Belo Monte: Brazil’s damned democracy

The Belo Monte dam project shows the government’s failure to respect indigenous rights and reform energy policy.

Belo Monte Dam Prioject
The Belo Monte Dam will be the third largest in the world, displacing around 200,000 people [EPA]

Quito, Ecuador– It’s rather ironic to find commonalities between President Rousseff’s government and past Brazilian military regimes. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is particularly emblematic of democracy’s victory over dictatorship.

Not only has she consolidated democratic politics and overseen continued growth in the world’s sixth largest economy, Brazil’s first female head of state was once a guerrilla jailed and tortured by the military regime. She has pushed for a Truth Commission, forcing the military to bend to accountability and transparency.

Simultaneously, however, she is pushing forward the Belo Monte Dam, the largest in Brazil and the third largest in the world, thus following in the footsteps of the developmental policies the military regime once pursued in the Amazon.

Belo Monte perpetuates military strategies to develop the country by modernising the Amazon. Despite widespread opposition against the social and environmental costs of this huge hydroelectric plant, Rousseff has stubbornly advanced with little respect for national and international norms.

Across the region, mega-projects are drowning entire ecosystems and damning democracy. Beyond the long-term, irreversible impact of the Amazon dams, the tale of Belo Monte calls attention to what the left has yet to learn about democracy.

From Balbina to Belo Monte

Many predict Belo Monte will be another Balbina. Built on the Uatuma River, the Balbina hydroelectric plant was one of the many mega-projects the military government (1964 – 1985) constructed in the Amazon in the name of national development. The plant, which cost about a US $1bn, destroyed 240 thousand hectares of forest. To give an idea of the scale, this represents about seven times the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro.

 Inside Story – The real cost of Brazil’s dam

Balbina began operations in 1989 with devastating human and ecological impacts. It drowned fauna, flora and contaminated water supplies, resulting in food and health problems. It also displaced populous indigenous villages located along the Uatuma. In 1988, the year Brazil approved its current democratic constitution, Egydio Schwade denounced Balbina’s suppression of the Atroari communities in the area. The eight villages initially reported in government records in 1972 became six a couple of years later, then only two were officially relocated once the area was submerged.

Balbina became the classic example of what not to do. Its energy production never justified the extent of destruction. The lake inundated 2360 km2 for an energy potential of 250MW, reportedly providing a steady output of 80MW for the city of Manaus today. Balbina is also criticised for emitting more greenhouse gases than would be produced by burning natural gas for comparable electricity generation. As the country’s most inefficient plant, it is considered the largest environmental disaster in Brazilian history. José Goldemberg, a leading Brazilian scientist at the World Commission of Dams, recommended closing it and keeping the building as a monument to humanity’s insanity.

Belo Monte will submerge a huge forest area with a limited energy potential, promising similar consequences. It is expected to displace about fifty thousand people in the municipality of Altamira alone. Even official reports predict Belo Monte will function below the average efficiency of hydroelectric dams in Brazil, merely at 41 per cent of total capacity. Nevertheless, the government justifies the dam to sustain growth and eradicate poverty, guaranteeing the project’s sustainability by assuring the Xingu River will have enough water for indigenous people to fish and navigate, “even during periods of drought”.

Without prior consultation

Belo Monte has generated widespread opposition, in Brazil and abroad. In fact, almost everyone agrees it’s a bad idea. The project was resisted by local and global civil society groups, condemned by scientists, and ordered to stop by Brazil’s Public Ministry. Public figures and actors produced a video asking citizens to take action for the sake of future generations. Nearly a thousand indigenous peoples stood their ground in protest for a week in front of the Brazilian Congress. Stirring international attention, international NGOs and intergovernmental bodies have expressed their disapproval and demanded for accountability.

Belo Monte already has a record for violating the human rights of indigenous peoples. The Brazilian Public Ministry ordered a halt to construction because of concerns regarding human rights violations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested clarification concerning the fate of the traditional communities in the Xingu River basin, especially regarding the impact of water contamination and population displacement. Subsequently, the International Labour Organisation declared that Brazil’s failure to consult on the mega-dam violated its treaty obligations to respect the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Belo Monte case crystallises the debt of the Brazilian state to indigenous peoples. Since 1991, Congress has been deliberating on the Statute of Indigenous Peoples and has still not approved a proposal to demarcate and protect indigenous lands. Most of the small farmers displaced by Belo Monte have no formal legal title to their lands, and those who have received compensation got paid well under market value. According to the Catholic Church’s Indigenous Missionary Council, 434 projects will directly impact or indirectly impact indigenous territories. Almost 200 of these projects are geared toward energy production, many of them hydroelectric plants.

This is but a snapshot of the rights Brazilian democracy owes to half a million indigenous peoples from 227 ethnic groups who occupy 13 per cent of the national territory.


The Belo Monte affair exemplifies a certain approach to hydro-politics. The problem is not exactly the stubbornness of President Rousseff but rather what the government’s failure to respect indigenous rights and to rethink energy policy in a collective manner says about the quality of democracy. Eschewing informed, prior consultation regarding the wisdom of mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon makes visible the disdain for indigenous rights and authority, while awkwardly recalling the policies of the dictatorship. The deaf ear for critics and the impunity for violating international norms evoke top-down decisions made behind closed doors.

Then there is the regional context. Across the Americas, energy policies, and hydroelectric projects in particular, are being imposed in a similar authoritarian fashion. President Obama is permitting Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean despite widespread opposition ranging from indigenous peoples to scientific groups. On February 14 2011, the Colombian government violently removed protesters blocking plans to divert the Magdalena River for the Quimbo Dam. In the entire Amazon, there are reportedly 150 hydroelectric plants planned, 60 of them in Brazil. The Belo Monte dam rings the alarm bell because of its scale, but Rousseff is not alone.

 Brazil megadam washes residents away

While successful left-wing governments may be promoting socio-economic inclusion, their energy policies all too frequently evade consultation and dismiss social protest as well as contrary scientific studies. Invoking a discourse that subjugates the means to an end of development, Rousseff justifies Belo Monte as a necessary component of growth. But she, of all people, should not ignore the importance of consensual and participatory decision-making.

More than a decade ago, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen stressed three important ways in which democracy enables development. First, he observed, democracy is intrinsic to freedom – it is inherently fair to express opinions on energy policy. Second, democracy is instrumental to expand freedoms – people have stakes on which energy policies to develop. Third, democracy plays a constructive role in identifying solutions to new challenges- the growing demand for energy has no immediate, single solution thus requiring collective dialogues to create new solutions.

Democratic politics is key to developing alternatives capable of holding national governments and the global energy industry accountable. Belo Monte is about the future of the Amazon as much as it is about bauxite mining and global industries and state policies that respect indigenous rights to self-determination.

To rethink energy policy – and Belo Monte – is not to give in to hippie views of the world. It is about recognising the value of collective decision-making. “The more, the merrier,” people say. We could add “the more, the smarter”.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.