Brazil prepares to build a dam

ALTAMIRA, Brazil –
For Raimunda Gomes da Silva, the impending construction of a huge hydroelectric
dam here in the Amazon is painful deja vu.

About 25 years ago,
the building of another dam more than 320 kilometres east of here flooded her
property, driving a plague of poisonous snakes, insects and jaguars onto her
land, she said, before submerging it completely.

Now, after starting a
new life in Altamira, the government is telling her she needs to leave again,
this time to make way for the Belo Monte dam, which will flood a large swath of
this city, displacing thousands of people.

“This dam is a threat
to me because I no longer have the energy I once did,” said da Silva, 53, whose
family of 11 shares a three-bedroom home with banana trees in the back. “We can
no longer invest and build another house like this one. For me, this is like
throwing away a lot of hope.”

But she will have
little choice. Initial construction on the Belo Monte dam, which will be the
third-largest in the world, is slated to begin by next year.

Persistent opposition
by environmental and indigenous groups, even with help from high-profile
figures like the Canadian-American movie director James Cameron, failed to stop
the $11 billion project, which will produce electricity for big cities like Sao
Paulo while flooding about 520 square kilometers of the Xingu River basin.

Indigenous
communities say the dam will devastate their lands and force about 12,000 from
their homes. They say it will reduce the river level, destroying their
traditional fishing industry.

The city of Altamira,
above the dam, faces the opposite problem, with about a third of it to end up
under water. Thousands of residents will be relocated.

Recently, regional
indigenous leaders met here to plan a dramatic occupation of the dam’s
construction site, but after four days of discussion failed to produce a
consensus, the protest was called off. Members of nongovernmental groups trying
to stop the dam are starting to sound resigned.

“The groups are still
divided,” said Christian Poirier, the Brazil campaign leader for Amazon Watch,
who attended the meeting. “There are a lot of political considerations right
now for the indigenous leaders. Some have been neutralized by handouts or
threats.”

The government has
pushed hard to ensure that construction on the dam, decades in the planning,
would begin before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva leaves office at the end
of this year. When some of Brazil’s most important private construction and
civil engineering companies grew jittery about the financial risks earlier this
year, the government raised its investment stake, and is now financing more
than three-quarters of the project.

Valter Cardeal,
director of engineering for Eletrobras, Brazil’s state electricity company,
said the project would have no negative economic impact on any indigenous
community. He acknowledged that there would be reduced water flow downstream,
but not enough, he said, to affect fishing.

He said Belo Monte
would bring “improvements and advances” to indigenous people, including
sanitation, better health and education services, and “territorial security”
for their lands.

As to Altamira, he
said people forced to relocate would be compensated and most would benefit.

In the low-lying
neighbourhood of about 700 homes where Gomes da Silva lives, for instance, some
homes are built on stilts to avoid seasonal flooding.

Cardeal said the
relocation would lift those residents out of such “precarious, subhuman
conditions.”

He said that the
government would provide assistance to small farmers and that the construction
companies had agreed to put $280 million in a sustainable development plan for
the region.

Such assurances are
disputed by dam opponents and many residents.

At a meeting in
March, indigenous leaders waved bows and arrows, and threatened to go to war to
stop the construction. But two tribes, the Xikrin-Kayapo and the Parakana, have
since dropped their opposition, citing concerns about losing government
handouts, Poirier said.

He and others
involved in the discussions accuse the government utility Eletronorte of trying
to divide the indigenous groups by buying off leaders with gifts or threatening
to deny their communities health or other services.

Cardeal and a
spokesman for Eletronorte denied those accusations.

Altamira residents
are divided. Some are hopeful that the dam will bring jobs and money to this
lightly populated municipality, Brazil’s largest.

During construction,
the dam is expected to provide an estimated 20,000 jobs, although initially, at
least, many of the workers will have to come from elsewhere, said Elcirene de
Souza, the head of the Altamira federal employment office. She said 90 percent
of the work force in Altamira was not qualified for the skilled jobs the
project needs.

She said she was
concerned that the influx of workers would usher in gangs, drugs and crime, as
has happened in the building of other dams. Government officials, though, have
told residents that they hope to avoid such problems by not creating a separate
village for workers, as they have in the past, but incorporating the workers
into the city.

Already resumes from
applicants are flooding in, about 8,200 in the first four months of the year,
from at least five Brazilian states, de Souza said.

Residents like Gomes
da Silva, sceptical of government promises of subsidies and relocation
packages, are mainly concerned about where they will live. She said the
government badly underpaid her for her last house, paying only the cost of
construction materials, not the market price. She fears the same will happen
again.

“When they arrive,
they come with a price table showing what they will offer for our house, and we
either accept that price or they won’t offer anything else,” she said. “They
will tell me how much my house is worth and will not relocate me anywhere
else.”

She fears for her
husband, a fisherman. “He only has two more years left to get his retirement
plan, but we aren’t sure if he will be able to fish for another two years,” she
said. “Do you think the fish will hang around here? The fish know where to
escape to, but us, we need to go where they throw us.”

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