This policy proposal will assess the viability of the planned construction of the large hydroelectric dam in the state of Pará in northern Brazil. It will be outlined that, politically, ecologically, as well as economically, the Belo Monte dam will not yield the desired results and will therefore lead to avoidable disappointments. Thus, an alternative mix of energy sources will be proposed and contrasted with the dam project.
Since the mid-1970s, various Brazilian governments have looked at the possibilities of harnessing the vast hydroelectric potential provided by the various streams of the Amazon. The most controversial of these is the proposed Belo Monte dam on the Xingú river in the state of Pará, which according to some estimates could add an equivalent of ten percent of Brazil’s energy production to the grid (Power, April 22, 2010). Given Brazils meteoric rise in terms of economic growth, poverty alleviation and reduction of inequality, energy is one of the key issues the country has to deal with to secure the gains that have been made. As noted by Kemmler and Spreng, human activity is closely related to the use of energy (2007: 2466). Furthermore, it is an essential factor of social inclusion, and its absence can lead to energy poverty (Pereira Jr. et al., 2008: 76).
However, the construction of the dam has been questioned in terms of its negative impact on the environment as well as its social ramifications with regard to the possible displacement of indigenous communities. The larger issue which encapsulates these two problems is the way the dam project exposes the challenges facing Brazil’s institutional structure. On the one hand, it calls into question how the Brazilian government approaches the reconciliation between economic growth and environmental protection. On the other, it exposes a general problem within democratic theory: the status of minorities within a representative democracy.
Option A: Extensive Dam Construction
In the early 2000s, Brazil experienced extended periods of electricity shortages and blackouts (Lerner, 2010). Given Brazil’s status as an emerging economy, growing energy demand will be one of the main challenges to face the country. According to figures provided by Geller et al., energy use per capita increased by 60 percent between 1975 and 2000 (2004: 1438). Tolmasquim et al. estimate that, by 2030, per capita energy use will have grown by more than 50 percent (2007: 4). Thus, as pointed out by The Economist, “investing in more power generation is essential” (Power, March 22, 2010). Currently, hydroelectric power accounts for more than 75 percent of the electricity produced in Brazil (Energy, December 5, 2011). With regard to the future capacity of hydroelectricity, Perreira et al. argue that “about 70% of the hydraulic potential to be taken advantage of is in Amazonia and in the Cerrado” (2008: 81).
This is the context in which the administrations of former president Lula da Silva and current president Rousseff have argued for the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. According to The Economist, it would add ten percent to the existing generating capacity (March 24, 2010), while bringing electricity to an estimated 23 million homes (Lerner, 2010). Fearnside concedes that the Belo Monte site is very advantageous due to its physical features (2006: 23). Apart from the Belo Monte dam, Brazil’s 2011-2020 energy-expansion plan adds an additional 48 large dams (Fearnside, 2012: 1).
Thus, the trajectory is clear. The rationale behind the construction of large-scale dam projects is the concern for sustained economic growth, which will to depend to a significant degree on the consolidation of energy supply. Thus, Policy Option A will involve the construction of the Belo Monte Dam itself, but moreover will also include the construction of further dams upstream to ensure the economic viability of Belo Monte itself. According to Turner, up to six slightly smaller dams are necessary to make the Belo Monte Dam economically profitable within a reasonable timeframe (2011: 3). Nevertheless, in a discussion round on Al-Jazeera, Ken Green has pointed out that, in general, new constructions are more cost-effective than the maintenance of existing energy infrastructure (Inside, February 1, 2012). By most estimates, the dam will cost the Brazilian state at least eleven billion US dollars (Power, March 24, 2010).