A plan that’s not so ‘belo’

9 Mar

With evidence of all that is wrong with capitalism made so blatant by Wall Street last year (derivatives, Ponzi schemes, bailouts) one would think that anachronistic mega-projects, like giant dams in the Amazon, would come in for a major re-think. But no. In Brazil, which has a party in charge that made itself from 23 years of criticizing capitalism, the para-state electric company Eletronorte is moving ahead with plans to build a dam on the Xingu (pronounced shingoo for those unfamiliar with Portuguese) River near a place called Belo Monte.

I recall when a similar project came in for heavy criticism back in 1988. I still remember the famous photo of a Kaiapo woman pressing the flat blade of her machete against the cheek of a startled World Bank officer at a press conference making the rounds of newspapers and magazine. The gesture was an interesting one: the woman was saying, basically, ‘I won’t hurt you but don’t mess with us, okay?’ And indeed, around that time, the WB started to think twice about all the big destructive dam projects it was funding with taxpayers money.

So it is kind of amazing for me to hear that the project has been revamped. As usual, the dam will require the flooding of more than 400 square kilometers of forest and agricultural land, and displacement of 40,000 people. Even so, for anywhere from 3 to 5 months each year it won’t have enough flow to generate electricity, making it not only one of the largest but one of the most inefficient dams in the world. And most of what it does generate will be sent on giant transmission lines out of the region to the industrialized south, and the rest to service corporate mining giants like Vale do Rio Doce and Alcoa.

The cost? At least $5.5 billion. Think about what farmers and small enterprises, schools and health clinics, poor people, middle class people, even rich people, could do with even half that amount of money.

What’s more, a study done at the University of Sao Paulo shows that if the 157 existing dams in Brazil were to be made more efficient, they would provide the same amount of energy developers think they’ll get from Monte Belo.

Grassroots social movements, such as the ‘Xingu Alive Forever’ Committee, are protesting the tragic stupidity of this plan. They are instead calling for sustainable development alternatives, like fishing and eco-tourism projects that would help meet the real needs of the region’s inhabitants. Yet as so often happens in Brazil, at least six protestors have been killed for their opposition to this one really bad idea that, unfortunately, only highlights a really bad system. I hope that internationally too, we’ll start laying our metaphorical blades against the cheeks of the powerful and demand some common decency — and common sense.

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