COA student Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler is currently in Altamira, Brazil, from where he sent us this dispatch. As an [Earth] delegation heads off to the World Water Forum in France, this piece serves as a poignant reminder as to what is at stake in the world of hydropolitics. You can read more about Jivan’s experiences on his blog.
The Xingu and the dam run side by side through the social fabric of Altamira, with people trying to navigate between the two and one threatening to overtake the other. Belo Monte is everywhere in the city, though the construction is actually taking place 40 kilometers downriver. Scores of cars are marked CCBM — Consorcio Construido Belo Monte, most hotels are full of people working on the dam, and graffitti pops up sporadically: “Fora Belo Monte, Away Belo Monte” “Belo Monstro, Belo Monster.” Restless young men in CCBM jumpsuits hang out in the park in groups during lunch time and walk the streets at night — they’re new to the city. A garbage truck sponsored by the consortium roams the streets at night once traffic has died down in town, cleaning up stray garbage Young women in white shirts have jobs with a social program that fights dengue, also sponsored by the dam’s builders. But not everyone is convinced the consortium is out for the public good, though. “Dengue” has been crossed off on a poster that had read “Dengue kills” in Portuguese, and has been replaced with “CCBM.”
Near the river there are houses on stilts made out of neat strips of woods and topped with wavy, corrugated tin roofs. There isn’t much to the houses, and the voices of their residents bounce out into the street through open doors, but they seem solid and there are lines running down to them for electricity. A wooden sidewalk above a stream that connects to the river is held up by makeshift poles and the walk has gaps big enough you wouldn’t let you toddler walk on it. Canoes line the stream. Glosy blue posters stand out on many of these houses. One says “COTA 100” and explains the that the water level in the Xingu will rise to 97 meters above sea level once the dam is built, and that all houses will need to be at least 100 meters above sea level after it is built, which most of the houses in the neighborhood are not. The other poster says “Belo Monte é melhor pra voce. Belo Monte is better for you,” and explains the consortium will either: One, provide you with a new house if you are forced to move; Two, Give you credit towards a new house in town; or Three, Give you the value of your house in cash.
But as striking as the dam’s mark is in Altamira, it pales in its sway to the bend of the Xingu that fronts the city. The length of the town’s border with the river is all public space — a boardwalk, grassy areas, benches, basketball courts, and street vendors that sell roasted nuts and tiny cooked bird eggs run the length of it. Behind it all as the backdrop to life is the vast blue of the river, slowly heaving being heaved by its own force to some other place, always watching the city as it goes by. On the other side of the river there are trees and nothing more.
And it’s more than a symbol, more than a mere geographical feature that was important in the region’s history and persists as a psychological presence. Boats line the water on the city’s edge — some are motorized canoes, others look like houses fitted onto rafts. Throughout the day and night there is someone heading one way or the other or there is fisherman in a canoe gliding slowly and intently. There is also a boat that makes the two day journey to Belem, the state capital, once a week — an option much cheaper than a plane and faster than a bus on the dirt roads of the region. All this is threatened by the Beautiful Mount of electricity, and jobs, and infrastructure — the Belo Monte. In September a lawsuit brought by an association of ornamental fishermen caused an injunction which stopped construction on the river for a month. Construction proceeded on land until the injunction was overturned by another court.
There are other criticisms, too. The standing water provided by the reservoir behind the dam may be a breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitoes. The project is also expected to bring 100,000 job-seekers to the area with no guarantee there will be work or housing for all of them. This could mean an increase in crime, drugs, and prostitution. And while Norte Energia has factored into its impact assessment the people who will have to move because of the flooding, those living in the part of the Xingu known as the Big Bend, whose flow will be greatly reduced to its diversion to fill the reservoir, are not considered directly affected and will not be compensated. There is also the question of whether the amount of water in the river during the dry season will be enough to generate any power at all. Some think the only way to make use of Belo Monte year round will be to build more dams and reservoirs upriver to temper the seasonal fluxes, an allegation Norte Energia denies. Finally, critics say planners are being dishonest by billing the project as a clean alternative to coal and oil. While the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, when organic matter such as the wood in forests is submerged in water, its decay releases methane because of a lack of oxygen. Methane is twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Many people simply don’t think the potential power is worth it.
The project that is now known as Belo Monte was originally proposed in the 1970’s with a different name and with financing from the World Bank and other international partners. Major indigenous opposition and international pressure shut down the project in 1989 before it ever broke ground. For a decade the construction plans and environmental impact assessment were reevaluated and the project stayed largely under the radar. But in 2002 the plans were unveiled for the new version of Belo Monte. This time it’s being financed by a combination of Brazilian private and public firms under the name Norte Energia, with the actual construction contracted out to the firm CCBM. It’s also being heavily subsidized by the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES). This time around it’s framed as a Brazilian project to keep fueling the national economy and help develop one of the poorer regions which hasn’t been touched by the benefits Brazil’s 9% yearly growth in GDP. If built it will be the world’s third largest dam, exceeded only by Three Gorges, in China, and Itaipu, on the border of Brazil and Paraguay.
I asked a professor in Santarem, a nearby city, about the prospect of making Brazil’s infrastructure more efficient, and thus preventing the energy already on the grid from slipping through the cracks, rather than building a dam to generate more, which was the solution my Hydropolitics class coalesced around during our mock stakeholder negotiation. He said, yes, Brazil needs to improve its infrastructure, but you can’t always tell a country, “Just fix what you have,” eventually every country needs more energy.
But some of the international criticisms of the project resonate with people in Altamira. We’re not going to see any of this energy, one man told me, it’s all going to the South, just like with Tucurui — a dam nearby which has been criticized for fueling the growth of cities in the South like Sao Paulo and neglecting the rural region in which it has been built. It’s all about mining, someone else said, there’s a lot of manganese and bauxite in the area and they need energy to process it. The professor I talked to in Santarem had affirmed this. He said the energy demand is tied to the fact that the developed countries which used to import bauxite in its raw form have, in an effort to cut down on energy consumption, begun only importing aluminum — essentially shifting the energy burden of transforming the raw material into the finished product onto the developing countries where bauxite is mined.
My first full day in Altamira I wandered around town, trying to read the city like a book. I eventually stopped and bought a salgado, a little piece of fried bread with cheese inside, from a woman near the river. As the sky opened up began to pour I stayed under the little roof that overhung her shop and talked to her and her husband — who lauged at my still developing Portuguese and let me try the region’s white rum, cachaça. What do people think about Belo Monte, I asked. She moved her hand back and forth like a see-saw, a lot of people are for it and a lot are against it. Here, she said, gesturing along the dirt road beside the river, people are against it, because they’ll have to move if it’s built.
She said a lot of people in Altamira have gotten jobs with the dam, and a lot of people are coming from elsewhere for jobs too. There’s not room for all of them, she said, flailing her arm down the dirt road at the houses. It’s dangerous here at night now, people get their bags stolen.
But a boy about my age, maybe a little younger, said yes, it was a good thing if it meant jobs. And a woman at one of the ritzier cafes in town told me all the people eating lunch upstairs worked for the dam. Is it a good thing for Altamira, I asked. Of course it’s good, she said. A dramatic pause. “É progresso. It’s progress,” she said, drawing out the word. Before I’d started asking about the dam she’d said she had moved to Altamira a year ago from Sao Paulo to start up the shop. She didn’t like it here, the culture is different. People here are lazy, they don’t have the same culture of work as people in the South.
A lot of people are for it: the taxi driver, the salesman — said a man I bought anothersalgado from, gesturing with his hands, because their business is with people from the dam. But the dam will finish and the money will leave and then we’ll be worse off than before. They offered me R$15,0000 for my house, said a woman I talked to with a house near the docks, but what can you buy with 15,000 reais? Maybe they’ll give us one of these nice new houses with a nice new bathroom they say they are building, but I haven’t seen any of these houses yet.
The modern looking building Norte Energia has built in the center of town facing the river, with its translucent blue sliding doors, looks not so much imposing as out of place. And the tiny color-coded recycling bins on the patio in the front seem somewhat patronizing next to the shacks on the river’s edge and the piles of garbage swirling in the eddies. Inside the building there is a scale model the size of two pool tables showing the dam, reservoir, and surrounding areas. All the construction features, as well as the town and roads, are fit with little labels. The model imbues a sense of the project’s scale and impacts — Altamira, a town of 100,000, takes up only a small quadrant, dwarfed by the proposed reservoir (the land that will be flooded) and by the vast stretch of river that will be diverted to fill it. On two tables next to the model sit thirty-some laminated volumes that make up the Belo Monte Environmental Impact Assessment, as if daring someone to say the decades worth of planning haven’t been thought through.
What does seem imposing is the Policia Militar, Brazil’s heavily armed equivalent of the National Guard, which has been stationed in Altamira since May 2011. It’s not so much the guns that are intimidating — even local cops and security officers in Brazil have the firepower and body armor of an American SWAT team — it’s the presence of this national security force in a relatively small and off the beaten path town like Altamira. As an anti-dam activist told me — the worst crime in Altamira last year was someone stealing women’s underwear off clothes-lines. But once people are forced to move out of their homes, they’ll need the soldiers, he said.
The most prominent anti-dam group in Altamira is Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, whose name mean Xingu Alive Always. Their office is filled with informational posters on Belo Monte, inspirational ones of native people and community organizers, books and journals on social and environmental policy, anti-dam literature, newspaper articles, and a handful of staffers and volunteers. In the short time I was there I witnessed a television interview with journalists from another Brazilian state, a meeting with officers from the Policia Militar, and a planning session for a Canadian band that wanted to do an anti-dam concert in the city. On my second afternoon at the office a group of high school students arrived and I was invited downstairs to watch them perform a choreographed dance before a small audience in a warehouse-type room. The dance reenacted the arrival of Europeans in the region and their imposition on the indigenous peoples — relating the struggle in the end to the imposition of the Belo Monte on the town and native groups in the area. The men and women that make up Xingu Vivo seem a like a smart, savvy, dedicated group and they make weekly trips out to the indigenous communities. I wish my Portuguese had been better at the time or I that I’d had the wherewithal to corner the couple English speakers in the periods they were free to ask more questions because they were a valuable source of information and understanding.
At the same time though — and this has less to do with the merits of the dam — my time with the group stood out next to my time wandering through the streets of Altamira. Theirs was a world of blackberrys and slacks and taxi cabs that seemed somewhat removed from the horse-carts and tin roofs that make up a lot of the town. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a middle-class in Altamira — there is, and the members of Xingu Vivo fit squarely into it. But I couldn’t help but think the everyday reality of the anti-Belo Monte activists was closer to that of the engineers working on the dam.
The night I went to a planning session for the Canadian band, some people from Xingu Vivo sat on a patio with people from another anti-dam group. They discussed and debated what and where the band (which didn’t have instruments with them and didn’t know Portuguese) should play and tried to hash out logistics. At the end of the meeting when I asked how long the people around me had lived in the area I found out all fifteen or so were from other states and had been in town just a few months. It’s a contradiction that I think a lot of us interested in human rights and development — internationally or in our home countries — have to face eventually: when we show up in a community we hope to help organize we come from an economy and society that ensures our background and everyday lives will be closer to the consultants and engineers of the corporations we criticize and to the civil servants of the governments we try to change than to the people with whom we work.
But the picture is more blurry than that, and it grows blurrier every day as the world grows smaller. Belo Monte is a project of the Brazilian government and Brazilian industry and on some level it is a question Brazilians need to sort out themselves. But in Brazil, as in any country, who and what are Brazilian is an open discussion, constantly in flux. There are minorities, like the indigenous tribes of the Xingu, that were not invited to become Brazilian for centuries, and who have been marginalized by governments and persecuted by lighter skinned peoples. In 2012 the groups have access to the global community, through internet and cell phones and all the varieties of information technology and social media they make possible. So do the people of Altamira and smaller towns along the river, which have long been underrepresented in matters of state. Indigenous youth are collaborating with professors and NGOs. Tribal leaders and town dwellers can tell their stories on web pages transmitted instantly around the globe. People who have long been on the margins of their own society can reach out to far flung corners of the international community and find powerful allies. Raoni Mektuktire, the chief of the Kayapo people, who has a large disk inserted in his lower lip, took a petition about the dam with him to Paris. This is what is making it harder for government officials to dismiss criticism as foreign intervention in a Brazilian project. As Mektuktire and another tribal leader, Yakareti Juruna, say in a Xingu Vivo sponsored pamphlet, “President Lula said last week that he cares about the Indians and the Amazon, and that he doesn’t want international NGOs speaking against Belo Monte. We are not international NGOs … Our butcher’s shop is the forest, our market the river. We don’t want the rivers of the Xingu disturbed anymore and neither do we want our villages and our children, who are going to grow up in our culture, threatened.”
The two go on to say, “We are here fighting for our people, for our lands, for our forests, for our rivers, for our children, and in honor of our ancestors. We fight also for the future of the world, because we know that these forests bring benefits not just for the Indians, but for the people of Brazil and the entire world. We know also that without these forests, many people will suffer much more, just as they are already suffering because of the forest that has been destroyed up to now. Because everything is connected, like the blood that unites one family.”
I tried to present here a somewhat impartial mix of ethnography and journalism that spoke to what I gathered from my time in Altamira. I’m not an expert on dams or their social and environmental impacts and I don’t feel comfortable making strong statements about what the positive or negative impacts will be if Belo Monte is built. In truth, with a project as large and the dynamics of culture and enviornment as sensitive as they are along the Xingu, I don’t think anyone knows what the exact impacts will be.
But my own thoughts as a student of human ecology and hydropolitics are that this is a mistake. The energy this project would add to the grid does not justify the damage it could bring. The changes threatening the tribes and towns are irrevocable, and there is not enough evidence to suggest they will be for the better — not in the long term, not sustainably, not in a way that leaves people better off culturally and materially. And while historians and conservationists can argue about the merits of saying the rivers and forest need to be “preserved” in a region that has been shaped by indigenous people for millenia, the truth remains that the landscape, and the lives it allows people to live along the Xingu, are much different than the land and the lives of people on most of this rapidly urbanizing Earth, and that is something worth saving.
Jivan recommends reading the following articles on Belo Monte: