With the cessation of large development lenders funding them (at least until recently), we are supposedly in the post-megadam age. Having courted endless controversy with them, the likes of the World Bank and various regional lenders funding these projects had become negligible. The list of no-no's is familiar and almost endless: forced relocation of indigenous communities, flooding of culturally important low-lying areas, disruption of wildlife migration patterns, destruction of natural ecosystems, etc.
It was thus with some interest that I read Brazil has not weaned itself off the megadam habit. In terms of power generation, it supposedly has 2 out of 5 of the world's largest--Itiapu and Tucurui. So awed was American composer Philip Glass by Itaipu--then the world's largest before being overtaken by China's Three Gorges Dam--that he was even inspired to compose a symphony about it. Now that development lenders have been cowed by activists, Brazil is following China's example in putting up its dam by itself (and dam[n] what the critics say).
On second thought, let me take that back. For, Brazil is styling Belo Monte, which is expected to be the world's third largest dam upon completion after Three Gorges and Itaipu, as an "ethical megadam." But first, a little about its controversial history:
Belo Monte has had a long, turbulent history of clashes between national interest and local concerns. When dam plans were first made public in 1987, they met strong public backlash and were eventually shelved. When the government revived the project in 2002, high-profile protestors such as James Cameron led the international community to halt what the opposition considered an environmentally destructive and inefficient project. Despite their efforts, today Belo Monte is becoming a reality. Opposing groups hold that Belo Monte is being constructed illegally. Local indigenous populations claim that they were never properly consulted about Belo Monte, a violation of the Brazilian constitution.Ooh, James Cameron...celebrity protesters! Hence Brazil's efforts to promote the proverbial "inclusion"--with a boatload of cash to buy acquiescence besides:
The legality of granting an installation license was also called into question when two biannual inspections by IBAMA, Brazil’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, found that Norte Energia had fulfilled only five of the 40 installation conditions. This included things such as proper disposal of felled forest, installation of basic infrastructure in impacted communities, and compensation of people facing displacement. Currently, over 50 lawsuits at all levels of court charge Belo Monte’s planners and builders with environmental and human rights violations.
The scale of protests has created more public input on regional development, for example. A presidential decree in 2010 established a 30-member steering committee to control Norte Energia’s $233 million investment in the region. The 30 officers represent every walk of life affected by the dam, including fishermen, indigenous tribes, rural farmers, labor unions, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists, as well as every branch of government – federal, state, and municipal. Every month the committee meets for two days, hashing out the best plans for developing the Xingu. The public is encouraged to participate, making for a dynamic democratic process. “This [space] has a life of its own,” says Peter Klein, a PhD candidate in sociology at Brown University who has spent time in the communities around the dam. The conversation taking place "is constantly changing and constantly being created … it’s one of a kind," he says.Somehow I am not entirely convinced. You have to admit though that $233 million is a lot of moolah to try and buy off the protesters with--even if it's less than the forthcoming revenues from "Avatar 2" or suchlike. They must be thankful the stakeholders in question aren't A-list Hollywood directors.
This type of community inclusion and oversight has never been attempted at a dam site in Brazil before. Environmental concerns are also being addressed in new ways. In response to environmental and indigenous outcry, Belo Monte was redesigned as a run-of-the-river dam, an emerging hydropower alternative that uses the flow of the river to generate power, eschewing large reservoirs. Scaled down from a six-dam reservoir complex, Belo Monte will now only flood 516 square km of rainforest instead of the original 1,225 square km. As a result, the dam will emit less greenhouse gases and avoid construction on indigenous lands.