Stop drowning the Amazon

Amazon Indians march in front of representatives of the Brazilian government as they block the entrance to the main construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Vitoria do Xingu, near Altamira in Para State, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For her work in fighting against the destruction caused by hydroelectric projects in the Amazon, Antônia Melo Da Silva is this year’s Alexander Soros Foundation Award recipient

The Amazon contains more than half of our planet’s remaining tropical rainforest and produces one fifth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Scientists, climate change advocates, and other experts refer to the Amazon as the “lungs of the world.”  And yet, we’re trying to drown it.

When it will be completed in a few years, the Belo Monte Dam—a complex consisting of three dams, two artificial canals and an extensive network of dykes—will create a reservoir that will flood 150 square miles of rainforest near the Xingu River. Some 40,000 people from small, river-side communities have already been displaced, twice the number that was estimated before construction began.

Belo Monte is the largest and most high-profile of an estimated 100 hydropower projects planned for the Brazilian Amazon. When finished, the dam will be the world’s fourth largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, generating more than 11,000 megawatts of power, or about one twelfth of the country’s current capacity.

And yet the public spotlight generated by such a massive plant has not motivated the government or the Norte Energia Consortium—the contractor building and operating the dam—to respect the rights of the communities devastated by the development.

In April 2017, a federal court ruled that all dam-related activities be suspended until the company provides the relocated communities with a proper sewage system. In September 2017, another federal court ruling suspended Norte Energia’s license over the poor housing provided to these communities. Norte Energia has ignored both rulings with seeming impunity, and denies knowledge of either legal decree.

These communities have lived on the Xingu river’s forested banks for generations, but the dam’s construction has forced most of them into new construction in Altamira, a town that also served as a base for much of Belo Monte’s construction force. You can imagine how that worked out. Aside from proper sewage and sanitation, the town lacks sufficient healthcare services and has no mass transit system.

In the midst of this dire plight, community leaders like Antônia Melo Da Silva have stepped forward, campaigning to stop the Belo Monte complex from committing—in the words of one federal prosecutor—“ethnocide.”

Melo, a mother of five, has won a number of awards (including one from my foundation) for leading the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre in the region for over two decades. The movement brings everyone who has been unified in their objection to the dam together—communities living along the river, fishermen, rural workers, indigenous people, and religious and women’s organizations—and who are now struggling to adapt as their lands and their river have been pulled out from under them.

This is a movement that has long pointed out that the Belo Monte Dam is anything but a clean energy project. The calamitous amount of humanitarian damages nearly rivals the number of environmental problems typical of mega-hydropower projects.

The forests flooded by dams slowly rot away at the bottom of the resulting reservoir and the carbon dioxide and methane that result are released at the water’s surface and through the dam’s sluicegates. The Tucuruí Dam in Para state, for example, has a greater estimated amount of emissions than São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city.

The Belo Monte dam also paves the way for additional development projects that destroy even more of the Amazon. A potential gold mine run by a Canadian firm, temporarily on hold for “irregularities” in land acquisition and indigenous rights violations, would be Brazil’s largest if it moved forward. Melo and her allies have pointed to the environmental havoc that gold mines have caused elsewhere in the country in defending this region from further deforestation and ruin.

Deforestation in Brazil has always been a political statistic. The government was celebrated as it reduced deforestation rate from 2004 to 2012, and it has been pilloried as the deforestation rate climbed 29 percent between 2012 and 2016.

But at no point has the rate ever reached zero. At no point has the Brazilian government decided to stop further destruction of the Amazon.  What is left of the rainforest is important for the regional climate and crucial to the global efforts to fight climate change.

Most important of all, the Amazon is inhabited, and too many people have been pushed aside or killed in defense of their forests. We all need to follow in Melo’s footsteps, respect their rights, and protect their lands instead of drowning them.

Alex Soros is the founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, which gives an annual award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism. Antônia Melo Da Silva is this year’s Alexander Soros Foundation Award recipient.

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