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Andrew Burger headshot

"Last Stand" Against Brazil's Belo Monte Dam Raises "True Cost" Questions

What's more valuable: Generating an estimated annual average 4,500 megawatts (MW) of renewable hydroelectricity from a mega-dam project or conserving a 1,500-square kilometer area of threatened tropical rainforest ecosystem that has supported tremendous biodiversity and thousands of people for millennia?

Brazil's government made its choice on June 1, approving construction of what would be the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam system, the Belo Monte, on the Xingu River in the central Amazonian Para district, but local residents, conservationists and others continue to oppose the decision and are continuing efforts to halt construction from moving forward.

The government's decision to go ahead with the Belo Monte hydroelectric system begs several questions that come with all mega-infrastructure projects. 'Are there alternatives to achieving the same or similar ends that would not result in environmental destruction and the loss of traditional ways of life on such a massive scale?' 'Who benefits and who pays?,' and 'What are the true, total costs?'

Thirsty for Hydropower

Brazil has been on a hydroelectricity, dam-building binge of late, thirsty for electrical power to sustain rapid economic growth. Belo Monte is one of 60 dams the government is planning to build over the next 20 years, according to Belo-Monte.com. Hence, Belo Monte is viewed as 'the thin edge of a wedge,' that will see the Amazon's rivers largely drained and the tropical rain forest ecosystem severely degraded, resulting in staggering losses of freshwater fish, amphibians and terrestrial wildlife, as well the traditional ways of life of thousands living in the region.

Brazil's environmental agency Ibama issued its final approval of the estimated $19-billion mega-infrastructure project on June 1, following more than 20 years of Belo Monte moving forward and backward in fits and starts.

In addition to generating an estimated 4,500 MW of electricity, building Belo Monte will enhance access to better supplies of drinking water, make the region more accessible and result in the creation of more than 16,000 temporary and 2,000 permanent jobs, according to the government.

With electricity generation slated to start in 2015, the Brazilian government considers the project crucial to sustaining the country's economic development. Others, including local native tribespeople and other residents, along with local and international environmentalists and industry professionals, don't agree.

Ongoing Opposition

AmazonWatch and other human rights and environmental groups are organizing an "International Day of Action to Defend the Brazilian Amazon" on August 22.

Building Belo Monte will devastate 1,500 square kilometers of tropical Amazonian rainforest, an ecosystem that has sustained local populations for thousands of years, resulting in the deaths of millions of tropical rainforest animals and a loss of biodiversity, according to opposition groups. Estimates of the number of people displaced and affected range from a low government estimate of 19,000 to an independent Brazilian research group's estimate of some 40,000.

It will wipe out the "Big Bend," a 62-mile stretch of the Amazon tributary Xingu River, and reduce the Amazon tributary's overall flow by 80%,according to a 230-page report completed by an independent panel of 40 specialists looking to evaluate the true costs of the project. Concluding that that Belo Monte would be the most inefficient dam ever built in Brazil, the report was delivered to the Ibama environmental agency upon its release in October, 2009.

The Norte Energia consortium, made up of government-owned utility Electrobras Ches and eight Brazilian construction, engineering and energy companies, won the auction to build and operate Belo Monte. Part and parcel of the contract, it's promised to invest $100 million reals (~US$62 million) in environmental conservation projects around the area.

Belo Monte will also emit much more in the way of greenhouse gases, specifically methane, than the project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) projects, notes Philip Fearnside, ecologist for the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA).

"Hydroelectric dams emit methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times greater impact on global warming per ton than carbon dioxide. The authors of the EIA calculate low methane emissions because they only consider gas emitted on the surface of the lake itself and not from the huge amount of water passing through the turbines and spillway."

The Folly of Belo Monte?

Belo Monte is also being criticized and opposed on technical and investment grounds. While its nameplate rated capacity is around 11,200 MW, it would actually be able to produce only 39% of that. Power production efficiency would drop even lower, to 10%, during the July to October dry season. Project planners intend to build additional reservoirs to try to compensate for these losses, and that would require flooding larger areas of forest and displacing or affecting an estimated 25,000 more people.

"The expert panel reports highlight the folly of Belo Monte," Francisco Hernandez, electrical engineer and co-coordinator of the panel that produced the independent report said in a press release.

"According to private investors, the project could cost up to US$19 billion, making it an extremely inefficient investment given that the dam will generate only a fraction of its installed capacity during the dry season. And this doesn't even take into account the enormous social costs and devastation that the project would cause. No one knows the true costs of Belo Monte."

Moreover, a large portion of the electricity generated by Belo Monte will go towards expanding aluminum smelters and other mining and metals processing plants in the Amazon, which will inevitably lead to greater environmental degradation and destruction over time, added International Rivers' Amazon Program Director Glenn Switkes.

* Image courtesy of International Rivers

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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