Connect to share and comment

Brazil's thirst for renewable energy

Proposed dam in the Amazon highlights the battle between environmental protection and economic development.

Brazil Belo Monte dam
Two girls laugh on a boat in the Xingu river in Altamira, northern Brazil, April 28, 2010. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil’s Belo Monte dam could flood more than 500 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest, displacing tens of thousands people and disrupting the lives of thousands of indigenous tribes.

But the Brazilian government, with its booming economy and growing electricity needs, is determined to go ahead and build it.

The giant hydroelectric project — which would be the world’s third biggest — has become an international symbol of the battle between environmental protection and economic development. Opposition from actress Sigourney Weaver and Avatar director James Cameron has raised its profile yet further. “What’s happening in Avatar is happening in Brazil,” said Cameron, when he visited the area in April.

But to stop the dam, said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on his weekly radio program in April, would be “an insane move” in the fight against climate change. “Hydroelectricity is the cheapest,” he said, “and because of this I’m happy that after 30 years, finally, Belo Monte is going to happen.”

First planned by Brazil’s military government in 1979, Belo Monte has been attracting celebrity opposition since the 1980s. In 1989, the project was shelved after a campaign by the rock star Sting and Indian chief Raoni, who famously wore a plate through his lip, succeeded in scaring off foreign backers. Twenty years later, both are back opposing the dam.

“It is not to better the quality of life of people,” said Antonia Mello, coordinator from the Xingu Indian tribe’s Xingu Movement Forever. “It is to benefit political groups and groups of businessmen.” The tribe’s Xingu Basin home will be flooded. “There will be huge damage to the biodiversity. More than 50,000 people who will be expelled from their homes and their lands,” Mello said. Protests and international legal actions are pending.

But with Brazil's economy set to grow at 5 percent this year, the country needs electricity. “Electricity consumption has grown higher than GDP,” said Ronaldo Seroa from the Government’s Economic Research Institute. In October 2009, a blackout affected tens of millions of Brazilians when power line failures shut down the giant Itaipu dam — another giant hydroelectric project on the Paraguay border that supplies almost 20 percent of Brazil’s electricity.

(Watch video profiles of energy entrepreneurs around the world.)

Belo Monte has been beset by problems. Construction giants Camargo Correa and Odebrecht walked out of the first consortium put together to build the dam. After a judicial battle a second consortium finally won a government auction. The government has had to guarantee 80 percent of the costs through the Brazilian Development Bank. Critics say the dam will not generate the energy the government says it will.

“The government says it will produce 11,000 megawatts,” Mello said. “But the government knows well that it will be just 4,700 megawatts when the river is full. In the dry season when the river diminishes its water, it will be just 1,000 megawatts — and it could be completely paralyzed if the river is too dry.” The government says it will cost $19 billion reais ($10 billion). Specialists say it could cost up to $30 billion reais.