Reconciling economic development, environmental sustainability and social welfare is not a simple affair. The construction of the Belo Monte Dam complex on the Xingu River, a north-flowing tributary of the Amazon in the State of Pará, is an example of this complexity. Belo Monte is one of the world’s largest hydroelectric facilities in construction and currently Brazil’s largest engineering project. The dam, at the heart of the Amazon forest, has been discussed within the Brazilian government for more than 20 years with various actors and coalitions participating in the negotiations. The changes enacted reflect not only how controversial the construction of the dam, but also the fragmented nature of the government with various ministries attempting to advance their own conflicting agendas.
The dam has been proposed as a crucial project to advance the country’s economic development, yet it remains difficult to convince the general public of its benefits. While the project’s environmental impact studies were underway in 2001, major cities in Brazil were affected by power shortages leaving millions without electricity and causing severe economic losses for companies and the country as a whole. Although the cause of the blackout is still debated, the resulting consensus was the need to urgently increase domestic energy production. Considering the vast potential of Brazil’s river basins to generate power, the evident choice was to continue relying on hydropower, understood as a clean, low-priced and environmentally-friendly option. Initially the crisis spurred positive discourse about the benefits of Belo Monte Dam in thinking that it would maintain the country’s energy security while keeping its internationally agreed climate compromises. On top of that, Belo Monte represented a chance to promote the development of the Amazon region, creating new jobs, attracting associated investments and improving basic infrastructure in a historically neglected part of the territory.
Large dams represent a major investment, and in the case of Belo Monte, the largest single investment of its kind in the country — firmly justified by its national macro-economic benefits, even though the dam will operate below capacity for much of the year when river levels are low. The dubious validity of the project can be expounded, however, with a few notes about its location and the history of the region — an area with a significant variety of indigenous population and extremely rich biodiversity. The economic integration of the Brazilian Amazon to the rest of the country, and the Xingu river basin development plans, occurred mostly under the military regime from 1964 to 1985, with policies that were often complementary and subordinated to the needs of the wealthiest areas of the countries. Due to the nature of the country’s political regime, projects were instituted without public support or environmental impact analysis. Unilateral decision-making, devoid of posterior compensation for affected people, characterized the implementation process of large projects and little was known in scientific terms about the region’s physical characteristics and economic potential.
Brazil has come a long way since that period. The current Brazilian regulatory regime has several provisions requiring impact studies and public consultation during the planning and execution of large infrastructure projects. The addition and enlargement of democratic elements within the political decision-making process is a crucial achievement to enable the improvement of development plans and encourage society to participate in decisions that directly affects them. In the case of Belo Monte, numerous meetings were held between the government, Norte Energia S/A Consortium — a mix of private and public companies led by Brazilian federal power utility Eletrobras responsible for the implementation of the project — and indigenous and local communities. Yet, guaranteeing that opposing voices can formally take part in the discussion is not sufficient if asymmetrical power structures are transported to the negotiations. When the debating voices do not have the same leverage, negotiations mainly serve to ratify previous decisions. Likewise, the intangible nature of things being disputed by the different stakeholders makes it difficult to measure costs and benefits in strict numeric terms in order to establish proper compensation. In Belo Monte, the deliberations were focused on monetary reparations to the physical displacement of affected populations, whereas little was acknowledged and discussed in regard to the changes in community’s traditions and ways of living that would come from the relocation (without mentioning the alteration of the river flow and loss of biodiversity). The result, as can be already observed, is disastrous for traditional customs, hierarchies, sense of identity and long-term economic endurance of indigenous people, fishermen and local communities.
The Belo Monte Dam complex and other large infrastructural projects in Latin America force us to reflect upon the meaning of economic progress and who the prime beneficiaries of those projects are. Poverty, violence and corruption are undeniably persistent issues in the region and promoting equally distributed economic growth is essential to overcome them. However, when those receiving the economic gains are not the ones bearing the costs, the long-term social and environmental sustainability of those plans need to be reconsidered.