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Anorak | Brazil’s Big And Bold Dam Project Is No Avatar Plot

Brazil’s Big And Bold Dam Project Is No Avatar Plot

by | 9th, May 2011

THE Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in Brazil, once complete, will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam complex, after China’s Three Gorges Dam and the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipu Dam.

The £7.5bn project, first initiated in 1975, is expected to provide electricity to 23 million homes and to create an estimated 41,000 jobs. According to Brazil’s Energy Research Company (EPE), “Belo Monte enables Brazil to meet two goals: to provide electric power to boost economic growth while at the same time avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases”. Indeed, with a booming economy that grew 7.5% last year, Brazil is facing a soaring energy demand.

But the dam project has been marred by controversy from the outset. In recent years, a string of environmentalist groups and celebrities have launched campaigns against Belo Monte, saying it will ruin biodiversity and disrupt the livelihoods of indigenous populations.

At the end of last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Brazilian government to suspend the dam construction after receiving a petition from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded by ordering an immediate cessation of relations with IACHR, suspending Brazil’s annual $800.000 contribution to the Human Rights body.

As with any large-scale development project, both local peoples and the environment will be affected. The Belo Monte dam will stretch along 3.75 miles in the state of Pará and, according to critics’ reports, it requires the clearing of 588 acres of Amazon jungle, the flooding of a 193-square mile area and the drying-up of a 62-mile stretch of the Xingu River. Moreover, 20,000 people will have to relocate, indigenous rights campaigners like Survival International say. However, other reports show that these are townspeople and that no tribes will be displaced.

Regardless, this prospective scenario has reminded some greens and international celebrities of Hollywood blockbusters, in which a popular theme in recent years has been to pit corporate baddies against defenceless populations in desperate need for some enlightened hero to come to their rescue. In the 2009 sci-fi movie Avatar, for instance, a profit-driven government seeks to expand its precious mineral mining endeavours to the lush, alien planet of Pandora. The Earthly government threatens the future of the Na’vi tribe, a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. But soon a paraplegic war veteran falls in love with the native culture and takes on an environmental battle on their behalf.

When Avatar director James Cameron visited the indigenous communities in the Xingu river basin, accompanied once by Avatar co-stars Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore and another time by former action figure and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, reality came to follow fiction. After meeting with indigenous leaders, Cameron became the figurehead of an international campaign against Amazon destruction, claiming that a “real-life Avatar confrontation is in progress” by the Xingu river. Here, the Brazilian government has been cast in the role of the corporate-driven resource-pillaging force while Amazonian people have been given the role of the besieged Na’vi. The rescuers, of course, are celebrities like Cameron and a network of non-governmental organisations that includes the US-based Amazon Watch.

Not all Brazilians appreciated Cameron’s mission, however, with some labelling it a “colonialist” enterprise by a clueless “gringo”. Cameron retorted that he wasn’t simply a whitie lecturing Brazilians on how to conduct their energy policies or dictating the terms of their development. “North America is Brazil’s future”, he said. “We can come to Brazil from the future and say: ‘Don’t do this.'”

Cameron and his fellow celebrity and green campaigners may regard themselves as enlightened Cassandras, but in whose interest is it to prevent a nation of 185million from aspiring to “live in the future” – with all the comforts that Hollywood celebrities take for granted – rather than be stuck in the past deprived of the trappings of modernity?

The Brazilian government has stated its intentions to invest over $3 billion in infrastructure and social projects in the affected region, where there is extreme poverty, low education levels and a lack of access to healthcare and basic sanitation. Belo Monte is part of a big-picture development strategy to develop the north of Brazil and to connect the northern power grid to the rest of the country as well as increase cheap hydroelectricity in the region.

Of course, the investors in the Belo Monte dam are profit-driven – this is no charity project. And anyone forced to move because of the dam construction should be duly compensated. Once complete, the benefits of the dam should be distributed across the population as a whole. But the anti-dam campaigners and their relatively small number of local, NIMBYist supporters are not interested in helping Brazilians make sure that they can benefit from this big and bald development project. Instead, they want to see the dam construction completely abandoned.

Belo Monte is a risky project, but Brazilians would take an even bigger risk if they listened to gringos like Cameron who are willing to sacrifice the improved quality and length of lives of millions – all in the name of a neo-colonial fantasy of a real-life Pandora populated by a people untouched by modern civilisation.



Posted: 9th, May 2011 | In: Key Posts Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink