- Seven years after the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant went into operation, fishers confirm what scientists have been verifying in studies: the fish have disappeared from this stretch of the Xingu River.
- According to Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, the construction of the dam caused the direct deaths of more than 85,000 fish, equivalent to 30 metric tons, between 2015 and 2019.
- The loss of fish has reverberated up the food chain, with local fishing communities no longer able to make a living that generations before them took for granted.
When it comes to the Belo Monte dam complex on the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon, biologists and fishers agree on one thing: this hydroelectric power plant, theoretically the fifth-largest in the world, has effectively purged the fish from this stretch of the river.
The fishers, with their traditional knowledge of the Xingu’s pulse and flow, and biologists, with their extensive studies of this major tributary of the Amazon River, say the aquatic life was the first victim of this mega project that came into operation in 2016. The fish either died or moved away. From then on, a chain reaction happened in the ecosystem — and in the society around the dam.
The fishers abandoned their boats to learn alien words like “conditional,” “reparation funds” and “mitigation of impacts.” Today, the continue to struggle for financial compensation from Norte Energia, the company behind the dam complex’s development and operation. Where once they demanded the right to continue making a livelihood from the river, today they fight just to guarantee their right to exist.
The damming of this stretch of the Xingu, known as the Volta Grande or Big Bend, straddling the municipalities of Vitória do Xingu, Altamira and Brasil Novo in Paré state, has been the subject of numerous academic studies. It has also triggered disputes and lawsuits involving traditional and native peoples, whose lives once depended on the Xingu River and for whom the river was a symbol of their existence and identity.
The end of a food chain
Studies have identified the start of the breakdown of the natural ecosystem here as the loss of the fruit-eating fish. Then the carnivorous fish disappeared too as the flow of water slowed to a trickle downstream of the network of three dams. And, finally, the fishers had to leave for other waters in search of fish. As the food chain broke down, it left financial and existential consequences in its wake for the people of the river.
Edilberto Leonardo Costa Rodrigues, a graduate student in biodiversity and conservation at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), in Altamira, talks about these impacts on the food chain: “There are some fish species, like the zebra pleco [Hypancistrus zebra], that are already threatened. It is not a fish for consumption; it is ornamental and its sale is directed to aquarists, but it has its function in the ecosystem.”
Rodrigues works in an ornamental fish aquaculture project supported by Norte Energia and participates in a government-funded project monitoring Belo Monte’s impact on biodiversity in the region. He says the zebra pleco is today listed as critically endangered, just step away from being extinct in the wild, because it’s found nowhere else but in the Volta Grande. “Today some individuals are bred here or in laboratories, but we already see the return of this species to the river as uncertain because a fish bred in a laboratory and then released in the river does not fulfill its natural role,” he says.
Asked whether Norte Energia considered these kinds of impacts on the river’s aquatic life, Rodrigues says it didn’t: “If any study was really taken into consideration, then the dam wouldn’t have happened.”
In response to questions from Mongabay, Norte Energia said “the Belo Monte engineering project was designed to prioritize the environment and reduce the impact on the region, contemplating the contribution of questions from communities and environmentalists. This concept ensured that no Indigenous land would be flooded by the project, while establishing a section of the river, known as Volta Grande do Xingu, where the flow would be reduced. This stretch comprises about 100 km [60 miles] of the Xingu River, which is about 1,800 km [1,120 mi] long.”
‘The beauty here is over’
Local fishing communities report the same problems from their own traditional perspective. The fruits and fish are very “skinny,” they say, and the water level doesn’t reach where it used to. Because of this, during the fruiting period, trees end up dropping their fruits on dry land that, in the past, would have been seasonally flooded forests known as igapós. In the search for food and territory, the few fish still making their way downriver end up entering the igapós that still exist and abandon areas closer to the Xingu River, where before it was possible for fishers to catch them relatively easily without going overbudget on expenses like ice, fuel, fishing equipment, and the maintenance of their voadeira and rabeta boats.
Geraldo Costa dos Santos, better known as Mambira, is one of the fishermen who’s had to leave the river that once sustained him. He says the female pacu fish they traditionally caught are now thin and without fat, with no one wanting to buy them.
“The beauty here is over. When we are born, we dream of holding the oar, but now we can no longer afford the expense of fishing,” he says. “We know how to fish in freshwater and streams. When the water is still, it’s just dry wood, and there’s nothing for the fish to eat. These fruits, like camu-camu, caferana, are all fruits that they eat, and we don’t have them anymore. It is no longer possible.”
Norte Energia said in its statement to Mongabay that “taking into account the socio-environmental monitoring of the Reduced Flow Section carried out over the last eight years, it should be clarified that the impacts detected have been proving to be of lesser magnitude than predicted in the Environmental Impact Studies.”
But Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office says the construction of Belo Monte caused the direct deaths of more than 85,000 fish — the equivalent of almost 30 metric tons — between 2015 and 2019, killed as they were sucked into the intake for the turbines. In a complaint filed in 2021, prosecutors accused Norte Energia of acting with malice — of intentionally failing to comply with the environmental regulator’s order to suspend operations until an “effective plan to mitigate impacts” on the river life was presented.
At the same time, Norte Energia has proposed the fishers transition to farming, and has committed to providing the tools and other support structure for 785 fishing families to start farming crops and vegetable gardens. It has also promised to install fish-farming tanks for each fishing community, and provide vehicles for use in family-run productions. According to the company, these resources were delivered as promised. But in hearings held by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in August 2022, the fishermen refused the equipment.
The fishing communities removed from the riverbanks were relocated to what are known as collective urban resettlements, or Rucs. These are spartan habitations that do nothing to make up for the loss of the thriving river that once flowed just outside each family’s front door; they don’t even feature running water or adequate health and education facilities. There are six Rucs in Altamira, peripheral neighborhoods without social structure and without public policies. For the fishers, Belo Monte didn’t just stop them fishing. It stopped them being fishers.
Waiting for a boat
Márcio da Silva Marinho is a resident of one of the Rucs, called Jatobá, and talks about his relationship with Norte Energia, which has already approved the delivery of a small voadeira boat and fishing equipment. But there’s been nothing so far.
“There is a warehouse there at Perimetral [Avenue] full of boats and they don’t deliver. They never do it,” he says. “I live from fishing equipment that I inherited from my father and grandfather. The fishing nets they give you are very weak and the canvas is shabby. It’s crappy stuff.”
Eliza de Assis Ribeiro still sells fish in front of her house, earning about 300 reais ($60) per month. She’s one of the few people who managed to receive some of the compensation that Norte Energia promised, which includes 20,000 reais ($4,050) in reparations, a voadeira, outboard motor and equipment. But the fishing spot is now much further away, she says.
In a response to Mongabay, Norte Energia said 1,340 people out of an eligible “universe of 1,976” have to date received reparations, and identified them as “fishermen who were already working in the river before the enterprise.” But in a letter that the company itself sent to environmental regulators on March 27 this year, it said only 875 people had received the due remuneration. Even the “universe of 1,976 fishermen” it said were eligible seems to be an underestimate, since, as Norte Energia said in the letter, there are still 3,909 requests for case studies by people who identify as fishers. By this count, the number of people affected may be closer to 6,000.
Before Belo Monte, Eliza Ribeiro could fish on the river without having to tow her boat far. Now, it costs 70-90 reais ($14-$18) just to get her boat to the water, and her costs for fuel and ice to keep the fish fresh have doubled. That’s because she now has to go around waterfalls and rocky rapids to get to a decent fishing spot, which makes the trip much longer, more expensive, and more dangerous. Depending on the season, it takes her an hour and 20 to get to the fishing spot upriver.
“The bad thing is that today I’m far from the river and it’s no longer worth fishing to make money because they’ve pushed us away from the water and the fish have gone far away,” Ribeiro says. “We spend more to work than to make money from fishing.”
Norte Energia said it’s “carrying out the process of returning 322 riverside families to points located in the Permanent Preservation Area [APP] of the reservoir, with monitoring by IBAMA [the federal environmental regulator] and also by the Council of Riverine People and its support group. About 40% of these families have already been resettled and 7% are in progress.”
According to the Council of Riverine People and its associated entities, however, “no family has been fully resettled, since they do not have access to the areas and conditions foreseen in the project,” as stated in a Letter in Defense of the Riverine Territory sent March 8 to Brazilian governmental entities.
“The area destined for riverside resettlement has already been reduced from around 32,000 hectares to around 9,000 [from 79,000 to 22,200 acres], as a result of detailed technical studies, changes in the variable APP line of the reservoir and reduction of areas destined for family use, below the minimum fiscal module planned for the state of Pará,” said the letter, signed by 28 organizations.
Banner image of Eliza de Assis Ribeiro, a fisherwoman in Vitória do Xingu, by João Paulo Guimarães.