Disadvantages of the Belo Monte Dam Being Constructed on the Xingu River: An Example of a Failed Sustainability Project

The Belo Monte Dam is a planned hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil (International Rivers 2014). The dam is currently under construction by the Brazilian government, and will be the world's third largest hydroelectric dam if completed (International Rivers 2014).It will be owned by a government-controlled energy consortium called Norte Energia (The Economist 2013). Its creation has been a controversial issue in the country, and legal disputes have slowed down the construction process (The Economist 2013). The government and some others believe that it will be a good source of economic development in Brazil, a developing country. However, many people, including some indigenous groups (AIDA 2014), oppose the dam because it will have destructive impacts on the environment and harm many people currently living on the river. These serious negative consequences will be present despite the fact that the dam is advertised as an example of sustainable development. The Belo Monte Dam demonstrates that practices considered to be sustainable development are not always good for people and the planet, and that the concept of sustainable development can overlap with a colonialist approach.

TheBelo Monte Dam is indeed more sustainable, in a way, than a fossil fuel-burning power plant. It will use the renewable resource of flowing water, and its energy production processwill not release greenhouse gases. However, building the dam will still have an adverse effect on its natural surroundings and the planet. The dam will damage the natural aquatic ecosystem of the Xingu River. It will flood more than 500 square kilometers of land in the Xingu River basin, killing the plants on this land (AIDA 2014). This will not only destroy a portion of the unique Amazon Rainforest, but will also contribute to climate change. After the plants die, they will decompose, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (AIDA 2014). Thedam will also have a profound effect on the lives of local people. There are more than 20,000 people who live in the area that will be flooded, and they will be forced to abandon their homes (AIDA 2014).Thesecommunities, which includemany indigenous people, have lived off this land all their lives andwill lose the source of wealth that they depend on (AIDA 2014).

Despite these factors, the Belo Monte Dam has been called sustainable development, as the dam's creation is part of the government's “Xingu Regional Sustainable Development Plan" (Norte Energia 2014).In an article that critically examines the idea of sustainable development, Subhabrata Banerjeewrites that “the sustainable development paradigm is based on an economic, not ecological, rationality”, and that “[o]ne consequence of this discourse involves the transformation of 'nature' into 'environment'” (Banerjee 2003, 143). This transformation is significant because the term “environment” portrays the planet's natural formations and ecosystems as one concrete thing, making it easy to view nature as an economic asset like any other. If the“environment” is treated as having only economic value, it is easy to justify the Belo Monte Dam's designation as sustainable development. The dam's creation will have one-time environmental costs, in the form of aquatic ecosystem damage, rainforest ecosystem destruction, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the dam will also have continuous economic benefits, since the dam will produce a large amount of energy every year for an unlimited amount of time. Therefore, the economic benefits of the dam will continuously increase, and must eventually outweigh the initial costs. The people who will be displaced by the dam are also taken care of under this economic sustainability model; Norte Energia is planning to pay these people reparations to compensate for the loss of their land (The Economist 2013). Again, the dam will produce energy each year, so the profits made from the dam will continually increase. Therefore, the dam owners will reach a point in which the money they have gained more than makes up for what they paid in reparations. So the dam can “pay for itself” with regards to this issue as well. The dam will be economically sustainable without causing further environmental damage after its initial creation, and so creating the dam can be called an act of sustainable development.

The problem with this view is that harm to ecosystems and to people's lives is more than just economic costs. When rainforest and river ecosystems are destroyed or damaged, biodiversity is lost, and no exact monetary value can be put on biodiversity. When species are put at risk by ecosystem destruction, it is impossible to know in advance what medical or oter biotechnological value the species might have one day. Furthermore, people have different views of how valuable natural ecosystems are; some see them as only valuable for their human uses, but others find them inherently valuable beyond this. Therefore it is it is impossible to determine a single objective value that can be assigned to ecosystems.Furthermore, when communities have to leave their homes behind, it will irreversibly damage the community's culture - which is often closely tied to its homeland – and will also cause profound losses in personal happiness. Even if financial reparations help solve the economic problems caused by the forced pilgrimages, money can never replace the cultural and personal losses. When the sustainable development model treats everything as some kind of economic cost, it ignores these very real factors that affect the true value of a decision.

Banerjee also writes that "the meanings, practices, andpolicies of sustainable development continue to be informed by colonialthought, resulting in disempowerment of a majority of the world'spopulations, especially rural populations in the Third World” (Banerjee 2003, 144). The statement applies to the Belo Monte Dam, which has been called an example of sustainable development, but which will harm rural Brazilians. The construction of the Belo Monte Dam can certainly be considered an example of colonialism (also called imperialism in this context), as it is a decision on the part of the country's ruling elites at the expense of those with less power in the society; as Banerjee describes, in modern colonialism and imperialism, "winners and losers in the global economy are created”(Banerjee 143, 2006). When the government forces communities - many of them composed of indigenous people – to leave their homes due to the dam, they are reinforcing an unequal power dynamic in which the wealthy and powerful “western” Brazilians have power over rural people, including historically discriminated against indigenous groups. In addition to the cultural and personal losses associated with the expected migrations, the river basin people will indeed suffer economic losses. Their established livelihoods rely on their riverfront land, such as through farming and fishing (AIDA 2014), and even if they are compensated for their migration, the communities will have to find new sources of wealth for the long term. Banerjee references that a characteristic of colonialism is “domination of physical space”, which the Belo Monte Dam exemplifies well; although the river basin communities have lived on their land for very long, the Brazilian government has seized the rights to this land and will use it for their own ends.

Sustainable development, while good in theory, is not necessarily free of problems, as some things that can be considered sustainable development are actually quite harmful. The Belo Monte Dam illustrates this well; it “should” be a great example of sustainable development, as a renewable energy source that will help a country's development, but it will actually beharmingnature and people's lives. The dam is also an example of how the colonialist approach, while often associated with the past, still exists, even within sustainable development. Brazil's government is clearly willing to exercise its power by imposing its will on poor and indigenous people, and intends to do this in order to further its own goals. Even if these actions are meant to improve economic conditions for many Brazilians, this approach is a morally indefensible abuse of power; it will cause unjust hardship and suffering to people, including indigenous people who have already been disempowered in history.The Belo Monte Dam shows that development cannot be looked at in the black and white way that the term “sustainable development” implies; an action of development can be sustainable in some ways but irresponsible in others, as this dam is. Actions that can cause sustainable economic growth for mainstream society may still be very harmful in other important ways, such as by harming natural ecosystems and communities of people. These substantial negative effects must not be ignored, even if positive language such as "sustainable development" is used in an attempt to dismiss concerns.

Reference Section

  1. AIDA. “Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.” Last modified July 29, 2014.http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html.
  2. Banerjee, Subhabrata Bobby. "Who Sustains Whose Development? Sustainable Development and the Reinvention of Nature." Organization Studies 24 (2003): 143–80.
  3. Economist, The. “The rights and wrongs of Belo Monte.” May 4, 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21577073-having-spent-heavily-make-worlds third-biggest-hydroelectric-project-greener-brazil
  4. International Rivers. “Belo Monte Dam.” Accessed November 7, 2014. http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/belo-monte-dam.
  5. Norte Energia. “Getting to know Norte Energia S.A.” Accessed November 7, 2014. http://norteenergiasa.com.br/site/ingles/norte-energia/.