The Belo Monte dam in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon basin has been at the center of controversy concerning hydropower infrastructure projects since protest of the project began in 2008. The conflict surrounding the dam, set to be the third largest in the world in terms of capacity, brings into stark relief the difficulty of balancing the infrastructure needs of a rapidly developing country with the individual needs of those such projects often affect or displace.
This is a tragic but all too common story of economic development. As my research has shown, lands are often seized from groups, generally less powerful minority ethnic or indigenous peoples, to be put to more economically productive uses, such as resource extraction or infrastructure development.
Indigenous peoples inhabiting the areas surrounding the Belo Monte dam site continue to protest its construction, arguing that it will have adverse effects on a river that is vital to their communities for transportation and fishing. However, the design and construction of the Belo Monte dam has been far more inclusive of input from indigenous and environmental groups than most hydropower projects historically. The design, the first of its kind, avoids flooding large reservoirs behind the dam in favor of utilizing the natural flow of the river. This will prevent the destruction of some indigenous territories and environmentally destructive stagnation of river flows.
Construction of Belo Monte, and several other dams of its design throughout the Amazon basin, is the linchpin of Brazil’s development policy. In order to keep up with rapid economic expansion, the country must increase its power capacity by 5 percent of current output each year—a significant amount. Other alternatives, such as fossil fuel and wind power, also come with trade-offs for the environment and indigenous land holdings. Yet those who lose the most from the dam project—local indigenous resource users—will likely see little of the benefits of this economic growth, as the power will be piped to burgeoning cities far to the south and east.
Balancing the economic needs of a nation with the rights and needs of marginalized groups is a continuing challenge for developing countries around the world, from Myanmar to Bolivia to Kenya. Though controversy still exists surrounding its construction, the Belo Monte dam may point a way forward. The project’s evolution illustrates how a vocal and well-organized civil society can hold a government accountable and successfully win major concessions in a project’s design, to ensure that economic development for the many does not pose intolerable costs on the few. Investors in large-scale projects the world over would do well to heed the lessons of Belo Monte: although these projects inevitably pose significant costs on local communities, careful design, inclusive consultations with affected groups and civil society, and thoughtful plans to compensate the losers can help ensure that economic growth does not lead to dispossession and marginalization of those most in need of development’s benefits.