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Brazil’s shame

Kayapo Chief Raoni weeps at a funeral in 2002

Kayapo Chief Raoni weeps at a funeral in 2002. Raoni has been a fierce opponent of the Belo Monte dam, which will flood his tribe’s lands along the Xingu River.

As an American I know a lot about shame — the U.S. government and American companies have wrought appalling amounts of damage the world over.

But as an admirer of Brazil’s recent progress toward an economy that recognizes the contributions of culture and the environment, this week’s decision to move forward on the Belo Monte dam came as a shock.

The dam will generate lots of electricity — more than 10 percent of Brazil’s current capacity during the rainy seasons, much less during the dry season — but the cost is tremendous: more than 16,000 people will be displaced by flooding and 40,000 hectares (100,000 hectares) of rainforest will be inundated. The project will redirect the flow of roughly 100 kilometers’ worth of the Xingu River, disrupting fisheries and local livelihoods. Power generated by the dam will fuel industries that convert the Amazon rainforest into hamburgers, soybeans, soda cans, and minerals (the Brazilian mining giant Vale is a major investor in Belo Monte).

The emerald forest

But perhaps most importantly, Belo Monte undermines Brazil’s standing as a global leader on the environment. Recent gains in demarcating indigenous lands, reducing deforestation, developing Earth monitoring technologies, and enforcing environmental laws look more tenuous with a project that runs roughshod over indigenous rights and the environment.

When I speak to audiences, I use Brazil as an example of a country that is leading the transition toward a more just and sustainable economy. With Belo Monte, I’m no longer certain Brazil is the model to emulate.

What happened Brazil?

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