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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: Because it wasn't covered in the conversation starter, I'll talk a bit about one of the reasons why the Brazilian Government is pushing for the dam project. As proposed the dam project would be built in the state of Para, a major center of the mining and mineral refining industries in Brazil. More info on that here --> http://www.infomine.com/countries/SOIR/brazil/welcome.asp?i=brazil-soir-3 , but I'll pull out some of the big numbers for you.

    Brazil is the world's 3rd largest producer of Iron, and the state of Para is responsible for 26% of the country's output. Industry projections from 2011 predicted $37 billion in investments from the iron industry by the year 2016.

    The state of Para is home to the largest known deposit of copper in Brazil. 2011 output from one mining complex approached 130,000 tonnes per year. Constructing a photo-voltaic solar array capable of producing 1 megawatt of power takes, on average, one tonne of copper.

    There's bauxite, an ore of aluminum. The state of Para is responsible for approximately 12% of all bauxite production on Earth - 21.76 million tonnes per year.

    In total, the products of mining operations represent the majority of Brazil's exports. By value, iron ore alone represented 82% of exports in 2010. Mining in the state of Para accounted for ~$11 billion in that same year. The Brazilian government rightfully sees any way to improve the efficiency of its mines as a way to further increase raw material exports. And when Brazil develops further into a manufacturing based economy, it will need those raw materials even more.

    Finally, as to why the dam and not another form of electrical industry development, the basic reasoning can be found in this study ---> http://www.nuca.ie.ufrj.br/gesel/TDSE35.pdf , from the University of Brazil. You can copy paste it into google translate if você não fala Português, but the gist is that the Bella Monte dam strikes the right balance between cost and environmental impac
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      May 14 2013: With so many resources available, it's a wonder the mining companies haven't gotten to it sooner. As for cost evaluation, in the great article Dan Straub linked in the economist that outlines potential cost of hydroelectric versus wind.

      90-100 reais/MWh was the bid for windpower
      77.97 reais/MWh was the bid for the Belo Monte project (original budget of 16 billion reais, went for 19 billion at time of winning the bid). Since that time its budget has risen by a third!

      It's really sad that they chose to go this route, especially since it displaces so many people and entire ecosystems. Had they actually calculated the weight of biodiversity with the actual cost to build the dam, do you think they would have chosen to go with wind? Or do you think they would still choose to mine the area?

      Additional link to the economist article:
      • May 14 2013: It isn't a question of choosing wind or mining. The power levels that are being discussed are orders of magnitude more than would ever be used in a residential setting by the local community. Brazil's major population centers are more than 1700 miles away. The lions share of the proposed power would go to mining whether it was generated by hydro or wind or solar or coal or happy thoughts. It can be assumed that a wind power proposal would see similar cost overruns - all construction projects have them, especially when federal money is involved.

        As for calculating the differing effects on biodiversity, I've yet to find an estimate for the impact of clearing enough room for the 600-1500 turbines it would take to produce an equivalent power output

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