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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.