Belo Monte, or the Destruction of the Commons

Gerhard Dilger

for Glenn Switkes1

We, the people of Rio Xingu, want our forests to remain standing, we want our fish and other animals to live. We want to keep our fields and our traditional medicines. We need a clean river for bathing, and we want to drink water without getting sick. We want to live in peace. We want to be happy on our land and celebrate with our children and grandchildren in the future.
- Sheyla Juruna, Altamira, Brazil, May 23, 2008

Frenzied growth instead of “the good life”2; authoritarianism and nepotism instead of participation; privatization of nature instead of fair use of the commons – the Brazilian government’s decision to build the enormous hydropower plant Belo Monte in the Amazon area is an example of how resource conflicts are still being solved, even in those South American countries with progressive governments.

President Dilma Rousseff, who took office on January 1, 2011, argues that the megaproject is essential for the “development” of Brazil and the region of the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon, but her argument is threadbare. Simply modernizing the dilapidated Brazilian transmission network would yield several times the amount of energy that Belo Monte is supposed to produce from 2015 and beyond. Her statement must be placed in the context of recent decades: Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have taken up the concepts of development propounded by the Brazilian generals in the 1970s who recruited “people without land” to migrate to Amazonia – allegedly a “land without people.” Those were the years when the Transamazônica was built, the dirt road that connects the Xingu region with Belém, the capital of the federal state of Pará, today. Those were also the years of the initial plans for the dam complex on the Rio Xingu.

A broad resistance movement, the first of many, prevented the realization of the project in the late 1980s. The World Bank eventually withdrew a loan worth millions following international protests. None other than Lula, the former trade union activist who also owes his rise to the presidency to the force of the social movements, revived the megaproject in 2003.

In an alliance with domestic and international capital as well as corrupt regional elites, the dominant wing of Lula’s and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party pushed the Belo Monte project through, against the wishes of the population affected by the project. And they did so despite assurances to the contrary, as Erwin Kräutler, the bishop of Altamira and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, emphasizes time and again. Dilma Rousseff systematically avoids talking with the “eco-social wing” of her political base.

Not only is Belo Monte’s value to the economy questionable, so are its benefits in entrepreneurial terms. The construction consortium Norte Energia can survive only thanks to state electricity companies and various state pension funds. Low-cost loans from the development bank BNDES, itself funded by Brazilian taxpayers, finance 80 percent of its construction contracts.

Nonetheless, a large part of the electricity subsidized in this way is likely to benefit private steel and aluminum works, thus reinforcing Amazonia’s role as a supplier of commodities to Europe, North America and Asia. Brazilian multinational construction corporations as well as European companies such as Andritz, Alstom, Voith/Siemens and Mercedes-Benz benefit from the contracts.

In August 2011, the federal prosecutor’s office in Belém filed another suit against the construction of Belo Monte – on the remarkable grounds that it would violate not only the rights of the indigenous peoples, but also those of nature. This is the first time in Brazilian legal history that an argument based on the rights of nature had been made. Such rights were first established in Ecuador’s new constitution in 2008.

“Humanity is moving toward recognizing nature as a legal entity,” argues prosecutor Felício Pontes, “clean air is no longer considered res nullius. It is becoming res omnium.” Yet there can be no doubt that the Brazilian courts will rule in favor of the powerful, just as the environmental agency Ibama has to yield to the president’s directives.

The pace of tropical deforestation is already increasing today. Pontes estimates the area at risk to be 5,300 square kilometers, ten times the area of the planned reservoir. For months at a time, more than 100 kilometers of the Xingu will practically dry up, which will cause the loss of the living environment of the indigenous Arara and Juruna who live there. Belo Monte and the dozens of other planned dams in Amazonia are paving the way for further exploitation of the most diverse resources. Such megaprojects for resource extraction are an expression of outdated ideas of growth to which the Left in Latin America is still committed.3 Pontes states: “This rapacious development model runs counter to the protection of the environment. It does not consider the environment to be the house where all living things are at home.” In this context, liberation theologian Kräutler speaks of Mitwelt (German for the environment with which we live and interact) rather than Umwelt (the environment around us).

Pontes says he has already seen in his nightmares what the Xingu region is bound to face: children with swollen bellies in the slums of Altamira, and “no more indigenous people living above the dam. All the fantastic diversity that exists today, with the waterfalls and the fish – all that would disappear. Like a desert, a Dantesque vision” (Brum 2011). Still, along with Sheyla Juruna, Erwin Kräutler and other activists in the area – as well as the people supporting them around the world – he has not yet given up resisting the monster dam on the Xingu.4

In October 2011, the protest movement achieved a partial, mainly symbolic legal halt to the construction activities.

For one day, 600 demonstrators occupied the construction site.


  • 1. US documentary filmmaker and long-time activist in the international anti-dam movement. He helped coordinate the resistance against Belo Monte until his unexpected death in 2009.
  • 2. The concept of good life is presented in a conversation between Gustavo Soto Santiesteban and Silke Helfrich. Vinod Raina discusses the problem of dams also.
  • 3. See César Padilla’s essay.
  • 4. In October 2011, the protest movement achieved a partial, mainly symbolic legal halt to the construction activities. For one day, 600 demonstrators occupied the construction site.