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Belo Monte legacy: harm from Amazon dam didn’t end with construction (photo story)

  • The controversial Belo Monte dam, operational in 2016 and the world’s third biggest, was forced on the people of Altamira, Pará state, and is now believed to have been built largely as payback to Brazil’s construction industry by the nation’s then ruling Workers’ Party for campaign contributions received.
  • The dam was opposed by an alliance of indigenous and traditional communities, and international environmentalists, all to no avail. Today, the media coverage that once turned the world’s eyes toward Belo Monte, has gone away. But that hasn’t ended the suffering and harm resulting from the project.
  • Tens of thousands of indigenous and traditional people were forced from their homes, and had to give up their fishing livelihoods. Meanwhile, the city of Altamira endured boom and bust, as workers flooded in, then abandoned it. The Belo Sun goldmine, if ever built, also continues to be a potential threat.
  • In this story, Mongabay contributor Maximo Anderson and photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim document the ongoing harm being done by the giant dam. Belo Monte, today, stands as a warning regarding the urgent need to properly assess and plan for mega-infrastructure projects in Amazonia.
A girl stands alone in a flooded home in the Palifitas neighborhood of Invasão dos Padres, Altamira. The neighborhood has now been completely destroyed by the Belo Monte dam. The area where the community once stood is being turned into a public park by the Norte Energia consortium which built and operates Belo Monte. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

The future of Brazil’s mega-dam construction program is unclear, with one part of the Temer government declaring it an end, while another says the program should go on. More clear is the ongoing harm being done by the giant hydroelectric projects already completed to the environment, indigenous and traditional communities.

A case in point: the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and reservoir, located on the Amazon’s Xingu River, and the third largest such project in the world.

Photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim and I spent three months in the Brazilian Amazon, between November 2016 and January 2017, documenting Belo Monte after it became operational.

We were based in Altamira, a once small Amazonian city that saw explosive growth when the Brazilian government decided to build the controversial six-billion-dollar mega-dam.

The dam was built in a record three years, despite widespread outrage and protests from locals, along with the environmental, indigenous and international community. Major public figures including rock star Sting, filmmaker James Cameron, and politician and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger waged a high-profile media campaign against the project, but even these lobbying efforts weren’t enough to change the direction of the Dilma Rousseff administration, which was ruling Brazil at the time.

Ana De Francisco, an Altamira-based anthropologist and her son Thomas, visit the Belo Monte Dam in 2016. De Fransisco works for the regional office of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), an influential Brazilian NGO focusing on environmental and human rights issues. She has been doing research for her PhD on the displacement of ribeirinho (traditional riverine) communities in the Xingu region. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

Ultimately at least 20,000 people were displaced by the dam, according to NGO and environmental watchdog, International Rivers, though the local nonprofit, Xingu Vivo, puts the number at 50,000. Eventually, the project succeeded in staunching the once mighty Xingu, a major tributary to the Amazon and lifeblood to thousands of indigenous and forest-dwelling communities.

Altamira, which lies just downstream from the dam, was transformed overnight becoming a raucous boomtown: the population shot up from 100,000 to 160,000 in just two years. Hotels, restaurants and housing sprang up. So did brothels. According to one widely circulated anecdote, there was so much demand for sex workers in Altamira at the time, that prostitutes asked local representatives of Norte Energia, the consortium building the dam, to stagger monthly pay checks to their employees, so as not to overwhelm escorts on payday.

The boom didn’t last. The end of construction in 2015 signaled an exodus; 50,000 workers left, jobs vanished, violence surged in the city, as did a major health crisis that overwhelmed the local hospital when raw sewage backed up behind the dam.

Boys climb a tree flooded by the Xingu River in 2014. Today, one-third of the city of Altamira has been permanently flooded by the Belo Monte Dam that displaced more than 20,000 people, destroying indigenous and ribeirinho (river-dwelling) traditional communities. The effects were so severe that Norte Energia, the company behind the dam, has been required to carry out a six-year study to measure the environmental and social impacts of Belo Monte and to determine if indigenous and fishing communities can continue to live downriver from the dam. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

When Aaron and I arrived in Altamira in 2016, the city still held some charm. Families strolled a popular boulevard skirting the Xingu River in the evening, and restaurants stayed open until late. But Aaron, having spent two years in the region before me, saw a different Altamira. He described the city I was seeing as “hollow,” and noted the disappearance of vibrant communities of ribeirinhos, “river people,” who had lived for generations by fishing at the riverside, and had been displaced by the dam. Many were relocated by the Norte Energia consortium to cookie-cutter suburban homes on the edge of town, far from the river and their fishing livelihood, and without access to public transportation.

Ana de Francisco, an Altamira-based anthropologist and expert on ribeirinho communities, estimates that as many as 5,000 of these families were displaced.

Belo Monte was no Three Gorges Dam – the Chinese project that displaced over a million people in 2009 – but it did wreak havoc; destroying communities and traditional ways of life, while also damaging the Xingu’s aquatic ecosystem, which has unique fish and turtle species.


A map showing the Belo Monte mega-dam and reservoir where it bisects a big bend in the Xingu River hangs on the wall of a home in Ilha da Fazenda, a small fishing village a few kilometers from the dam. According to village leader Otavio Cardoso Juruna, an indigenous Juruna, around 40 families live in Ilha da Fazenda, which was founded in 1940. Ilha da Fazenda is a mixed village of indigenous and non-indigenous residents. Residents complain that although they were negatively affected by the dam like others in the region, they were not compensated because they were not designated as an “indigenous village.” There is no potable water, sanitation or healthcare in Ilha da Fazenda, and locals were forced to stop fishing after the dam reduced the river’s flow by 80 percent and massively depleted fish stocks. Otavia said villagers were forming an organization to negotiate for compensation due to the planned Belo Sun goldmine, the region’s next mega-development project. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

The consensus among environmental experts in Altamira is that Belo Monte with its deforestation and altered river flow also may have accelerated the regional effects of climate change, which were already being felt before it was built. Fish kills occurred and fish stocks plummeted, and turtles that fed on fish were no longer mating, disrupting the livelihoods of traditional communities up and down the Xingu.

The irony of Belo Monte is that the compensation doled out to indigenous communities during the dam’s construction – up to $10,000 dollars per month per indigenous group for two years – did much of the damage: the sudden surge in ready cash prompted a rush by rural communities to embrace modern consumer goods and services. As people were uprooted, there was an unprecedented rise in alcoholism, prostitution and inter-tribal feuds; conditions became so bad that it prompted a Brazilian public prosecutor to sue Norte Energia for causing “ethnicide,” – the obliteration of indigenous culture.

Then came the Volta Grande mine (also known as the Belo Sun mine) – a separate project to install a massive goldmine downriver from Belo Monte, only 10 kilometers away from the Juruna indigenous group, which had already suffered from the dam’s construction.

If built, it would be the largest industrial goldmine in Brazil, dwarfing the Serra Pelada goldmine, made famous by Sebastiao Salgado’s photos in the 1980s, which, like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, showed laborers struggling in the mud like insects deep inside the multi-leveled hell of a gigantic open pit goldmine.

Juruna indigenous group leader Gilliarde Jacinto Juruna, leads an occupation of the Norte Energia offices in the resettlement district of Jatoba, Altamira. Occupations and protests are a constant in the region, as displaced indigenous communities fight for compensation and to ensure that the agreed-to social programs are implemented by the company. Norte Energia has been accused of using only 28 percent of the resources set aside to compensate those affected by the dam, according to the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). The company’s operating license has been revoked several times for failing to implement these social projects. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

There were many local residents in favor of the Volta Grande goldmine, because it brought the promise of work. But environmentalists, small-scale miners and indigenous communities living close by abhorred the project, which they feared spelt disaster for their homes and livelihoods. If the goldmine’s waste dams ever burst, as happened at Brazil’s Samarco mine in 2015, there would be no escape for those living nearby. They would be forced to run for their lives or drown in a biblical wave of toxic mud.

Not all the news has been bad along the Xingu River and in the Amazon, as colossal changes have swept Brazil in recent months. The Volta Grande project was stalled by a federal court in December 2017 for not properly consulting indigenous communities. And in an unforeseen U-turn, the Brazilian government scrapped a list of mega-dam projects it had planned, projects that would have displaced thousands of indigenous people, especially those of the Munduruku group.

During our time in Altamira, Aaron and I went to investigate the fallout of Belo Monte at the human level, looking in at the minutiae of daily life and speaking to people face-to-face. What we observed is that when people see their cultural connections, communities and environment shattered, no amount of compensation, no matter how big, seems able to replace the void left behind.

People resist and adapt to such wrenching changes in all manner of ways, like the Juruna, who have continued to resist the Belo Sun goldmine with political skill and die-hard determination.

But for other communities, families or individuals the loss of a cultural connection with their physical surroundings – of home, forest and river – proves too much to endure. It is no surprise that indigenous people in Brazil have among the highest suicide rates in South America, three times the national average of other Brazilians, according to the nation’s Ministry of Health. They are also the people currently most threatened with land loss, and with violence from land conflicts as well.

Residents of Altamira who once lived along the river overlook the resettlement district of Jatoba during its construction in 2014. Today there are five such settlements housing those displaced by the Belo Monte dam. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

While the current Brazilian government under Michel Temer has for now shelved plans to build big dams, that policy could shift with the October national elections. Meanwhile, wildcat logging and illegal mining, along with land theft, continues unabated and represents a major threat to forests throughout Brazil.

Deforestation spiked in 2016, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, representing a 75 percent increase after a historic low in 2012, and with the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby controlling Congress, most experts expect deforestation to rise this year, and likely in years ahead, increasing greenhouse gas releases and threatening Brazil’s Paris Climate Agreement pledge.

Today, the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam stands as a warning – proof of the damage caused by ill-conceived Amazon mega-projects. Due to escalating climate change and drought that is reducing Xingu River flows, the dam seems almost certain to never fulfill promised economic or energy producing goals. And today, those whose lives were shattered by the corporate damning of the “river of gods” struggle to find a way forward.

Fisherman Raimundu Morais Araujo stands in the empty foundation of his home on the banks of the Xingu River. Norte Energia, the consortium that built the Belo Monte dam, destroyed his home and filled his well with rocks to prevent his return. But his land only floods when there is more rainfall than usual. By February 2017, some displaced fishing families that used to live along the river, returned to occupy the edges of the 200-square mile reservoir in a bold move to reclaim their way of life. Hundreds of fishing families have now resettled, and are lobbying the government for financial support and legal recognition. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Many riverside residents displaced by Belo Monte were relocated to new communities such as Agua Azul, seen here in 2016. The new neighborhoods are far from the Xingu River where the people used to live and fish, and offer little in the way of employment. The distance from the river and town center makes transport another issue, and some residents feel stranded. Many of the displaced families are ribeirinhos, meaning “river people.” Ribeirinhos are traditional people who have a shared history going back more than 100 years in the Brazilian Amazon, when settlers came to find work during rubber booms in the 19th, and later, the 20th Century. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Flooded Islands and dead trees in the Belo Monte dam’s reservoir. Ribeirinhos (“river-people”) used to populate these many islands, which have now been flooded. Norte Energia was legally required to fell trees before the region was flooded to reduce methane emissions, adding to global warming, but many were simply left to rot in violation of the agreement with the government. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
A young woman is carried by her friends out of a nightclub in Altamira in 2016. She was placed on the back of a motorcycle, unconscious, and presumably taken to a hospital. Altamira has been through a number of economic booms, including the rubber boom in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the TransAmazon Highway construction boom, which opened up the Amazon’s interior to settlement. The most recent boom came with the building of the Belo Monte Dam, a six-billion dollar project which made the population swell. However, a month after construction ended in 2015, 20,000 workers were laid off, and the economy crashed by 52 percent. Violence and alcoholism also spiked. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Maria, an indigenous Xikrin Kayapo woman, stands in the gate of the Casa do Indios, which offers state-funded accommodations for indigenous people visiting the city of Altamira. The Xikrin live along the Bacaja River (a major tributary to the Xingu), which has also been negatively affected by the Belo Monte dam. Illegal gold mining has become a severe problem on the Upper Bacaja, which now has lower water levels since the dam was completed. Indigenous communities and health experts fear mercury poisoning from the highly toxic mining activities upriver. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Jose Pereira Cunha, known as “Pirolito” (Lollipop head), is the vice-president of a small gold miners cooperative in the town of Ressaca. While it is not an affluent lifestyle, Pirolito explains that mining is more than that for him and other small-scale miners, “it’s about having autonomy,” he says. Ressaca is a historic mining town founded in the 1940s, with around 300 families living there. Small-scale, or artisanal, gold-mining employs around 200,000 people in Brazil. Although there are laws regulating the highly toxic activity, which uses mercury to extract gold, in practice the laws are very hard to enforce because of lack of government funding and the logistics of imposing law deep in the Amazon. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
A boat-hoist that uses tractors to pull boats around to the other side of the Pimental Dam, which forms part of the Belo Monte dam complex. Locals and Indigenous communities must still navigate the Xingu River, and to do so must repeatedly get around the dam. The boat hoist is a permanent service offered by Norte Energia, the consortium that built and operates the dam. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
March 18, 2014: executives from Norte Energia stand behind National Force soldiers before negotiating with a group of fisherman who have occupied the entrance to a construction site in order to protest impacts to their waters and way of life. By February 2017, displaced fishing families that used to live along the river returned to occupy the edges of the 200-square mile reservoir in a bold move to reclaim their way of life. Over a hundred families have now resettled, and are lobbying the government for financial support and legal recognition. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Indigenous Juruna from the Paquiçamba Reserve at a 2016 public audience where ribeirinho (river-dwelling) communities voice their grievances to Norte Energia, the dam’s builder, and Brazil’s Public Ministry (independent federal prosecutors). Belo Monte displaced about 20,000 people, according to estimates by global NGOs such as International Rivers. The Brazilian advocacy group Xingu Vivo has put the number much higher, at over 50,000. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
Caboco Juruna from the indigenous Juruna Paquiçamba Reserve fishes for Acarí fish on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu River in 2016. Juruna means “kings of the river,” though the community now considers the Xingu all but dead. Caboco traps fish using a net or an improvised harpoon fashioned from an iron bar. This part of the river has had it’s water flow reduced by 80 percent after damming, which has threatened fishing livelihoods. The Juruna traditionally lived off several varieties of Acari fish – eating some and selling others as ornamental fish in nearby Altamira. The ornamental Acari Zebra is unique in that it is only found on the Big Bend of the Xingu, which has its own unique ecosystem. The community is now worried that the construction of the Belo Sun goldmine upstream, which would be the largest open pit gold mine in Brazil, will further damage the river and their way of life. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation
The tomb of Jariel Juruna in the village of Mïratu, Paquiçamba Reserve. Jarliel Juruna drowned in late November 2016 while attempting to dive for a prized species of Acari, which requires swimming down to depths of up to 65 feet using compressors. On this attempt, Jarliel’s compressor malfunctioned; he died at age 20, and the Juruna community was deeply in mourning when we arrived in Miratu. The Juruna blame the Belo Monte dam for cutting off the flow of the river and pushing all the fish into deeper waters. Jarliel’s mother also blamed Norte Energia for providing faulty tubes connected to the compressor. The Juruna said that before the Xingu was dammed, fish were plentiful in the river’s shallows. The community continues fighting for their indigenous rights. The Juruna have embarked on an independent project that monitors fish stocks along the Xingu River, with the help of the Brazil-based Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), and they are holding Norte Energia to account for what they view as a disastrous compensation scheme. (In 2015, the state public prosecutor’s office filed a civil lawsuit against Norte Energia accusing it of causing “ethnocide” because of the way it implemented its compensation scheme during the dam’s construction.) Norte Energia has categorically denied these accusations. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation