Brazil’s Amazon mammoth-dam: Broken promises for distant power

Marcelo De Sousa, Diane Jeantet and Andre Penner
Associated Press

Altamira, Brazil – Edizangela Alves Barros believed that being forced to relocate to make way for a mammoth dam in Brazil’s Amazon would mean a brighter future for her family.

Instead, their newly built settlement has more expensive electricity bills and intermittent public lighting – a cruel irony for a community just 25 miles from the world’s third-biggest hydroelectric dam.

In this Dec. 4, 2019 aerial photo, the Xingu Rio Energy Transmitter (XRTE Rio) power transmission substation operates in Paracambi, Brazil, transmitting the electrical power that comes from Belo Monte Dam.

“We left our wooden houses to live in concrete houses, but our economic situation got worse,” Alves Barros, a mother of five, said in an interview.

She used to live by the Xingu River. Today, it is the site of the Belo Monte dam, a colossus built with enough concrete and steel to make 22 Eiffel Towers. Boats crossing the river beside it look like toys.

Belo Monte was conceived to bolster Brazil’s faltering electrical grid. And three weeks into full operation, the dam has been a boon – at least to the people in cities more than 1,500 miles away.

There is a different view in the region where the dam was built. The project displaced some 40,000 people, according to civil society estimates, and it has dried up stretches of the Xingu River. Critics also say that promises of jobs and economic development to accompany the dam weren’t met.

“There were a lot of promises – generate jobs, the region’s economy was going to grow,” said Sabrina Mesquita do Nascimento, a researcher with the Federal University of Para’s Center for Advanced Amazonian Studies, who has spent years studying Belo Monte.

The promises either didn’t materialize or evaporated once construction ended, she said.

“It was an ephemeral relationship. All the damages fell to these people,” do Nascimento said.

Sitting in the northern state of Para, Belo Monte has the capacity to generate 11.2 gigawatts of power, less only than China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu on Brazil’s border with Paraguay. It required excavating a canal larger than the Panama Canal.

Entrepreneurs saw opportunity, and job seekers flocked to Altamira seeking one of the 60,000 promised positions, which sent the city’s population surging.

Residents who fished and bathed in the Xingu saw their lives take a dramtic turn.

One was Jair Teixeira da Costa, a fisherman who lives in a small wooden house with a makeshift dock where he plays with his six dogs. Today, fish are scarce and he picks up odd jobs to make ends meet. That isn’t what he expected after hearing the plans outlined by the dam’s builder for preserving local communities’ customs.

Federal prosecutors have carried out 27 different investigations focused on Belo Monte. Among other things, they have accused companies and public agencies of not performing mandatory consultations with indigenous communities, or not fulfilling pledges to implement basic sewage for area residents.

In an email to The Associated Press, Norte Energia said local families eat more than three times the amount of fish suggested by the World Health Organization, and stressed that they had created a “cooperative” of fishermen to mitigate impacts on the river.

Norte Energia also said it did not force indigenous communities to relocate.

“The construction company didn’t work out, not at all. It was just promises,” said da Costa.

A world away, in Rio de Janeiro, beachgoers on Ipanema applaud the sunset every evening. Lights come on across the city, illuminating the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Maracana soccer stadium and homes of 13 million city dwellers.

Few Rio residents realize their televisions and washing machines draw some power from the distant mega-dam. Recently, Belo Monte has been sending power along the world’s longest 800 kilovolt transmission line.