In the late 1980s, the Kayapo people forced the Brazilian government to abandon plans to build 6 huge dams on the Xingu River. The international uproar over environmental and human rights concerns was enough to persuade the World Bank to suspend financing for all dams in the Amazon Basin.
Now Eletronorte, the state-owned electrical utilities company, is back on the Xingu River with plans to build a first dam, the Belo Monte, with a smaller reservoir than the original design. Since Belo Monte won’t have enough water to generate electricity during the 4-month dry season, critics feel certain that more dams will be built upstream to increase efficiency. These will have huge reservoirs that will double the amount of submerged rainforest in Brazil.
While Eletronorte’s PR team touts the Xingu dams as “a blessing from God,” the battle between different development models for the Amazon has turned bitter and bloody. Since June, 5 grassroots activists have been murdered and hundreds jailed. They and their organizations denounce the government’s $40 billion top-down plan to build 6,000 miles of highway, dams, mines, power lines, gas and oil fields and logging concessions throughout the Amazon.
MDTX, a coalition of 113 organizations representing farmers, women, indigenous peoples, youth, scientists and religious groups, argues for a bottom-up model of sustainable development, land reform, indigenous rights and environmental protection. “Why sacrifice the Xingu River by building dams, when its basin represents one of the country’s most important sites of ecological capital in its natural state?,” wrote murdered activist Ademir Alfeu Federicci in an MDTX letter.
Indeed, the earth’s most biologically diverse region hangs in the balance. One-third of all the world’s species live in the Amazon River Basin; one-third of the world’s tropical woods (2,500 tree species) occur only in the Amazon. The Amazon River and its tributaries, including the Xingu, supply 20% of the earth’s fresh water and have the highest diversity of freshwater fish.
Brazil receives 93% of its electricity from large dams. One million Brazilians have already lost their lands and livelihoods because of dam construction. Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable since their survival depends on their knowledge of specific ecosystems. Dams on the Xingu River would flood parts of the Xingu Indigenous Park, threatening the survival and cultural integrity of at least 15 indigenous tribes, including the Kayapo.
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