In building the world's third-largest dam, Brazil aims to build good social practices

Despite controversy over the construction of Brazil's Belo Monte dam, some say it could change the approach to community engagement around large-scale projects.

Taylor Weidman
Indigenous Munduruku men survey the quarry site for the Belo Monte Dam. On May 27th, an indigenous group made up predominantly of Munduruku occupied the dam and halted construction on the main turbine site.

Brazil is busy polishing its image in anticipation of hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, spending billions on budgets for border control, crime eradication, and public projects.

But while the construction of soccer stadiums and the war on crime grab headlines, Brazil’s largest and most expensive infrastructure project is hidden deep in the Amazon on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu River. There, the Belo Monte dam – the third largest dam in the world – is rapidly being built. And how the dam is completed could play an important role in shaping the future of one of the world’s last frontiers – the Amazon Rainforest.

"The effects of this dam will be better than any other dam in Brazil," says Vilmar Soares, a co-founder of FORT Xingu, an organization that supports development in the Xingu Region. “This is the first hydroelectric dam in Brazil that implements a plan of regional development for when the dam is completed."

In an unprecedented move, Norte Energia, the consortium managing the dam, will pay the impacted 11 municipalities of the Xingu Region a compensation fee of $233 million to be invested in sustainable development projects over 20 years. The money, and the community-led disbursement of it, will allow the Xingu Region to “continue bettering the region,” not just respond to the immediate impacts of the dam, Mr. Soares says.

Some observers, like Soares, say that despite controversy over construction, Belo Monte is setting positive precedents in community engagement that can teach the world how to approach infrastructure projects.


Belo Monte has had a long, turbulent history of clashes between national interest and local concerns. When dam plans were first made public in 1987, they met strong public backlash and were eventually shelved. When the government revived the project in 2002, high-profile protestors such as James Cameron led the international community to halt what the opposition considered an environmentally destructive and inefficient project. Despite their efforts, today Belo Monte is becoming a reality.

Opposing groups hold that Belo Monte is being constructed illegally. Local indigenous populations claim that they were never properly consulted about Belo Monte, a violation of the Brazilian constitution. The legality of granting an installation license was also called into question when two biannual inspections by IBAMA, Brazil’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, found that Norte Energia had fulfilled only five of the 40 installation conditions. This included things such as proper disposal of felled forest, installation of basic infrastructure in impacted communities, and compensation of people facing displacement.

Currently, over 50 lawsuits at all levels of court charge Belo Monte’s planners and builders with environmental and human rights violations.

“After the river closes, it’s pretty much impossible for the courts to do anything to stop construction,” says Maíra Irigaray, Brazil program coordinator at Amazon Watch, an environmental advocacy group. “If the courts rule now, they can set precedent for how big companies cannot get away with this – they can change the future of how the Amazon becomes developed." 

Although Norte Energia representatives did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, their website states that the company has made widespread efforts to consult the impacted community before construction: “From 2007 to 2010 there were 12 public consultations to discuss plant construction; ten workshops with the community that lives in the enterprise area; technical forums in Belém and Xingu;” and various other workshops and conferences.

Yet many members of the regional and indigenous populations hold that these meetings never explicitly asked them for consent. While Norte Energia contends that explicit consent is not required because Belo Monte is not technically being built on indigenous territory, federal prosecutors argue that procuring consent by impacted indigenous communities is required by Article 231 in the Brazilian constitution, which guarantees protection of indigenous lands and lifestyles. 

'One of a kind'

The scale of protests has created more public input on regional development, for example. A presidential decree in 2010 established a 30-member steering committee to control Norte Energia’s $233 million investment in the region. The 30 officers represent every walk of life affected by the dam, including fishermen, indigenous tribes, rural farmers, labor unions, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists, as well as every branch of government – federal, state, and municipal. Every month the committee meets for two days, hashing out the best plans for developing the Xingu. The public is encouraged to participate, making for a dynamic democratic process.

“This [space] has a life of its own,” says Peter Klein, a PhD candidate in sociology at Brown University who has spent time in the communities around the dam. The conversation taking place "is constantly changing and constantly being created … it’s one of a kind," he says.

This type of community inclusion and oversight has never been attempted at a dam site in Brazil before.

Environmental concerns are also being addressed in new ways. In response to environmental and indigenous outcry, Belo Monte was redesigned as a run-of-the-river dam, an emerging hydropower alternative that uses the flow of the river to generate power, eschewing large reservoirs. Scaled down from a six-dam reservoir complex, Belo Monte will now only flood 516 square km of rainforest instead of the original 1,225 square km. As a result, the dam will emit less greenhouse gases and avoid construction on indigenous lands.

With a maximum capacity of 11,233 megawatts, it will be the first run-of-the-river dam in the world to generate such output.

The Brazilian people and government know that Belo Monte is setting a precedent. With Brazil’s new need for energy, hydroelectric dams are of major national interest, and over 30 dam projects are currently being planned in the Amazon.

Many are hopeful that this nascent awareness of social and environmental responsibility will mold Belo Monte into a boon for the region. But others worry Norte Energia has already gotten away with too much, creating a slippery slope for wholesale destruction of the rainforest. João Artur, a Xingu Region city council member, says there’s only one thing that will determine how it turns out.

“It could go either way, really bad or really good. But it all depends on public power,” Mr. Artur says. “I’m optimistic.” 

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