Q&A: Battles over Brazil’s biggest dam

Gabriel Elizondo speaks with a supporter and opponent of a dam which will displace villagers while creating power.

Brazil dump trucks build big friggin'' dam [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
Joao Pimentel, Director of Institutional Relations for Norte Energia, says that the controversy surrounding the Belo Monte dam is due to lack of information about the project  [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

Joao Pimentel is a key figure behind the building of the Belo Monte Dam, Brazil’s biggest. He has decades of experience in the energy sector in Brazil, having worked in both the private and public sectors. He was interviewed by Al Jazeera in Altamira, Brazil on January 13, 2012. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Gabriel Elizondo: When will it be finished and how has the opening stages of construction been going?

Joao Pimentel: The first turbine of Belo Monte will start to generate electricity in 2015. And then there will be a sequence of events to finish the entire project by 2019. The state of the construction is absolutely within our timetable. We had some problems regarding the judicial aspects of the projects, but they happily did not delay in any way the construction. So we are absolutely within the timetable established by the government.

It is important to understand we are a concession of public service, so we have a commitment to the government to start our operations within our timetable. That means if there are delays we will be punished by the government, and since this is a for-profit company that needs to give profit back to its stake holders, they want the dates and timetables to be observed.

Elizondo: Why, in your opinion, has Belo Monte been so controversial?

Pimentel: Belo Monte might be considered a controversial project because there is this idea that the Amazon is a territory that is absolutely virgin, intact, full of people: people walking half naked, monkeys and birds. But when you go above the region, you see that this is not the reality. This city where we are now (Altamira), there are about 110,000 people living here. In the region covered by Belo Monte, there are 11 cities and 360,000 people living here.

The indigenous people impacted by Belo Monte are about 2,200, and they are not going to be directly effected by Belo Monte – but they are in the area of influence of Belo Monte. There is a distortion in terms of information that Belo Monte is a controversial project; I will not deny that it’s controversial. But the principal controversy is because of a lack of information that exists, not only internationally, but also in Brazil.

Elizondo: Lack of what information?

Pimentel: Like that Belo Monte will flood a huge area. Not true. The area of Belo Monte that effectively will flood is very small. We did the Belo Monte project differently from Itaipu Dam and Three Gorges Dam (in China). We opted to use the minimum flooding plans. We will not have a big reservoir of flooded area. Half of the reservoir on Belo Monte is going to be the bed of the Xingu River and the other half are areas that are being disappropriated from farms and cattle ranches. And that area is not virgin forest, it’s just the opposite – they are areas already degraded with deforestation.

Elizondo: If the project is so positive, why have there been so many judicial injunctions by local prosecutors’ office to have it blocked?

Pimentel: Because of the lack of technical knowledge of what Belo Monte is going to be. The name Belo Monte is associated with a project that originated in the times of the military dictatorship in the end of 70s and early 80s. Back then, the project was much bigger – and included the construction of six hydroelectric dams along the length of the Xingu River.

Today, the federal government has authorised only one dam, and required that dozens of measures be taken to mitigate negative impacts. There are always going to be impacts on nature, of course. Anything you use in life has an environmental impact. But we are here to minimise those impacts. There are a lot of international interests against Belo Monte.

Brazil is the 6th largest economy in the world today, we just surpassed England. And it is the only country of the top six economies of the world that has an energy matrix of 86 per cent of renewable energy; while the rest of the world has a matrix of renewable energy at 19 per cent. Brazil has 86 per cent! The generation of electricity in Brazil by hydroelectric dams is 81 per cent of the total. Which country has that form of clean energy in the largest economies of the world? France? They use nuclear plants. Japan? Nuclear. England? Nuclear or coal.

Elizondo: But what about the social impacts of Belo Monte? Dams might be clean energy in the technical sense of the word, but they come with social consequences, wouldn’t you agree?

Pimentel: Belo Monte will effect the population in a minimum way. The design of Belo Monte was changed in the last year precisely to reduce the social impacts. The population that will be removed during the process of the building of Belo Monte will only be in those areas that are necessary for the reservoir. And that is a small population. There are groups of people that don’t want to leave their land, but this is a project that has been determined by the government of great public interest. Up to today, Belo Monte has negotiated to pay people to move at 500 properties, and only with two properties we had to go to the courts – the rest were negotiated with the owners in a friendly way… Yes, there are social impacts of a big project like Belo Monte, but we are mitigating those.

Elizondo: How many people is Norte Energia having to pay off to relocate to make way for the construction of Belo Monte?

Pimentel: The number we have are 6,000 families, so that would be about 24,000 people if you consider four people per family.

Elizondo: In your opinion, is there any scenario you could see where Belo Monte construction could be halted?

Pimentel: No, in this moment Belo Monte has the perspective to fulfill absolutely all its timetables. We haven’t had any delays by any judicial action or for any other reason, and we never had any lost days of work. That’s why Belo Monte is going to continue within the timeframe. Brazil needs Belo Monte because if there is no Belo Monte there will be a need for nuclear or coal power, and that is worse.

Alves da Silva and members of his community will be displaced by the dam project [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

Mr Alves da Silva, 56, has lived in the community of Santo Antonio since it was created over 30 years ago. He was the third person who settled there and he is a fisherman. The community once had 60 families, but about half have already left after being paid off by Norte Energia to move to make way for the Belo Monte construction. The builders are slowly demolishing the homes in the community. Mr Alves da Silva was interviewed by Al Jazeera at his home on January 14, 2012. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Elizondo: What was this community like a few years back, before there was talk of Belo Monte?

Alves da Silva: It was different than it was today. We built everything ourselves. People got together and said, ‘let’s make a church,’ and we got together and would work on it and we built it. Each person made their own house. The parties in the community were done in groups. We would celebrate the Santo Antonio Saint day and invite people from all over the region. It was always a good party. We had a very relaxed life. No noise form construction machines like we have today.

Elizondo: And you have lived in this community a long time?

Alves da Silva: I was the third person in the community; more than 30 years ago when the community started. Other people have died or left, but I stayed here. I never left. I fought for many years for the improvement of the community. And it has gotten better and better. It was almost family here. Every knows each other, almost everyone is related in some way. My best memories were playing football here. All benches would be full, cheering. And I would always score a goal and people would cheer. Those are memories I will never forget.

Elizondo: What is happening to Santo Antonio community now?

Alves da Silva: Our community was one of the most talked about in the area. We never fell, we always stayed afloat. Until Belo Monte came and now they’re kicking us out. Belo Monte is finishing our community. We had no option. For me, the saddest part of this story is to know that everything I helped create here I’m now seeing it all destroyed. For me this is the most difficult part.

Elizondo: Is it hard for you to see the homes in your community be crushed for the construction?

Alves da Silva: I feel like something is falling on my head to know that a friend of mine, or even a family member, lived in that house being destroyed. I see the place where they lived destroyed and for me that is very difficult. Sometimes I try to avoid talking about it because it’s very hurtful. It’s very difficult to remember the memory of helping to build something only to see others destroy it. It’s very difficult.

Elizondo: Why are you still here? Do you have plans to leave?

Alves da Silva: Since I am the representative of this community, I was told I needed to be the last one to leave. But I am going to do anything I can to leave now. I cannot take it anymore. I want to leave, hopefully in the next couple weeks.

Elizondo: On your last day here, what do you plan to do?

Alves da Silva: On the last day, sincerely, I want to leave here quietly. I am going to continue to do my job, my work – fishing every night. On my last day I will sell the fish for my survival, to pay my bills, to anybody still here. And then the next day I will exit in the morning. If there are still friends living here I want to pass to each house and wish them good luck. And then leave. Just that.

Elizondo: Have you been offered money for your home here?

Alves da Silva: Yes, the first offer was 20,000 reais (about US $11,300). But I didn’t accept that, so the last offer was 20,800 reais (about $11,700). That can’t buy a piece of dirt in Altamira anymore. (Norte Energia) is offering compensation that they say is for a person to re-start, but really this is for a person to sleep under a bridge, it doesn’t allow anybody to start a new life.

Elizondo: The people building this dam, and the Brazilian government, say that Belo Monte is necessary for Brazil and any negatives impacts will be offset by all the people the dam helps. How do you respond to this?

Alves da Silva: The people who ask for the construction of the dam are businessmen. Certainly they are going to make money and there will be money going around this region. Those people were the ones asking for the dam to come to expand their businesses. It’s just that they didn’t think about what the dam destroys. They only thought about filling their pockets with money.

They are people who do not value nature. They are people who don’t know how much value one of these trees is worth. They sit behind a desk on a chair with wheels all day. Those people don’t have any idea what a hydroelectric dam does, and the environmental impact it is going to cause. And peoples’ lives destroyed.

Elizondo: Those who support the dam say Brazil will have a more secure future in terms of meeting energy needs.

Alves da Silva: What I see is destruction. The north of Brazil doesn’t even need energy. We have Tucurui (another dam) here already. This energy from Belo Monte is going to destroy our river, and destroy our region, but the energy will go to the south of the country where there is already electricity. That is what upsets people the most here.

Elizondo: Do you feel as though you have lost the fight to stop Belo Monte? Where will you go from here?

Alves da Silva: I consider myself one of those who has been defeated here. The government is planning 22 hydroelectric dams that are going to be built in the Amazon. How many rivers are going to be destroyed? How many people are going to lose their homes?

For me, I will move from here. But where I am going there is no place for me to fish, and nobody to sell to. My life will change totally. I don’t know how my life is going to be from now on. Only God knows.

Source: Al Jazeera