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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: In a report published in Nature Climate Change, Philip Fearnside, a leading Amazon scientist, explained that tropical dams are little more than green washing. He said that various mathematical errors had been made by electrical authorities when attempting to estimate the amount of greenhouse emissions from the dams. He described how dams constructed in tropical areas act as “methane factories,” especially during the first few decades after construction. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and has an even stronger impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. He went on to point out that these first few decades of heavy methane emissions correspond exactly to the narrow window of time we have to bring global warming under control in order to avert its worst effects.

    A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that deforestation may significantly decrease the hydroelectric potential of tropical rainforest regions. Deforestation can inhibit rainfall in tropical regions, decreasing precipitation by anywhere from 6 to 36 %. It was stated in the paper that this could potentially decrease the electrical output of the Belo Monte dam to just a quarter of its projected capacity.

    As others have pointed out, there are many energy alternatives that Brazil can pursue, including wind and solar. Fearnside mentioned key areas where consumption could be reduced. For instance, the use of inefficient electric showerheads consumes 5% of the nation’s energy usage. Replacing electric showerheads with solar water heating would significantly reduce energy demands. Halting aluminum exports was also recommended. Aluminum mining is an energy-intensive process that is highly destructive to the environment, and, according to Fearnside, produces too few jobs for what it’s worth.

    I think that the Brazilian government should carefully reconsider the science behind the issue and contemplate what it might be forecasting about their future energy security.
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      May 14 2013: Chelsea I would love to see the papers you reference. Do you have links handy?
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          May 14 2013: These links about the flawed dam analysis and reduced generating capacity due to lack of rainfall are very interesting. From other information I've read Brazil is basically looking for a very quick and 'cheap' way to produce a lot of power for increasing energy demands from a growing population and industrial sector. As a few other people have stated, the perception of this hydroelectric source as cheap is skewed because it fails to take into account (in terms of money) how valuable the ecosystem services offered by this extremely biodiverse region really are, in addition to indigenous land claims.

          The perception of a massive increase in energy demand is also being misrepresented in terms of how much and to what extend energy will be needed. This is because Brazil is using a quick and dirty way to gather energy for what is in many ways an inefficient system of infrastructure and electronic products. While I do not know much about specific standards Brazil has in place related to energy efficiency, I do know that there is always more that can be done. The government should be looking for ways to make the current energy consumption as efficient as possible because increases in efficiency can provide the growing economic/manufacturing sectors with some leftover energy that is not being used (and otherwise would have been used). In terms of biodiversity, increases in efficiency can reduce some impacts of growing energy demand and many sources of efficiency would have a much less dramatic impact on biodiversity.

          In the end I think it boils down to this: the government of Brazil should be looking to other sources of energy like wind/solar and increases in nationwide efficiency related to all sectors instead of spending $14.4 billion on one large project. Rather, the money should be invested in a myriad of different energy solutions, including research on new technologies, best practices, environmental impact, and efficiency.

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