Thursday, April 14, 2011


The city of Altamira seen from the air with seasonal high waters of the Xingu River flooding an area of the outskirts of the city. If built, the Belo Monte dam will make this and much more serious flooding a permanent reality, driving thousands from their homes. Photo credit: Marcelo Salazar / ISA

Here's an excellent news round-up and analysis of the increasingly desperate situation at the proposed Belo Monte Monster Dam -- re-posted from Amazon Watch

There is a dark cloud hanging over the city of Altamira and it has little to do with the Amazon's relentless seasonal rains. An oppressive feeling prevails through the city, linked to the imminent commencement of construction of the Belo Monte Dam complex on the Xingu River. Unlike an optimistic outlook on the promise of improved living conditions for the local population linked to a highly touted development initiative to accompany the construction of the dam, plans for the Xingu inspire uncertainty and anxiety for most. Such doubt springs from the lack of understanding of what is to become of the river and the cities and communities that depend on it. People are in the dark, bringing a gloomy sense of foreboding as the region braces itself for a storm.

At a time when many of the region's people need answers about Belo Monte, the dam-building consortium, known as Norte Energia or NESA, has maintained a startling lack of transparency. As mitigation projects intended to stave off the worst of the dam's impacts languish at the hands of the consortium, even its supporters have begun to ask serious questions about whether planners have any intention to soften the coming socio-environmental disaster that is Belo Monte. Yet, while such widespread doubt can demoralize and divide, it can also serve to vindicate those fighting tirelessly to defend the Xingu and its people, strengthening their resistance and determination.

Contrasts proliferate through Altamira. The recent visit of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Xingu, as well as ex-President Bill Clinton's criticisms of Brazil's hydropower plans for the Amazon have again brought the controversial project – and the reckless development model it represents – to the world's attention. Last week's ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanding that Brazil immediately suspend Belo Monte's licensing process was a serious blow to the project, just as the government expected a definitive license for the dam's installation to be issued. Yet in Altamira there is no sign that the wheels set in motion when the project received its "partial" installation license in January will come to a halt. Much to the contrary: NESA appears hell-bent on ramming Belo Monte forward by any means necessary.

Altamira is experiencing its first waves of dam-related migration. But these aren't the construction workers that threaten to flood into the city by the thousands; the current arrivals are mainly representatives of engineering firms contracted by the NESA consortium to carry out surveying of terrain strategic to the early stages of construction. International rulings aside, the consortium still has the right and means to build Belo Monte's massive workers camps, aimed at making the project a fait accompli.

Intense speculation surrounds the road known as "Kilometer 25 crossing" a narrow and rugged dirt passage that juts off the Transamazon highway through forests and rich agricultural land to the large camp of the Brazilian parastatal company ElectroNorte, also the site of one of the mega-dam's main work camps. Nearby Pimental Island is intended to provide a foundation for the main wall of the dam, a 6 km long and 36 m high monstrosity that will divert 80% of the river's flow into artificial canals and a fetid reservoir, destroying a 100 km stretch of the Xingu known as the Big Bend. If Belo Monte is to proceed, this strategic road will need to be converted into a broad thoroughfare to accommodate heavy machinery and a steady stream of workers to and from the camp.

What's unclear is the extent to which NESA has already progressed on the road; some say the technicians are only performing detailed surveys while others claim they are already clearing forest and farmland to widen the road. While the season's heavy rains impede any serious progress, most agree that NESA will pounce on this area when the rains let up in June. At that point some fear the game is up, while others are quietly confident that it only signals a new intensified stage in the struggle to stop Belo Monte. What is clear is that the morally bankrupt NESA consortium and its government backers will continue to do what they can to crush resistance to the dam and sidestep any responsibility they have to preserving a semblance of social and environmental stability in the region.

Failing promises

While rumors swirl about the state of Belo Monte, concerns are growing over whether the NESA consortium will actually comply with its legal obligations to meet dozens of socio-environmental conditions prior the dam's construction. These include taking emergency measures to install infrastructure and social services adequate to meet the needs of a population that threatens to spike in coming months. The government expects that Altamira's population could double if the construction of Belo Monte begins, with the flood of over 100,000 people to the region in search of employment.

Recent reports have shown that more than 70% of the infrastructure projects that NESA is required to implement prior to initiating any form of construction have yet to begin. In addition to improving much needed basic services for the existing population, the projects are intended to help accommodate the enormous influx of migrants to Altamira and other municipalities.

Such projects, like new health clinics, schools, and sanitation works, are already in dire need in Altamira. The shocking fact is that projects offering basic services and a modicum of "development" to the region are only on offer because the government is determined to install an incredibly hazardous mega-project adjacent to the city. And it's highly questionable that the ambitious plans provide infrastructural and human development – planned to accompany the construction of the dam – will begin to mitigate the untold social and environmental costs of Belo Monte. As I passed through an Altamira neighborhood of palafita homes built on stilts along an igarapĂ© (small river) accompanied by Toinha of the local women's movement, she stopped our car and said grimly "all this will be gone. And these people don't know where they will go." More than a third of Altamira could disappear under Belo Monte's artificial reservoir.

The imminent dangers posed by this mega-project require immediate solutions. Yet there is no indication that the same government promising such "development" to the people of the middle Xingu will encourage the NESA consortium to meet their obligations to mitigate the project's impacts. Indeed, the indifference and irresponsibility of the Brazilian government and NESA could spell disaster for the cities of the region, much as Belo Monte's critics have warned from the beginning.

Crisis and shared concerns

The potential for social crisis unfolding in Altamira has spawned an unusual relationship between Belo Monte's proponents and its detractors. Faced with the prospect of seeing cheerful promises of infrastructural development and investment in local businesses evaporate, local government and business leaders have begun to raise concerns about how benefits to local people will materialize. Most agree that the people of Altamira and surrounding cities and communities will pay a steep price for the construction of Belo Monte; the question is, what are the advantages?

According to Vilmar Soares, the coordinator of FORT Xingu, a group of local business interests that have supported Belo Monte, the installation of emergency infrastructure is occurring at an alarmingly slow pace. This is all the more disquieting, he says, because more than 10,000 migrants are expected to arrive in Altamira this year alone. "We can't start this dam project without having schools and health clinics to attend to the needs of this population."

If recent events on Brazil's Madeira River are any indication, the municipalities of the middle Xingu should be bracing themselves for social chaos of unprecedented proportions. In the Amazonian state of Rondonia, where the Brazilian government is executing its ill conceived plans to construct two mega dams on the Madeira River, workers at the Jirau dam site recently rioted against unjust and precarious work conditions, burning work camps and transport vehicles.

As signaled by the lawyer Felicio Pontes of Para's Federal Public Ministry – an institution that has filed ten lawsuits against the project – the social fallout of the Belo Monte project could exceed what we are seeing on the Madeira. "This is not Jirau, and it's not Rondonia," says Pontes. "The question of land tenure [in Pará] is much more problematic. Conflicts here could be five times as bad. We are champions of slave labor and the death of workers in the fields. And by moving forward with this project, without paying special attention to infrastructure projects, you can be sure that we are announcing countless future deaths."

While FORT Xingu and the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (MXVPS) have highly divergent views about how to achieve equitable development for their region, they do share a concern for the health of their families and communities. Should NESA continue to sow doubt and confusion in Altamira, these conflicting local groups could find they have more in common than they think.

Yet at a time of so much ambiguity and anxiety, one thing is certain: the resistance of the MXVPS will not waver. Nor will the voices of the thousands of indigenous peoples, riverbank dwellers, farmers, and fisherfolk who call the Xingu home.

Development is a right, not a consequence

If you are to believe NESA and its sponsors at the top rungs of the Brazilian government, all of this is taking place in the name of "development" for an underdeveloped region in addition to meeting Brazil's growing energy needs. Belo Monte will offer local populations a dignified life where there had been misery, dignified housing and social services where there has been precariousness. Yet as Antonia Melo, the coordinator of the MXVPS, routinely points out, these are basic human rights that should be met independently of the plans for mega-projects. Should the residents of the Xingu have to sacrifice their river, their livelihoods, and indeed their way of life for what is already their right to a dignified life, enjoyed by any citizen?

Last week a friend from Brasilia, and a longtime supporter of Brazil's Worker's Party (PT), joined me in Altamira to spend a few days learning first hand about the grim story unfolding there. As we sat at a restaurant built on stilts over the high waters of the Xingu, he told me: "I'm shocked. I never expected the PT to inflict this sort of violence on local populations in the name of progress." The jovial restaurant owner joined us as we looked over a vast span of the powerful river. What a marvelous place, we agreed. But then he grew sad, casting a wistful gaze over the waters. I knew what his sadness meant; it was the same as I felt again and again from people in Altamira and it's surroundings: all this could come to an end.

In the distance dark clouds were forming another rainstorm. Yet unlike the driving rains that drain into the Xingu, its unclear how local communities will weather the building storm that is Belo Monte. Resistance to the project will remain fierce, without a doubt, as its foundations continue to be eroded by a stream of legal challenges, financial shortfalls, reputational challenges, and waning popularity as the Brazilian public increasingly learns the ugly truth about the dam. Yet the government's authoritarian and incredibly stubborn march towards the destruction of the Xingu will likely continue unabated, inviting tragedy in the turbulent heart of the Amazon.

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