ALONG THE XINGÚ RIVER, Brazil — Indians fish from canoes along the curves of this Amazon tributary and tend manioc crops near...
ALONG THE XINGÚ RIVER, Brazil —
Indians fish from canoes along the curves of this Amazon tributary and tend manioc crops near the site of a proposed dam talked about for decades — but now pushing forward under Brazil’s multi-billion-dollar construction spree.
The Belo Monte dam will swallow thick rain forest and harm rare fish, as well as the livelihoods and homes of roughly 15,000 people who live in this remote area of northeastern Pará state, critics say.
Flush with cash from its roaring economy, Brazil is spending $296 billion in the next two years alone on huge hydroelectric dams, transcontinental roads and other infrastructure to expand industry, boost exports, create jobs and help speed the emergence of Latin America’s largest country as a world economic power.
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But at a time when the world is focused on climate change and Amazon rain-forest destruction, Brazil’s boom means paving, flooding and stringing power lines through thousands of miles of pristine jungle.
Edivaldo Juruna, a subsistence farmer and fisherman who lives in a ramshackle wooden house on a sandbar, worries when he hears the dam will flood 170 square miles of Amazon basin and turn a 90-mile stretch of the river into stagnant puddles.
“Up there near the city it’s going to flood, but down here it’s going to dry up,” said Juruna, an Indian whose last name is the same as his tribe. “Everyone’s talking about the jobs that will come and that there will be energy for Brazil. But no one’s talking about the bad side.”
Tensions are climbing. Some 1,000 Indians gathered in nearby Altamira this week to fight the proposed $6.7 billion dam, planned as the world’s third-largest power producer behind China’s Three Gorges and Itaipú on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.
On Tuesday, painted and feathered protesters attacked a national electric-company official with machetes and clubs after he spoke to the group; he left shirtless and bloody from a gash in his shoulder.
On Thursday, organizers called off a march to the banks of the Xingú River that had been planned for today, saying they feared further violence.
“It was terrible thing that happened, and we want this event to end peacefully,” organizer Marcelo Salazar said.
Indians and environmentalists thought they had beaten the dam in 1989, when a similar protest drew the rock star Sting and international condemnation.
But now Brazil has the money for such projects without needing outside help, and the dam is to go out to bid next year.
The country’s boom-and-bust cycles are long gone. It paid off its foreign debt last year and this month was declared a safe place for foreign investors to park money, with a debt upgrade from the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency.
Critics say the pro-development forces in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government have taken control, the reason cited for famed Amazon preservationist Marina Silva’s resignation as Brazil’s environment minister last week.
The Brazilian leader already is battling a spike in rain-forest destruction and has sent federal police and environmental workers to crack down on illegal logging.
He argues the megaprojects are needed to create jobs in desperately poor regions and to share the country’s new wealth. Half of all Brazilians get by on $500 a month or less.
“We shouldn’t think of the Amazon as a sanctuary,” Silva said earlier this month.
The government’s coordinator for Amazon policy defended the plan, saying that despite the environmental concerns, “we must remember that water-based energy is the cleanest form of energy.”
Foreign investors are eager to get in on the action. On Monday, a consortium led by France’s Suez utility company outbid another that included Spain’s Banco Santander to build the $5.2 billion Jirau dam — the second of two on the Madeira River near Bolivia’s border.
Elsewhere in the Amazon, Brazil’s Construtora Norberto Odebrecht SA is leading a consortium paving a dirt jungle highway to Peru so trucks can haul Brazilian Amazon goods across the Andes Mountains to the Pacific for shipment to Asian markets like China.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa wants to create another cross-continental export corridor between his nation and Brazil, using a land-and-river route he says could be an alternative to the Panama Canal.
The Belo Monte dam is projected to produce 6.3 percent of Brazil’s electricity by 2014, feeding the country’s southeastern industrial base, rapid development along its northeastern coast and the jungle free-trade manufacturing zone of Manaus along the Amazon River.
It also will flood areas in and around Altamira, where the only paved highways turn to dirt a dozen miles outside of town.
Thousands of people live in simple homes on stilts that flood during the six-month rainy season but could be totally inundated after the dam is built. There is no public sewer or water system, and children are taken to school in canoes half of the year.
Diane Fereira Barbosa came to Altamira with her husband and two children after being forced off their farm by “pistoleiros,” hired guns for local ranchers and land grabbers.
“If the dam comes, we’ll just suffer more,” she said as a pet green parrot laid its head against her feet. “We don’t have anywhere to go.”
The government promises extensive studies to reduce adverse impacts from the dam.
Márcio Zimmerman, executive secretary of Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry, called Belo Monte a matter of Brazilian energy security that will increase employment in the historically poor state.
“From an energy and economic point of view, the plant is extremely important to balance demand and supply of electric energy in coming years,” he said in a statement.
But critics warn the Amazon projects will bring waves of immigration into areas where the government has little oversight, allowing loggers, ranchers, farmers and other jungle entrepreneurs to cut down forest with little fear of retribution.
The Madeira River dam projects alone are expected to draw 20,000 construction workers to a remote area — with another 100,000 people swarming there to seek their fortunes, said Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth Brazil.
Sure to follow are problems that have yet to be resolved in the Amazon, he added, including land-grabbing, contract killings, slavelike labor and rampant child prostitution.
“Any mega-intervention brings a huge number of people in an area where you have no rules of the game,” Smeraldi said. “There’s no justice, no police, no health assistance, no schools, no whatever.”