How not to produce energy: lessons from Brazil’s Belo Monte dam

In the city of Altamira, located in the Brazilian Amazon, the impacts of the Belo Monte Dam are being lived every day in crumbling concrete houses, on flooded streets, and through violence and unemployment.

While the construction is mostly complete, and 90 thousand workers have left the area, the struggle for the protection of rights rings through empty neighborhoods and down dark roads.

From idea to implementation, the dam on the Xingu River has been a human rights and environmental disaster. Throughout the process, the Brazilian government maintained that Belo Monte would be a clean, climate-friendly energy solution. Yet because of its lack of community consultation and extreme socio-environmental impacts, Belo Monte has actually become a prime example of how not to produce energy in the 21st Century.

Flickr/International Rivers/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Native Brazilians from the Amazon basin demonstrate against the construction of the planned Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, in Brasilia February 8, 2011.

Once a sleepy river town in the heart of the Amazon, in the years since the dam project began, Altamira grew rapidly and chaotically into the most dangerous city in Brazil—in 2015 it registered the country’s highest homicide rate. Due to the vast environmental changes caused by the dam’s construction, nearly thirty thousand people have been displaced from their homes, indigenous communities have lost their connection to the forest, and traditional fishermen have been cut off from the river.

Belo Monte represents the costs of implementing business-as-usual energy development in Latin America. The project was financed by one of the region’s leading development banks, the Brazilian National Bank of Development (BNDES), representing the largest investment in its history.  

Once sold as a project for the poor, Belo Monte is involved in the largest corruption scandal in the region’s history and is one of hundreds of mega-projects being implemented by governments, institutions, and multinational corporations without adequate planning or investigation.

Though large dams are often labeled as “green” energy, research shows that they cause mass deforestation, particularly in tropical forests. A study from Washington State University found that the world’s dam reservoirs annually generate 1.3% of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans—more than all of Canada.

In times of climate change, comprehensive planning and the assessment of clean-energy alternatives should be the foundation of all new energy investments. Projects must have transparent and participatory planning and licensing processes, in which all stakeholders have the right to participate. Comprehensive environmental impact assessments must include all potential harms, and include adequate ways to prevent or mitigate them.

Belo Monte failed to abide by these rules, and its consequences are devastating.

Unfortunately, Belo Monte is not an exception—many climate policies and supposedly “clean energy” development projects are having negative impacts on communities and ecosystems across the world.  Similar examples can be found throughout the Amazon—with more than a hundred dams built and 288 more planned—and around the world.

What is exceptional in the case of Belo Monte, however, is the unprecedented indigenous outcry against the dam. Tribes came together from across the Amazon to protest the dam’s construction, and to fight to maintain the health of their forest home.

They were joined in protest by traditional fishermen, local communities, and Brazilian and international activists. They became warriors in the fight to defend one of our most precious natural resources—the Amazon. Their voices echoed around the world, and Belo Monte became a rallying cry. But their voices were notably absent in the most important place of all—the meeting room.

The operators of Belo Monte didn’t respect the right of indigenous communities to free, prior and informed consent. The meetings held to explain the impacts of the dam were highly inadequate—indigenous people had two days to review 26,000 pages of the technical study, there were no interpreters, and environmental impacts were never fully assessed.

This is a challenge that occurs repeatedly in development projects across the region. Though international law requires it, indigenous and tribal communities are not adequately consulted, and the impacts of projects are neither properly assessed nor explained.

Respect of indigenous´ rights and comprehensive assessments like the one that should have happen in Belo Monte, represents a truly valuable opportunity for climate and human rights advocacy—to ensure the voices of indigenous peoples and other affected communities are heard and respected, and to incorporate the climate risks of energy projects into the planning phase. Climate change is, after all, a human rights issue.

It is imperative that governments consider the human rights of vulnerable communities when developing climate policies, and when implementing projects aimed at transitioning to clean energy. Human rights language has been included in both the Cancun and the Paris Agreements, and it should be a part of the discussions about implementation of the Paris Agreement at the upcoming Bonn climate change conference (COP23), particularly in relation to energy and water.

Solutions to some of our greatest struggles can be found by letting the affected communities lead the way.

Solutions to some of our greatest struggles can be found by letting the affected communities lead the way.

But with a project so deeply entrenched in the local political system, citizens and the Public Ministry alike have been unable to find justice in Brazilian courts, despite more than 60 legal actions submitted against it.

In 2010, the defense of the Xingu was aimed at seeking justice for the affected communities where none was being found. As part of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), I helped communities take their case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, requesting precautionary measures that would guarantee the life, health and integrity of the indigenous peoples affected by Belo Monte. The Commission granted the measures the next year, requesting the suspension of the environmental licensing and the halting of construction.

Unfortunately, even international institutions charged with protecting human rights are vulnerable to pressure. Brazil’s reaction—withdrawing their Ambassador and withholding their annual dues—was an unprecedented and hostile attack on the Organization of American States.

In response, the Commission revised their precautionary measures, continuing to call for the guaranteeing of indigenous rights, but withdrawing their call for the suspension of licensing and the halting of construction.

Even now, as construction on the dam is largely complete, the people’s case remains open before the Commission, and Brazil is being forced to respond to the allegations of human rights violations caused by the dam. Justice before this mechanism is often slow, but we at AIDA are confident that it will be found.

As the world focuses on global climate action with COP23 underway this week, governments and corporations must stop insisting on the kind of energy projects that got us in trouble in the first place, such as Belo Monte.

Instead, they along with activists should focus their attention on sustainable and renewable energy projects that will protect our climate and fully respect human rights. Solutions exist and they’re available today; what is lacking thus far is the political will to implement them. World leaders at climate negotiations have the power to make effective changes. But activists must remain vigilant to ensure that this progress actually happens.