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Op-Ed on Belo Monte Dam Controversy

David Cassuto

In 2010, a Brazilian colleague and I were invited to lecture on environmental permitting at the Federal University of Pará in Belem, Brazil. The state of Pará is to be home to the proposed Belo Monte Dam. Nonetheless, we deliberately chose not to discuss the dam. Feelings run so strongly on both sides of the issue that it seemed presumptuous for a North American (me) and a Brazilian from the south of the country (my colleague) to swoop into the region and opine on such a controversial topic. We decided instead to speak in general terms about the vagaries of permitting. However, because permits lie at the heart of the Belo Monte legal battle, the title of the talk led some to think that we would be discussing the dam. The room filled with partisans.

During the Q&A, someone asked the inevitable Belo Monte question. Even as I attempted to stammer out a diplomatic deflection, an audience-member jumped up, declared “I can answer that,” put his laptop under his arm, and strode to the podium. He then delivered a 25 minute disquisition on why Belo Monte was both legal and desirable. In all of the scores of talks I have given all over the world (and all over Brazil), I have never seen anything like that. But then, Belo Monte inspires behaviors one does not often see. For example, a few years ago, a Kayapó woman placed her machete against the face of an Eletronorte representative and demanded that the dams not be built. When considering the legal landscape of Belo Monte, it is worth surveying the cultural and physical geography as well.

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1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Doherty, NY

    Belo Monte is only a small part of development-induced displacement in Amazon Region. The situation in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru is even worse. Bogumil Terminski estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement worldwide.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

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