The environmental catastrophe of the Belo Monte Dam

. Dec 06, 2020
Belo Monte energy Belo Monte Dam. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Over 20 years before its construction, the Belo Monte Dam in northern Brazil has been surrounded by controversy. Located on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, environmentalists and indigenous groups opposed the Belo Monte project from the very beginning, until it was eventually completed in the 2010s, during the center-left Workers’ Party government.

It is currently the world’s fourth-largest hydroelectric dam complex and the second-largest in Brazil, behind the Itaipu Dam on the Paraguayan border. In all, building Belo Monte cost BRL 30 billion (USD 5.85 billion) in public and private investment.

</p> <p>And now, ten years after works began, pessimistic forecasts of the social and environmental disaster that the Belo Monte Dam would cause in the surrounding region appear to be coming true. The municipality of Altamira — the temporary home of over 100,000 workers involved in the dam&#8217;s construction — has now become one of the <a href="">most violent towns in Brazil</a>. And by holding huge amounts of water to produce energy, Belo Monte is slowly killing the Xingu River, which is one of the most important waterways in the Amazon region.</p> <p>After interfering with the natural flow of the Xingu River to favor energy production, Belo Monte will now be forced to release a bigger volume of water than it currently retains in its reservoir. The measure seeks to mitigate the calamitous conditions of life seen in the so-called Volta Grande (Big Bend) of the river.</p> <h2>Belo Monte: fish, turtles, and fruits disappeared</h2> <p>In November 2015, utility company Norte Energia — which operates the Belo Monte Dam — closed the complex&#8217;s main dam, redirecting roughly 80 percent of the water to an artificial canal around 20 kilometers long, where it had previously built large hydroelectric turbines. This change provoked dramatic effects to the Big Bend, which had existed for thousands of years with an annual pattern of high and low water levels. Now, the 130 km stretch of river has constantly low levels of water, destroying the local habitat.</p> <p>This risk had been foreseen by environmentalist groups, but ignored by the government. Dozens of fish, turtle, and fruit species simply disappeared from the Big Bend, while thousands of families living on the banks of the river had their livelihoods destroyed. The 25 indigenous and non-indigenous villages along the Big Bend rely heavily on fishing for survival. An approximate 20,000 people were forced to abandon their homes.</p> <p>The risks to local populations and animal species were highlighted by Norte Energia specialists in a 2009 report, but these opinions were ignored and the company went ahead with rerouting the vast quantities of water.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="643" src="" alt="belo monte dam project" class="wp-image-53718" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Belo Monte Dam and Hydropower Plant Construction in Brazil. Photo: Buraky Alcin/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>“Impractical” situation</h2> <p>The natural flow of the Xingu River ensures the passage of between 20,000 and 25,000 cubic meters of water per second from December to June. Once the dam was built, Norte Energia adopted two procedures: releasing 4,000 cubic meters per second one year, and 8,000 the following year. However, this artificial regime ended up completely disrupting the aquatic life in the Big Bend region.</p> <p>Upon analyzing the results, technicians from Brazil&#8217;s environmental protection agency Ibama concluded that <a href=",ibama-vai-mudar-vazao-da-agua-em-belo-monte-para-tentar-reduzir-impactos-na-regiao,70003537705">releasing</a> 4,000 cubic meters per second was &#8220;impractical,&#8221; while releasing 8,000 cubic meters did not produce results &#8220;able to guarantee that there would not be a drastic worsening of environmental conditions and livelihood in the Xingu Big Bend.&#8221;</p> <h2>Diving duck at risk of extinction</h2> <p>Elsewhere in Brazil, the construction of hydroelectric dams has been a major contributing factor in decimating animal species in their surrounding ecosystems. One example of this is the Brazilian merganser, a diving duck that is now almost completely extinct.</p> <p>The merganser once lived on the banks of major Brazilian waterways, such as the São Francisco River. There were also Brazilian merganser populations in Argentina and Paraguay, but the species is now considered completely extinct in these two neighboring countries.</p> <p>There are an estimated 250 birds left in the wild, with small pockets found in the Chapada dos Veadeiros and Serra da Canastra national parks in Brazil&#8217;s Center-West region, and the Jalapão State Park in Tocantins.</p> <p>The good news, however, is that biologists found nine Brazilian merganser eggs in the Chapada dos Veadeiros in September of this year. The species requires clean and transparent waters to survive and reproduce, mainly found in rivers and streams surrounded by riparian forest. </p> <p>But these habitats are more and more scarce in Brazil, with the Chapada dos Veadeiros representing an oasis in the middle of Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">devastated tropical savannah</a>.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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