Tensions are so high over a proposed dam in the Brazilian Amazon that violence broke out at a May meeting in the city of Altamira to discuss the project. A thousand indigenous people from 26 ethnic tribes crowded into a high school gymnasium. Members of the the Kayapó, Juruna, Arara, Xipaia, Kuruaia, and other tribes that live along the mighty river’s second longest tributary, the Xingu, don’t get together in Altamira very often. But the $6.6 billion dam, called the Belo Monte, that Brazil’s electric utility, Electronorte, plans to build along the 1,200-mile Xingu River will affect them all. It would be the world’s third largest dam, with a potential installed capacity of 11,181 MW—and its reservoir would flood 100,000 acres, putting many tribal lands underwater.

Given this projection, what happened during the gathering may not have been all that surprising. Paulo Fernando Rezende, an Electronorte representative, gave a PowerPoint presentation touting the benefits of the dam, and telling the tribes that "the National Indian Foundation will fully participate in the studies affecting the indigenous lands,” according to a report by National Public Radio. But coming from a notoriously corrupt agency, the offer was interpreted as little more than a paper dove. A leader of the Movement of Dam Affected People of Brazil, Roquivan Alves Silva, took Rezende’s microphone, saying he would go to war if necessary. The tribes proceeded to rush the stage and physically attack Rezende.

“The indigenous people decided to send a clear message to the government. They were incensed, especially at Rezende´s smugness and arrogance in portraying the dams as not being a problem to the indigenous peoples,” says Glenn Switkes, of International Rivers Network, a California-based water policy nonprofit. “Brazilian tribes are guaranteed, under the Brazilian constitution, exclusive rights to the natural resources on their lands. When hydroelectric dams are proposed that affect indigenous lands, the constitution guarantees them the right ‘to be heard’ which courts have interpreted in many cases as ‘prior consent’.”

The Belo Monte Dam is just one of hundreds of dams planned on multiple tributaries of the Amazon like the Madeira, Tapajós, and the Tocantins. While building these structures will help Brazil meet its rapidly expanding energy needs, critics say the country should instead invest in alternative energy sources like biomass and wind that won’t endanger the riparian ecosystems and fisheries that native peoples rely on.

“We, peoples of the Xingu River, do not want to hear any more about this story of dams on the Xingu River,” the tribes wrote in a document presented to a federal judge in Altamira.  “We do not want our fish and our animals dead, and our children going hungry.”

Brazil’s focus on developing new sources of power began with the Blackout Crisis, which stretched from June 2001 to February 2002, when Brazil experienced its worst drought in 70 years. Reservoir levels dropped so low electricity could not be consistently produced by hydropower, forcing the so-called “Blackout Ministry” to ration power use, slashing it to one-fifth. Politicians concluded they should increase the hydropower infrastructure, and by 2006 it was the source of more than 75 percent of the nation’s power.

Some of these recent regional dam projects have culturally scarred Amazon communities. The Paranatinga II, one of the Amazon’s fast-tracked “small dams,” on the Upper Xingu, damaged fish spawning grounds, which led to the total destruction of the fishery relied on by indigenous people of the Xingu Park. The Tucuruí Dam on the Tocantins River displaced 3,700 people.

The Belo Monte Dam is predicted to impact 48 villages, cause an 87-mile stretch of the Xingu River to run dry, and displace 16,000 people. Moreover, its diversion of water will drown the Big Bend, or Volta Grande, a fluvial monument that is both a unique ecosystem and cultural site.

“These projects only bring misery, destruction, and death. If you do not succeed in stopping this project, we, the indigenous peoples of the Xingu Basin will be willing to enter the work sites and halt them,” the tribal declaration continued.

This willingness to take extreme measures is driven by more than the threat of one dam. Because of the small storage capacity of Belo Monte, it’s unclear that the dam will add much to the national grid without the construction of other dams upstream. Hydrologists from UNICAMP, the Campinas State University in São Paulo, predict that under the current model, power production would be so low the project might be economically unfeasible. “During low-water periods, 3-5 months out of the year there will be barely enough water to drive the turbines,” says Switkes. Officials from Electronorte portray the project as an individual dam, but they haven’t discarded existing plans for additional dams upstream either.

“The real story behind the dam is something else,” says John Reid, executive director of the Conservation Strategy Fund, a US-based NGO. “Building that dam will create enormous pressure to create storage dams upstream – to hold back more water which will flood a lot of areas including indigenous areas – and that’s why you see people who live in the Xingu River opposing it so strongly.”

Story by Erin Barnes. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Brazilian tribes protest controversial dam
The new hydroelectric plant may flood homelands and require building more dams upstream.