- In the biological and cultural hotspot of the Volta Grande in Brazil’s Amazon, Indigenous communities and scientists have teamed up to monitor the impacts of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project, one of the biggest in the world.
- The dam complex has diverted 80% of the Xingu River’s water flow, significantly affecting the aquatic life in the Volta Grande river bend and pushing the entire ecosystem toward collapse, along with the local communities who rely on it.
- The complex’s environmental license, which lasts six years and dictates the amount of water flowing through Belo Monte, is currently up for review by the federal environmental protection agency, IBAMA.
- President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva played a key role in pushing for the construction of Belo Monte, and now, back in power, can influence a new path for the environment and local communities, activists say.
XINGU RIVER, Brazil — In February this year, Josiel Juruna, coordinator of an Indigenous-led monitoring program in the Volta Grande region of the Brazilian Amazon, shared images of fish eggs lying on the forest floor. The usually seasonally flooded forests, which act as nurseries for fish and turtles, had not received enough water to inundate the area.
Upstream, in the northern part of the Pará state, the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant has diverted 80% of the water flow of the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Riverine communities, scientists and activists have been warning Brazilian authorities, since before construction began in 2010, that the mega project wouldn’t leave enough water to keep the river ecosystem alive in the Volta Grande (“Big Bend”) section of the Xingu. Since the plant’s inauguration, in 2016, they’ve been witnessing the ecosystem collapse, along with the communities who rely on it.
“Nature is no longer giving us the gifts it once gave us,” Sara Rodrigues, a fisherwoman from a riverine community who has lived her whole life on the river, told Mongabay while visiting impacted sites in September 2022. “These big projects come in and destroy. But I can tell you the legacy left for the people of the Volta Grande has been misery, hunger, illness and an infertile river.”
Belo Monte is made up of a series of dams, reservoirs and power stations, making it the fifth-largest hydroelectric plant in the world. Although concluded by his successor, Dilma Rousseff, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva played a key role in pushing for the construction of the project in his first terms in office, from 2003 to 2011, promising that it would bring an abundance of jobs and clean energy.
However, Belo Monte has since become the largest blot on the environmental record of Lula and his Workers’ Party. It has also created an epicenter for deforestation in the region and turned the nearest city of Altamira into the most violent in Brazil.
To evaluate the effects of the project, local riverine and Indigenous Juruna communities have been monitoring the river and working with scientists to propose a new hydrograph, a record of how much water flows through Belo Monte.
The idea is they would then be able to use the hydrographs to determine when and how much water Belo Monte should release to the piracemas — historically important breeding grounds for fish — thereby allowing the ecosystem to resume its normal functioning and prevent the continued cycles of socioenvironmental destruction.
“What would be great is if that dam was gone,” Rodrigues said. “But there is another plan that would allow the waters to reach the lowland breeding grounds and that is a solution that we could live with.”
Belo Monte’s environmental license expired in November 2022, and Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA is now reviewing it. But there’s no legal deadline for an answer. The hydrograph would be a major component of the new license, valid for six years. With Lula back in office since the start of this year, activists say he has a renewed opportunity to change course for the environment and communities around Belo Monte.
“It’s been seven years since we had proper breeding grounds here, but the river people, the Indigenous communities and the fishers are going to keep fighting,” Rodrigues said. “That’s why we are here and that is not going to change.”
The uniqueness of the Volta Grande
Andrea Sawakuchi, a geology professor at the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay that the region’s uniqueness and high biodiversity, especially in Volta Grande, can be attributed to its high diversity of habitats. This includes the largest rapids with igápó, or seasonally flooded forests, in the Amazon, as well as emblematic ironstone formations, which create habitats for more than 450 fish species, at least 10% of them found nowhere else on Earth.
Sawakuchi told Mongabay that these igapó forests flood according to the flood pulse, the rising and falling of the river based on rainfall upriver, which is critical to keeping the ecosystem working. Without the floods, he said, fish and turtles can’t reproduce, and ants and weedy plants, which would usually be washed away, begin to invade, altering the functioning of the forest.
“Everything is connected,” Sawakuchi said. “Everyone knows that the hydrograph [Belo monte operator Norte Energia] proposes is not enough for this. So, the question is: What’s the amount of water needed each month?”
Although funded by Norte Energia, a group of scientists published a study in May 2022 that found that Belo Monte had significantly reduced fish abundance, richness and functional diversity after five years of operation.
The researchers also projected that if Norte Energia continues to use its current hydrograph, it would lead to major reductions in floodplain inundation, causing further declines in fish diversity and abundance. This would then necessitate emulating the natural flow regime of the river to minimize the impact on fish and communities — essentially what’s being proposed by the communities with their piracemas hydrograph.
Camila Ribas, a biologist and researcher at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA), worked with Sawakuchi on a recent study to monitor bird populations as another means to evaluate the impacts of the Belo Monte dam. Ribas told Mongabay that, similar to fish, these habitat changes can also cause the local extinctions of specialized birds, as non-specialist species invade disturbed habitats. She said that the problem with Belo Monte was that its impact wasn’t correctly assessed during the pre-construction environmental impact studies.
Ribas and Sawakuchi’s research found that 43.6% of more than 4,960 Amazonian tree species occur in seasonally flooded habitats, and up to 30% may be endemic to these habitats. Additionally, more than 150 species of Amazonian non-aquatic birds are restricted to or highly dependent on this habitat.
“The Amazon has suffered from a lack of knowledge that makes it very difficult to assess the impacts [of dams],” Ribas said. “Birds are one of the better-known groups, but even for birds, there are still many gaps of knowledge, and the birds that are associated with seasonal flooded forests are an important gap.”
There are currently more than 150 hydroelectric dams and more than 350 planned in the Amazon Basin. The environmental impact studies for most of them are focused on what would happen to upland forests that are away from the river and never flood, Ribas said. Her own research could allow for more rigorous assessments to be performed relating to dams affecting seasonally flooded forests in the Amazon, which is most of the rainforest.
Collaborating with local communities
Ribas said a major component of their research approach has been to work with local communities who have historically been ignored by scientists and government agencies, sharing data collection methods to strengthen their findings.
“These people have a knowledge of the place they live in … they are the best collaborators we can have,” she said. “One important thing that we want to do here is to give them tools so that they can make their voices heard because they can use the methods that the academic world or the governmental agencies will also value and understand.”
Biologist Cristiane Carneiro, who has worked in the Xingu region since 2005, told Mongabay that researchers started collaborating with Indigenous communities to monitor the impacts of the Belo Monte project in 2013, once construction had begun. They collected information on fish and turtle populations as well as local people’s ways of life before and after Belo Monte.
Before the dam complex was built, local communities obtained more than 60% of their dietary protein from the fish they caught, like the fruit-eating pacu, Carneiro said. Today, though, the diets of these communities are made up of more than 60% processed food, which in turn has led to an increase in diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
Additionally, the cost of living has increased significantly, with local communities paying some of the highest electricity rates in Brazil. They’ve also been hit by the combination of having to buy more food while losing income from selling fish, whether for food or ornamental species like zebrafish that are only found in the Volta Grande.
“In essence, they fed themselves through everything that nature offered,” Carneiro said. “So, the monitoring is very important to know what is going to happen to the species of fish, waterfowl, birds, trees and flowers, and to have robust information for the hydrograph.”
In 2019, thanks to findings from monitoring by the Juruna, IBAMA forced Norte Energia to increase the water flowing through the river and ordered the company to study alternative hydrological regimes.
However, in 2021, during the Jair Bolsonaro administration, the water flow was decreased again, this time by 73%. Although IBAMA’s technical team rejected Norte Energia’s studies as faulty and incomplete, IBAMA’s then-president, Bolsonaro loyalist Eduardo Fortunato Bim, overrode this decision. This decreased flow is currently in force.
As part of Norte Energia’s plan, it would also implement $28 million in mitigation plans, including breeding fish for release, building feeding platforms, and manually collecting fruit and leaves from the igapó forests to put in the water. Experts say these measures are scientifically unproven and “impossible to be executed on a scale that compensates for the [absence of] flooding of tens of thousands of hectares.”
Mongabay observed the caged fish-breeding platforms, some of which had dead fish floating in them.
In a statement, Norte Energia said Belo Monte ensures the fundamental rights and promotes the quality of life of local Indigenous communities through actions that promote their “territorial, environmental, cultural and food security.” It also said it aims to “provide traditional communities with tools to enhance their sustainable development, acquiring better knowledge about the areas they occupy and about more efficient ways to preserve their culture and environment.”
The legal situation
In September 2022, again using information collected by Indigenous communities and scientists, public prosecutors won a case in Brazil’s Supreme Court, which recognized that the Belo Monte project violated the right of Indigenous communities in the area to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). The court also found that the project had undeniably affected Indigenous lands.
Carolina Piwowarczyk Reis, a lawyer with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that advocates for environmental rights, told Mongabay that the court victory is significant as it creates jurisprudence. Although the principle of FPIC should have been done before the dam complex was built, the decision will bolster the need for communities to be consulted before the new environmental license is renewed — something that Bolsonaro-era IBAMA said wasn’t necessary, Piwowarczyk said.
However, Belo Monte is today producing less than half of its installed capacity of 11 megawatts, largely due to the drought caused by deforestation upriver. That means there’s even less water going through the turbines.
“This is the heart of the question, because the hydrograph that they are proposing, the Indigenous and the riverine communities and the professors are not going to permit Belo Monte to generate the energy they need to and they were expecting,” Piwowarczyk said. “So, this is all about the amount of money they are not going to make if IBAMA accepts this hydrograph.”
Money has been a central theme for Belo Monte, said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, which worked on trying to prevent the construction of Belo Monte from 2010 to 2014.
Poirier told Mongabay that the construction process included profound legal and licensing irregularities, the biggest benefactors being the large construction conglomerates that were funding presidential candidates like Lula. Any lawsuits or injunctions that could have jeopardized the project were steamrolled because of a dictatorship-era mechanism known as “security suspension,” he said.
Under Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985, there were plans to build a dam on the Volta Grande in the 1970s. But the World Bank canceled its proposed funding for that project in the 1990s, largely due to the advocacy of a local Indigenous movement. The Belo Monte project, by contrast, was funded almost entirely by Brazil’s National Development Bank, with Dilma Rousseff pushing for it when she headed the Ministry of Mines and Energy in the Lula administration.
“It was a political, legal and financial assault,” Poirier said. “Essentially pouring billions of dollars of Brazilian taxpayers’ money into the pockets of these construction firms and energy firms.”
Lula’s pressure to push the Belo Monte project through culminated in the resignation of his popular environment minister, Marina Silva, in 2008, and caused major rifts in the environmental movement in Brazil. Silva only reconciled with Lula in 2022 to join the coalition to oust Bolsonaro. Throughout the campaign and in his first months in office, Lula championed the climate agenda and once again appointed Silva to head what is now the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.
Research into Lula’s environmental legacy shows that it went from a “close association with socio-environmental movements and a solid sustainable approach, through integration with other ministries, to a developmentalist, pragmatic perspective characterized by a national discourse of sustainability under deepened socio-environmental conflicts.”
A similar arc appears to be playing out with Helder Barbalho, an open ally of Lula and the governor of Pará state, where Belo Monte is located. Barbalho was reelected last year with the highest margin of any gubernatorial candidate running in the country.
While Barbalho has, as Lula, positioned himself as pro-environment, Pará has consistently ranked as the state with the highest levels of deforestation in the country. At the end of 2021, a coalition of NGOs, including Amazon Watch, published a letter detailing how his green positioning appears out of sync with the on-the-ground realities, including allowing impunity around illegal deforestation and violence associated with land grabs.
“He’s not an environmentalist, he’s a developmentalist,” Poirier said. “He’s very adept at using essentially propaganda to frame himself as a champion of environmental protection, but his record speaks to a really rigorous support of some of the most destructive sectors of the environment, like mining.”
Poirier told Mongabay that Barbalho has been courting mining companies and trying to reduce the costs of environmental regulations for them to operate, including for the proposed Belo Sun gold mine, touted to be one of the biggest open-pit mines in the world if it gets built in the same area as the dam complex.
“Anyone who was governing in the Amazon recognizes that this is a region of immense interest to the world,” Poirier said. “You would be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t address that interest and those concerns at least by paying lip service to them.”
The path ahead
In February 2023, Lula appointed Rodrigo Agostinho as the new head of IBAMA. In a recent interview, Agostinho said of the Belo Monte dam complex that “the most important thing is to guarantee the life of the river.” He added that “until a satisfactory hydrograph is defined, and compliance with the requirements to date is analyzed, no license will be issued.”
In general, there’s cautious optimism among environmental activists that the Lula administration is prioritizing the environment and Indigenous peoples. Examples include his reappointment of Silva as environment minister, the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, the choice of an Indigenous person to head the federal Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, and the government’s support for an Indigenous-led interdepartmental approach to addressing an ongoing health crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory.
Piwowarczyk told Mongabay it seems unlikely that Lula would either reject the Belo Monte license or renew it as is. She said she was at a meeting last week where Agostinho said the current hydrograph isn’t reasonable and committed to the public defender’s office, Funai and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples that no license would be issued without consulting Funai. Agostinho also said IBAMA would analyze and incorporate the proposal of the Indigenous researchers for the piracema hydrograph, according to Piwowarczyk.
At the same meeting, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples said it would demand FPIC in the process and that it was ready to act as interlocutors, Piwowarczyk said. It seems unlikely a renewal will happen this year, she said, as Funai still needs to carry out hearings with Indigenous communities, as well as analyze the opinions of Norte Energia and prepare its own evaluation on the impacts.
It also remains to be seen whether the new government will hold Norte Energia to account for the conditions of the operating license, which is required by Brazilian law. Environmental advocacy group the ISA performed an analysis in 2022 of the 47 socioenvironmental requirements of the plant’s operating license and found that only 13 had been met since Belo Monte’s inauguration. Piwowarczyk told Mongabay that some of the unmet or partially met conditions relate to maintaining the large forest area where there is reduced water flow, and the resettlement of riverine communities.
“This is a sacred place for us,” Giliarde Juruna, chief of the Indigenous Juruna village of Muratu, told Mongabay in September 2022 as the sun set behind him on the Xingu River. “Here is where most of our ancestors are buried.”
Giliarde said their ancestors lived in a way that didn’t destroy the environment, and beyond pushing for their demands that include better access to the dam and the free electricity that Norte Energia promised them, he said they’re also exploring sustainable ways to survive and conserve the area. This includes tourism to see the ornamental fish that only exist in Volta Grande.
“From when I became a leader, I have always been fighting about the issue of our land,” Giliarde said. “Because I know that our future depends on the land, it is from here that we get our sustenance.”
CORRECTION (5/19/2023): An earlier version of this article stated that Amazon Watch worked on trying to prevent the construction of Belo Monte from 2008 to 2014. The period was actually between 2010 and 2014. The post has been corrected.
Banner image: A yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), known locally as tracajá, a species that is of cultural importance for the Juruna. Image by Dimitri Selibas.
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Series of small dams pose big cumulative risk to Amazon’s fish and people