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Katrina Holcomb

student of biology, University of Oregon

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Will the Belo Monte Dam project on the Amazon River cause more harm to the environment or will it be a good source of energy for Brazil?

The Amazon rainforest is an internationally recognized epicenter of biodiversity. Countless campaigns to stop the cutting and burning these rainforests have fallen on deaf ears. Now the Brazilian government plans to build what would be the world's 3rd largest dam [1] on the beautiful and ancient Amazon River. The Belo Monte project would span the Xingu River with 3 different dams: 233MW Pimental, 233MW Bela Vista, and 11,000MW Belo Monte. In addition, two artificial canals must be built to divert the river, which together will span more area than the Panama Canal.

These dams will have a myriad of negative impacts on the local environment. Construction of the dam will cause about 400-640 sq km land upstream to become flooded for a reservoir - an area equal to the size of Chicago. The town of Altamira will be flooded as well as countless acres that house the region's tribal populations. The impact on biodiversity includes 6-8 species of fish endemic to the Amazon River that will likely go extinct as well as a 2% decrease in the total forested area of the Amazon rainforest.

Organisms endangered by the construction of Belo Monte cannot verbalize their traumatic destruction of their ecosystem, but the indigenous people of the Amazon can; they are currently protesting the construction of the Belo Monte project through an "occupy" movement.

Belo Monte project is the first of many dam projects planned for the Brazilian portion of the Amazon River. Do these indigenous people have a right to decide what happens to their ancestral homeland? Or is the Brazilian government in the right by providing power for the majority of their country? Will the Belo Monte become the Belo "Muerte" dam (aka dam of death)?

Here's a 10 minute video that covers the impact the Belo Monte dam on the Amazon:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-seAAIsJLQ [1]

Related articles:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/03/brazil-dam-activists-war-military [2]


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    May 14 2013: Dams will most certainly be an amazing source of energy for Brazil; the small amount of intermittency provided by rivers ensures optimal peak energy service. This is very helpful for Brazil’s growing economy. Is it the best intention for Brazil to do this? From an economic stand point, yes. From a social standpoint, no. The externalities and other social damages are unaccounted for, leaving the diverse habitats fragmented and potentially uninhabitable by terrestrial species.

    It does beg the question: Are we allowed to potentially slow the growth of Brazil? From Brazil’s standpoint they are a growing economy, aspiring to become a 1st world country. Because of this, the demands for power must be met. This may include using the cheapest electricity source like any economy does. Many states in the U.S. rely on coal-fire plants to meet their energy needs. Yet, do we have other countries coming into our economic affairs?

    But it also begs on another question: is it ethical to destroy a diverse habitat in the Amazon? I personally think it isn’t. Growth must controlled and not just managed. The rate of Brazil’s growth is putting immense strain on the neighboring habitats and by reducing biodiversity and promoting fragmented, less diverse habitats. This can put many species at risk for extinction.

    At what point do we owe it to preserve nature? In the recent course of events, it appears it will happen when we need it most.
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      May 14 2013: You make a great point about questioning the rate of growth and the point that our modern society needs to put nature above the booming expansion of infrastructure. The earth is something shared between all people and all organisms, the Dali Lama spoke about that while he was here at the U of O. At what point do we need to stop massacring natural diversity epicenters and treat them as keystone ecosystems?

      A quick bit of info about Brazil's dams. The Belo Monte Dam project was build to use what is called "run-of-river" damming. This utilizes a relatively smaller reservoir than the traditional types of dams. This might sound good, but when the reservoir is still the size of Chicago, I think it's still more harm than good. Anyway, using this smaller reservoir dam relies heavily on the amount of rain fall each year. This last year Brazil's reservoirs finished at just 30.5% of capacity. This means that these dams aren't actually running at full capacity! The Belo Monte project will produce only 10% of its 11,233 MW installed energy generating capacity during the 3-5 month-long dry season, an average of only 4,462 MW throughout the year, or 39% of its nominal capacity.

    • May 14 2013: I agree that allowing for economic autonomy is of utmost importance in maintaining international relationships. But that said, I find it hard to believe the energy produced by a hydroelectric dam system on the Amazon could out weight the value of its ecosystem services. Provided links above are all clearly one sided, against dam construction; but even still, if we considered best case scenarios, I don't know if the numbers could match up.

      And again inline with the Dali Lama's view of earth shared by all humanity and the fact we now live in a global community, should the rest of the world be trying to step in (contrary to my previous statement), giving Brazil some economic incentive not to construct the Belo Monte Dam?
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        May 14 2013: I too find it very difficult to understand how this dam provides more benefits than ecosystem services. I personally feel that many countries should work together rather than compete with one another. We are a globalized society, yet our perception is blinding reality.

        I know many countries could work together to subsidize Brazil, and other developing nations, with clean energy through the use of offsets, however, fraudulent offsets are a real problem in the world of carbon sequestration.
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      May 15 2013: I think its very interesting that you bring up social vs economic sides to the belomonte dam. Economically the dam will bring in a lot of money and yes I agree help with the growing economy. But at what cost? To play devils advocate, who are we do to tell Brazil what they can and can’t do in their own country? Did anyone come into our country telling us to stop the environmental atrocities that have been committed here? That being said, if someone had come in and stopped us im sure many of our environmental issues could have been avoided.
      I think the most crucial aspect of this debate is how to get the Brazilian government to understand the horrible consequences of the dam construction. It seems like our ethical duty to try our hardest to persuade the government to halt construction. At the very least we should try to implement innovative ideas into the dam that could help curb the ecological side effects. How can this be said to the government? How can it be explained to the government the severe costs of going through with dam construction when so many other countries have done similar atrocities and continue to do them everyday?
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        May 15 2013: I was also thinking about the social aspect of this issue and the fact that the U.S. uses about 25% of the world's fossil fuel resources when we only have 5% of the world population, so who are we to dictate environmental degradation opinions when we have so much work to do in our own efforts. I'm not sure if trying to convince the government will necessarily work because the goal of the project is money, and in a capitalist market that rules everything. I think it's important to look at other countries when it comes to massive projects of habitat destruction, but if we want to be taken seriously we need to address the issues in our own country and with our own government as well.

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