Belo Monte: Is oppression the price of clean energy?
Share this on

Belo Monte: Is oppression the price of clean energy?

“Dilma says the dams produce cheap electricity, but the cost is paid here in the destruction of the environment and the destruction of people’s lives.”

—Antonio Melo, of the Xingu Vivo anti-dam campaign (via the Guardian)

Indigenous groups and environmentalists have been trying to prevent the construction of the Belo Monte dam — the largest engineering project in the history of Brazil — for 30 years. Now the fight is over and the cause is lost. The Xingu River will be dammed and a 478 square-km (185 square-mile) section of the Amazon rainforest is to be flooded, causing the relocation of some 20,000 inhabitants of the region.

Though the flooding has yet to begin, the area has already been greatly impacted by the project. Tens of thousands of migrants have flocked to the region to work on the dam or in secondary industries, both legal and illegal, that serve the growing population. This influx has brought a sharp increase in pollution to one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and contemporary consumer-based culture to an ancient society that has lived in harmony with nature for eons.

From the Guardian:

Forests are being felled in the Altamira region around the construction site at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country. There are conflicts over fishing catches. Endangered species are under increased pressure and indigenous groups are losing their land and traditions.

The appeal of the dam for the Brazilian government, the energy sector and even many of the region’s residents is fairly straightforward: cheap and clean renewable electricity and jobs. Hydropower currently makes up 77 percent of Brazil’s energy needs.

Read more: Green growth and income inequality, at odds in Brazil

A recent study has also found that Brazil’s hydroelectric plants reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby contribute to combating climate change.

However, the most effective way for Brazil to reduce its CO2 emissions is to reduce deforestation. A study published by Science magazine found that slowing deforestation over the past 10 years has enabled Brazil to cut more emissions than any other country in the world. Another study determined that a third of all carbon storage in the Amazon rainforest takes place in indigenous territories.

Yet while Brazil seems to be meeting its climate goals and making rapid progress slowing the loss of the Amazon, other environmental and human rights questions cast dark shadows on the kind of development the government is pursuing.

The government does not tell us the truth or listen to us. They are not complying with the laws of the land and they are not respecting our rights. Our survival is now in the hands of the government and Norte Energia. The Brazilian government is only thinking about profit and growth. The Belo Monte will take away our autonomy and our right to survive.

—Jose Carlos Arara, leader of the Arara tribe (via Huffington Post)

If the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon are the true guardians of the forest, and Brazil’s environmental credentials rely on protecting that forest, violating indigenous rights and destroying their way of life could ultimately prove counterproductive to the country’s clean energy agenda.

Moreover, is the pursuit of clean energy worth more than the protection of human rights, the upholding of rule of law and the protection of virgin rainforest? Once these things go, they are very hard to get back.