Giant Amazon Dam Stalled Again – Indigenous Voices to be Heard?

UPDATE: On Monday, August 27, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge lifted a suspension on Belo Monte construction, according to Reuters.  Earlier this month, a district court put development of the multi-billion-dollar hydroelectric project on hold, saying government approval of the project violated the constitution and other agreements.

Belo Monte advocates had expressed concern over finishing the current phase of the project before the rainy season starts.

The Supreme Court will consider the merits of the district courts decision, but allow for construction as it does.


If built, the Belo Monte dam in northern Brazil will be the third largest in the world.

But that is a big “if.” The Brazilian courts have suspended the $17-billion project once again, saying indigenous people whose lives would be affected by the enormous hydroelectric operation were not properly consulted.

At the heart of the legal decision issued this week is whether the Brazilian Congress had a right to approve the dam in the first place.

A young Kayapo girl takes an afternoon bath in the Xingu River
A young Kayapo girl takes an afternoon bath in the Xingu River. Photograph courtesy Cristina Mittermeier/International League of Conservation Photographers.


(See more pictures from the International League of Conservation Photographers of the local tribes that rely on the Xingu River.)

The Brazilian constitution and subsequent United Nations agreements dictate that the government can authorize hydroelectric projects only after an independent review of environmental impacts and official consultations with indigenous people who rely on the river, according to a press release from the advocacy organization International Rivers.

“The Brazilian Congress must take into account the decisions taken by the indigenous communities,” Regional Federal Judge Souza Prudente—who issued the ruling—told O Globo newspaper. (Read the BBC report.)

In terms of the dam’s impact on the ecosystem, the first environmental impact statement was approved by Brazil’s federal environmental agency in 2010. Congress agreed to the construction of Belo Monte in 2005.

“A study on the environmental impact of the project was required before, not after, work on the dam started. The legislation is flawed,” said Prudente.


“Any evaluation of the costs and benefits of a large dam like Belo Monte needs to take these environmental, social and human factors into account.” —Sandra Postel


Power vs. People

The Brazilian government has rallied for the dam—managed by Norte Energia—saying it will help to make a growing Brazilian population more energy independent.

Belo Monte as planned would produce 11,000 megawatts of energy—or enough to provide electricity to 23 million homes, reports CNN. That is 7,000 megawatts less than the Three Gorges Dam in China and 1,600 megawatts less than Itaipu Dam, which straddles the Brazil-Paraguay border.

The Norte Energia project would also reduce Xingu River flows downstream of the dam and flood tropical forests upstream and nearby, displacing tens of thousands of people.  The Xingu is a tributary of the Amazon River.

At risk of losing their homes and river-based livelihoods are members of the Juruna, Arara and Xikrin tribes, among others.

Brazilian authorities have promised to spend more than $1 billion to help relocate communities, reports the BBC.

The controversy around Belo Monte fluctuates nearly as much as natural river flows – with currents of protest from the environmental and indigenous rights communities followed by court decisions to halt construction, then appeals that wash over previous rulings and re-ignite the project, and ire.

(For an illustration of natural river flow and how dams can alter it, check out the Nature Conservancy’s Heartbeat of a River interactive.)

This is certainly not the first roadblock Norte Energia has faced. Just last September, a federal court barred the developer from working on the dam until it could prove the project would not interfere with the natural flow of the Xingu or harm local and indigenous fishing operations. Demands were met and construction started again.

Local communities staged protests in October over the environmental and cultural consequences of the dam. And they raged on during the United Nations Rio+20 conference in June, when indigenous leaders occupied the dam site. Two weeks later, activists detained several Norte Energia engineers, demanding appropriate mitigation measures.

Amazon River Basin.
Amazon River Basin. Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.


Projects of Amazonian Proportions

Hydroelectric projects are popping up all over the Amazon, as a means of economic development and as a source of energy for growing population centers.

In 2010 there were an estimated 2,200 large dams planned for South America, including 1,700 in Brazil alone, according to a relatively recent paper on the downstream human consequences of dams in the journal Water Alternatives.

A co-author of that report, Sandra Postel, explained the pros and cons of big dams to Water Currents.

“For all their measurable benefits, large dams have had a multitude of negative impacts on river ecosystems and the livelihoods of people who depend on those ecosystems for farming, fishing and other uses.

“Rarely have these people, often indigenous subsistence dwellers, been adequately compensated for their losses,” added Postel, who leads National Geographic’s freshwater initiative.

“Any evaluation of the costs and benefits of a large dam like Belo Monte needs to take these environmental, social, and human factors into account.  When they are, it will become clear that some proposed dams should not be built.  And if a decision is made to build a dam, those who lose out need to be adequately compensated.”

(Related: “Damming the Poor: It’s Time to Create River Parks for People.”)

In 2000 the World Commission on Dams estimated that 40-80 million people had been displaced by the construction of dams alone. Postel and her co-authors estimate that more than 470 million people worldwide are affected by the additional downstream consequences of large dams.

An Indigenous Legacy

The district court that suspended construction of Belo Monte also halted development of the Teles Pires dam on the Tapajós River (another tributary of the Amazon River in northern Brazil), for the same reason—a lack of indigenous consultation. (That decision has already been overturned, according to International Rivers.)

Reaching consensus on what constitutes proper consultation with indigenous people for Belo Monte and other projects will set a precedent for the Amazon region and North, Central, and South America, according to Astrid Puentes, co-director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, or AIDA.

“It is important for Brazil and the region.”

While consultation is required, there is no legislation that outlines what those meetings look like beyond being “culturally adequate,” Puentes said. It could mean special consideration for language, timing, location, and more.

“Communities have the right to say something, but not to veto,” Puentes added. “In an ideal situation, communities share their view and out of the consultation they can see resolution.”

(See more photos of colossal water infrastructure projects.)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.