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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: An interesting question was posed in class today: Does Brazil have the "right" to build dams on the Amazon? This question is incredibly complicated to answer, because in my opinion there is no correct answer. Does a nation have a right to develop the infrastructure it feels it needs to provide electricity to its citizens? Most people would probably say yes. At the same time, it seems undeniably tragic that an incredible ecosystem that is unequaled on our planet would face such destruction. I wonder what influence other nations or organizations could exert on Brazil? Geopolitics is typically subject to the idea of sovereignty, and the believe that nations can do what they will with the land and natural resources within their borders. That said, I do not know how we can ignore the construction of a dam that would flood the homeland of numerous indigenous tribes.
    Brazil is a nation that has been really emerging in recent decades as a major economic and political entity on the global stage, and its development has understandably led to rising demands for the cheapest electricity possible. Many people have brought up great points about the possible alternatives (e.g. wind, solar, etc) but what motivation is there for Brazil to invest in these more expensive technologies? We need to remember that every decision made by the government of a developing nation will be guided by economic realities. If we want to protect the Amazon, we need to figure out how alternative sources of energy can be made equally economically feasible.
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      Mario R

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      May 14 2013: Well said Alex, in an ealier comment, I linked an article that described a breakthrough in solar technology made by Brazlilian scientists. This was the incorporation of photo voltaic cells into thin sheet of plastic. The research and development that went into the production of this discovery was only $10 million, a fraction of the cost of the Belo Monte Dam Complex. While that's still a lot of money, the Dam project is projected around $17 billion. I think that if this $17 billion was diverted to the research and production of more projects like this one, the potential for cheaper alternatives would be very helpful in accounting for the energy demands of Brazil.

      Your point regarding the entitlement to land is an excellent one. While biodiversity, and groups of people, will almost always be affected in most kinds of cleaner alternatives, I think that other alternatives will pose less of an adverse affect to wildlife than the Belo Monte.

      Here's the article: http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/brazilian-made-plastic-solar-panels-a-clean-energy-breakthrough
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      May 14 2013: I completely agree! This is a complicated issue but the bottom line is the country's economic needs. We can find an alternative manner to supply energy and some form of capital gain, the amazon ecosystem at risk could be saved. There needs to be an alternative to their energy needs that will meet these needs. The use of microalgae for energy might be an interesting alternative. Jonathan Trent gave a Ted talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_trent_energy_from_floating_algae_pods.html) that suggests using microalgae in waster water to create biofuels and sequester carbon dioxide. He calls his invention OMEGA, Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. They us solar energy to grow, and the wave energy on the surface provides energy for mixing the algae, and the temperature is controlled by the surrounding water temperature. The algae that grow produce oxygen, biofuels, fertilizer, food other bi-algal products of interest. I wonder if this could be applied as a remedy to this situation.
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      May 14 2013: I agree that there is no good answer to the question you posed. Natural resources at the scale of the amazon, and the ecosystem services they provide, have benefits far beyond national borders. Yet, coming from a nation that has exploited resources at home and abroad to the detriment of the global environment, I find it difficult to see the US imposing more stringent environmental standards on Brazil.

      There are a few policy tools that could change the equation as it stands right now. One is to do as Mario suggests, and make the cost of alternate energy sources cheaper. That could happen through investment in technologies or through subsidies for "clean" energy (I think we've learned by now that there is no such thing as truly clean energy) either from Brazil or external financing institutions. Another option would be to internalize the externality, or put a price on the ecosystem services being lost. It seems unlikely that Brazil would impose this on itself, but the US could role model by beginning to internalize the cost of carbon in our economy.

      Wouldn't it be incredible if international financial institutions like the World Bank used their financial power to encourage sustainable development? We have set ourselves up for a huge expansion of practices that degrade the environment. Developing countries very understandably want the quality of life experienced in first world countries, and the tools we've given them to accomplish this through Structural Adjustment Programs rely on a free market economy. So, with severely limited social safety nets and measures meant to encourage business, how can we expect anything else but exploitation of the environment and indigenous people? Of course in the name of development and bettering quality of life for everyone in the country. As is being discussed here though, the Amazon itself will be much more valuable in the long run than a dam that causes the release of large amounts of methane.
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      May 14 2013: I agree. The economy decides what they can do. However, they need to consider other problems what they would face after that such as loss of ecosystem services and functions.They might pay more on those than building a dam?

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