• Monsterdam

    When it was first proposed in 1975, Brazil’s Belo Monte dam was one of several on the table, riding high on a wave of big development sponsored by the military regime that was then in power. Over the ensuing decades of bitter contestation the other dams were dropped but plans for Belo Monte somehow remained; to be, if built, perhaps the third largest in the world. A natural ninety foot drop in the river’s course provides a location that has so far proved all too alluring to big budget engineers. As one of them remarked with an unswerving marriage of predestination and stark utilitarianism: "God only makes a place like Belo Monte once in a while. This place was made for a dam."

    The project was given the go ahead by Brazil’s environment agency at the beginning of this month. If building work is carried out successfully it will flood more than 150 square miles of forest, affect supplies of fresh water, displace between 20,000 to 40,000 people and seriously disrupt the lives of those downstream who depend on the river for both fish and transport. It has been estimated that around 100,000 migrants will be attracted to the area by the project, many of whom – judging from the record of previous large infrastructural developments in the area - are likely to stay around, competing for resources with and jeopardizing the health of many of those indigenous peoples who have not been displaced by the flooding itself. It is one of 140 dams in the Amazon region that are currently planned.

    In addition, there would be a greatly increased likelihood of diseases affecting those living near the large areas of stagnant water created, as at the Tucurui Reservoir where there was a plague of Mansonia mosquitoes and malaria and where there was a rise in other waterbourne diseases such as river blindness and schistosomiasis. Denser populations in resettlement areas can also lead to new diseases such as intestinal infections and influenza. The Xingu river is also home to around six hundred fish species, many of them not found anywhere else on the planet. Hundreds of species would be at risk of extinction is the project is continued.

    The dam is being billed as a ‘clean’ energy alternative to fossil fuels and essential for the continued economic expansion of Brazil. But even here serious questions have been asked: it has been estimated for instance that huge amounts of methane – 21 times more noxious a greenhouse gas than Co2 - will be released on account of the rotting submerged vegetation in the area to be flooded. 112 million metric tons of carbondioxide or equivalent gases are likely to be produced in the first ten years of dam’s use. A report by Brazil’s WWF stated than increased energy efficiency could amount to savings equal to 40 Belo Monte dams.

    The irony to all this is that, largely due to the methane produced, hydro-power can actually produce as much as 3.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than would have been produced by using oil. The Brazilian government however state that Belo Monte will save 19 million tons of carbon when compared to a plant using gas to produce the same amount of energy.

    At any rate, it cannot be disputed that Brazil is a young country on the up, and growth – in the right hands - can be equated with greater prosperity and growth needs energy as surely as plants needs the sun. Doesn’t it? Were we to lay to one side for a moment the mammoth in the room of carbon emmissions, it might be tempting to portray this story as one of a lesser of two evils, one where the indigenous peoples' plight is bitter and unfortunate but not, at the end of the day, relevant to the cut and thrust that determines life for modern nations in the modern world. But that of course is a tragic oversimplification - we all of us stand at a turning point in these times we live in and it has never been clearer that it is more urgent than ever before to reconfigure the very foundations on which we look at economic life and at patterns of development. We are hard wired for economic growth, it has become the be-all end-all mantra of our times and so much so we barely seem to notice that if we carry on like this these days will be our last on a temperate, accommodating planet.

    Consciousness has always been a funny thing, as the famous story goes of the Indians who watched the shore as Columbus’s ships stole over the horizon. They didn’t see the ships of course, until they’d landed – such things were so removed from their experiences up until that point that they simply didn’t register at first. Today it is imperative we all look at our cultural blind spots as it is these that hold the promise - if understood, properly clocked and somehow countered - of leading us back from the brink of a full throated stampede whereby it makes some kind of sense to forcibly evict tens of thousands of the very people who hold the key to our redemption in their hands and from a habitat whose flora helps to constitute the very air we breath, whose hundreds of unique species form perhaps our greatest treasures.

    As Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund put it: "The government has an important choice – to go back to a future of wasteful publicly funded mega-projects and frontier chaos, or ahead, to the future of a sustainable and equitable green economy leader, with rule of law, good governance and a secure natural and investment environment."

    The opportunity remains, if only just, for Brazil to show the imagination of demonstrating to the world that a young and rapidly changing country can still carry the hope of a pattern of development that neither stampedes on the rights of so many of its citizens nor denigrates the rich natural heritage it ought to have a hand in safeguarding. The opportunity remains to break free from policies that encourage the growth of industries like aluminium smelting that dams such as Belo Monte are often principally built to power, just as it does to find a way in which the Kayapo, Juruna, Enawene Nawe, Arara, Bororo, Xavante, Cinta Larga, Terena, Bakairi e Fulni-ô - and all the other ethnicities up and down the Xingu - can help inform the picture of the way ahead, and not be shoved aside by what a few too many still apparently believe; that collosal infrastructure and industry remain the twins great gods ushered in by aspirations - that should be long gone but somehow still persist - of what a better, braver world should look like. If such imagination cannot be found in the boardrooms of Brasilia, should we then bow down and give up dreams of what is green and good and is integral to our very future?

    Antônia Melo, the coordinator of a group based in Altamira, a city that will be partly flooded if the dam is built, is clear about the way ahead: "We will not cede an inch. Our indignation and our strength to fight only increases with every mistake and every lie of this government."

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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