous tribes and numerous riverside settlements, will become a "dry stretch", says Philip Fearnside, a researcher at Brazil's National Institute for Research in Amazonia.
"Since the impact on these people is not the normal one of being flooded by a reservoir, they were not classified as 'directly impacted' in the environmental study and have not had the consultations and compensations to which directly impacted people are entitled," Fearnside noted in a recent discussion paper he wrote for the Global Water Forum. "The human rights commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) considered the lack of consultation with the indigenous people a violation of the international accords to which Brazil is a signatory, and Brazil retaliated by cutting off its dues payments to the OAS."

The Belo Monte dam is among 60 Brazil plans to build in its Amazon region to help power its growing economy. But the vision also has its critics.

This woman is among the 20,000 or so who will have to relocate when Belo Monte's reservoir floods out existing homes. Seen on June 15, these homes in the outskirts of Altamira are built on stilts to protect against seasonal flooding. Brazil says residents will be compensated; dam opponents are skeptical the locals will come out ahead.

A woman prepares food on June 14 near the Belo Monte construction site along the Xingu River.

Part of the Belo Monte construction site near Altamira is seen on June 15. Up to 230 square miles of rainforest will be flooded by the dam's reservoir.
"What is most extraordinary," wrote Fearnside, "is the project’s potential impact on vast areas of indigenous land and tropical rainforest upstream of the reservoir, but the environmental impact studies and licensing have been conducted in such a way as to avoid any consideration of these impacts."

The June 15 occupation of part of the dam site included opponents forming the words "Stop Belo Monte" and digging a breach in an earthen dam across part of the Xingu River.

These men were among the protesters at Santo Antonio on June 13.

Opponents celebrate on June 15 after having breached the earthen dam near Altamira.

Hundreds used Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo Beach as a canvas on June 19 to protest the dam and urge "Rivers for life". The rally was led by an association of indigenous peoples.

This tributary to the Xingu is a playground for Altamira residents, including this high-flying young man on June 16.

The Amazon rainforest has meant prosperous times for many in Brazil, but environmental and cultural disaster for others.

Fearnside is among those who don't buy the government argument. Most of any new electricity capacity will go to make exports, not power homes, he told

"Only 27 percent of Brazil's electicity is for residential use. Most is for industries, including electro-intensive export commodities such as aluminum," he said. "Just the electricity exported in aluminum represents more than the production of Belo Monte."

"Brazil has many other alternatives," he added, starting with more of an effort to conserve energy.

Fearnside says a stretch of the Xingxu below the reservoir will be reduced to a "tiny fraction" of its current flow. He also suspects five smaller support dams will follow -- with unknown impacts on indigenous lands and the rainforest.

The reservoir itself will mean flooding a quarter of Altamira, a city of 130,000, as well as farms and rainforest, Fearnside noted.

A biologist at the government institute since 1978, Fearnside recently documented his concerns in an article for the Global Water Forum, writing that "the Brazilian government has launched an unprecedented drive to dam the Amazon’s tributaries, and Belo Monte is the spearhead for its efforts."

After listing a history of weakened environmental protection, Fearnside wasn't optimistic for a balanced review of the pros and cons of dozens of dams in the Amazon.

"The stage appears set for breaking down Brazil’s environmental licensing system even further," he concluded, "opening the way for the many other controversial dams." (SOURCE)

Frederico Guajajara and his daughter, seen here on June 10, are among the villagers in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve. Guajajara is the tribe's deputy chief.

Responses to "60 dams in Brazil's Amazon? Controversy spills over into 'Earth Summit II'"

  1. Anonymous says:

    As if we weren't already creating enough damage to Mother Earth, along come massive projects like this that will displace thousands of people from their lands and cause irreversable damage to rainforests and some of the most pristine natural areas left on this planet. What can those of us who care attempt to do to prevent this travesty from taking place?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wherever we look upon this earth, the opportunities take shape within the problems.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That ^. And therefore, the problems exist for a reason.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The amazon is mother earths lungs, when thats gone we dont BREATHE, the dams that are being built are in the wrong places. where the elctricity is going to be used, is it actually down the hill? Does the river actually flow fast enough to benefit what the Company expects.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Criminal actions need legal responses!

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