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Brazil's thirst for renewable energy

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

Greenpeace Brazil’s Marcelo Fortado said Brazil needs a more imaginative energy policy and could easily find the extra power needed using alternative sources: wind turbines, smaller hydroelectric projects, sugar cane waste, greater energy saving. “Big projects like this are not the way forward,” he said.

In December 2009, a report by the Brazilian government’s own Energy Research Company said that energy consumption could be cut dramatically by a more efficient environment code, and more efficient electronic goods and energy consumption. Greenpeace says 30 percent of energy produced is wasted.

But Brazil is an ambitious country and the world’s 10th biggest economy wants to become its fifth. Thirty million Brazilians have come out of poverty in the last decade, 50 percent of the population is now considered part of a new lower middle class. And if continuing social problems are to be avoided, the country’s economy needs to keep growing at the 5 percent projected for this year. Belo Monte is part of the Lula government’s Accelerated Growth Program.

“If Brazil is going to grow, more electricity is needed," said David Fleischer, professor of political science at Brasilia University. "We do need some big infrastructure projects if Brazil is going to become the fifth biggest economy in the world.”

Ever since Brazil’s military dictatorship, with its slogan of "Big Brazil" first mooted the Belo Monte project, big showpiece projects like this have been written into the DNA of successive Brazilian governments. “Politically, it’s flashy and it gives you a lot of propaganda,” said Fleischer. And Brazil is proud of its clean energy record: about 80 percent of its electricity comes from hydroelectricity. Seventy more dams are planned.

In October, Brazil will elect a new president. A radical new energy policy is unlikely to be adopted in the meantime. For now, Belo Monte is going ahead. Cacique Akiaboro, leader of the Caiapo, another tribe affected, said last week after a meeting with Lula “there will be a war between Indians and whites” if the government insists on building the dam.

But in the wider context of an overheating economy and an ambitious government, indigenous tribes like his are political collateral in a game being played for much bigger stakes.