From Ecological Disaster to Constitutional Crisis: the Long Struggle Over the Xingú Dams Comes to a Climax at Belo Monte

Once again, the indigenous peoples of the Xingú valley in the Brazilian Amazon are planning to make the long journey to the town of Altamira, where the Trans-Amazonica highway crosses the Xingú. Their ultimate destination will be the island of Pimental a short distance downriver from the town, where the Brazilian government plans to build a huge hydroelectric dam they call Belo Monte after the nearest Brazilian village. The Indians’ bold plan, is to prevent the construction of the dam by building a new village directly on top of the proposed dam site and maintaining their occupation until the government abandons its plans for the dam. The planning for the encampment is being led by the Kayapo, the largest and most politically organized of the indigenous nations of the region, but other indigenous groups are also participating.

The Kayapo, however, are not waiting for the discussion of the plan for the encampment among the 23 indigenous groups of the Xingú Valley to reach consensus. They have already seized the ferry that carries Brazil Route 80, an important link in the Trans-Amazonica highway system, across the Xingú River at the Kayapo village of Piaraçú. The ferry and the river crossing are now under guard by armed Kayapo warriors, who have announced that they will continue their blockade until the government negotiates with them about their plans for the Belo Monte dam.

This will not be the first indigenous encampment organized by the Kayapo in their effort to stop the building of dams on the Xingú. In 1989, when the government first set out to implement its plan for a giant hydroelectric complex on the Xingú, with financial support from the World Bank, the Kayapo led a great rally of 40 indigenous nations at Altamira against the scheme, setting up an encampment of several hundred Indians at a Catholic retreat center just outside the town. The five-day rally was extensively covered by national and international media, and succeeded in persuading the World Bank to withdraw its planned loan for the construction of the dams.

After the 1989 Altamira meeting, the Xingú dam scheme remained dormant, but not dead, for two decades. Two years ago it was revived as the centerpiece of the Lula government’s Project for Accelerated Development. As a Brazilian activist remarked at the time, “These big dams are like vampires: you pound a stake through their hearts but they rise again from the grave and you have to do it all over again.”

The Xingú River is one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. With its numerous affluents it has created a valley larger than Texas that remains perhaps the least disturbed and most diverse ecosystem in Brazilian Amazonia. It is unquestionably the most culturally diverse. 23 indigenous peoples of distinct cultures and languages make their homes there, most of them among the headwaters of the Upper Xingú, which has been made a national park by the Brazilian state. In the Middle Xingú region just to the north (downriver) of the National Park, the large and politically dynamic Kayapo people have their territory, consisting of seven mostly contiguous reserves with a combined area of 150,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Austria).

Further downriver, between the Kayapo reserves and the mouth of the Xingú where it empties into the Amazon, several other indigenous peoples live in varying degrees of proximity with Brazilian settlers, some of them “river people” who subsist on a technology little different from that of the Indians, but others dwelling in towns they have established along the river and the Trans-Amazonica highway, which crosses the Xingú near the largest town, the regional capital of Altamira.

Over the years, this variegated system of social and cultural groups has evolved a relatively sustainable pattern of coexistence with one another and the even more varied riverine and forest ecosystems of the Xingú valley. All of these systems, however, have now been imperiled by the Federal government’s plan to build a series of six giant hydroelectric dams along the Xingu and its largest tributary, the Irirí. The largest of these dams, Belo Monte, is to be the first built. Construction is scheduled to start in January 2011.

The master plan for damming the Amazon river system, which includes Belo Monte and the Xingú dams, was originally created in the 1970s by the military dictatorship then in power. It essentially treats the Amazon as a reservoir of natural resources to be extracted without regard for the destruction of its riverine and forest environment or the displacement and pauperization of its indigenous and local Brazilian inhabitants.

It has come as a shock to many supporters of the democratically elected government of President Lula Ignacio da Silva that Lula seems not only to have revived this authoritarian relic, with its reliance on technologically problematic and inefficient mega-dams, but has made it the centerpiece of his “Accelerated Development Project”, the basis of his program to make the Brazilian economy one of the world’s greatest, and as such the heart of his economic heritage, and seems intent on carrying it out in defiance of democratic processes and legality. President Inácio Lula da Silva and his chosen successor and chief political ally, Dilma Roussef, have elevated the Belo Monte dam to the status of a master-symbol of the Project for Accelerated Development. They reject all criticism of the dam as threats to the Accelerated Development Project as a whole.

If built, Belo Monte would be the third largest hydroelectric dam complex in the world, comprising one huge dam and two smaller dams, and requiring the diversion of the water from a 60 mile stretch of the river’s channel through canals and underground tunnels to two massive arrays of turbines. The whole system would have a peak generating capacity of 11,200 kilowatt hours. Many critics of the project, however, have pointed out that this level of output would be attainable only for four months out of the year at the height of the rainy season. For the remaining eight months, during the dry season, the level of the river falls by thirty feet or more, so that much less water would be available to flow through the turbines, and the average output would fall to an annual rate of only 4,000 kilowatt hours.

This means that the electricity that the dam would generate, measured against the enormous cost of the dam, would be considerably more expensive than that potentially produced by alternative means. Taking into additional consideration the relatively short life-expectancy of dams in the Amazon because of silting and acidic erosion of turbine blades, the Belo Monte dam seems likely to prove to be an economic white elephant.

In other words, Belo Monte does not appear to be economically viable as a stand-alone dam, without another big dam upriver with a large enough reservoir to release a sufficient volume of water during the dry season to keep Belo Monte producing at close to its peak capacity all year. There are plans for such a dam, called Altamira, which would have an enormous reservoir that would flood a vast area of forest. Upriver from that, four other sites have been selected for a whole series of dams that could feed into the Reservoir of the Altamira dam.

The government insists that it envisions Belo Monte as viable by itself, and is currently planning only to build one dam on the Xingú, but its assurances to this effect are widely disbelieved by engineers, ecological critics and indigenous inhabitants alike, who suspect that each dam in the series will become a source of pressure for building another dam above it in the series, in a hydrological “domino effect”. The government’s credibility is not helped by its twenty-year record of secrecy and misrepresentation of its plans and intentions for the Xingú project.

These economic and technical objections, however, are not the only serious problems of the Belo Monte project. The 60-mile section of river that would be diverted to pass through the turbines and thus drained of its water now passes through two indigenous reservations (Arara and Paquiçamba-Juruna), whose people depend on the river for fish and transportation. The villages they currently occupy would thus become unviable. The Brazilian constitution mandates that indigenous communities must be consulted in advance before development projects are carried out within their reserved territories, and that all local peoples must be given a chance to discuss with responsible officials any government projects that will affect their livelihoods. The government agencies charged with building the dams have defiantly refused to comply with this legal requirement in the cases of the two indigenous communities affected, as they have in those of the other indigenous peoples of the Xingú. They have also failed to produce a satisfactory environmental impact evaluation, which is legally required as the prerequisite for the issue of a license to build the dam. Instead, the license was released, under intense political pressure, in the absence of a completed Environmental Impact Report, in a clear violation of legal requirements.

This instance, and others, of cutting legal corners to push through the dam project have unleashed bitter and portentous confrontations within the government itself. The Brazilian state is far from monolithically behind the Xingú dam Project. The Public Ministry, an autonomous governmental agency empowered to decide on the constitutionality and legality of government projects and actions, has openly denounced the Belo Monte dam project as illegal and in violation of the constitution, and moreover as likely to produce an environmental catastrophe in the Xingú.

On April 7, 2010, the Public Ministry handed down two devastating decisions, one finding the government’s plan to hold the auction at Altamira unconstitutional and in violation of several existing laws, and the other charging that the Belo Monte Project would violate the constitutional and legal rights of indigenous peoples whose territories and communities it would either flood or cut off from access to the river. In consequence of these decisions, the Public Ministry called for annulling the government’s decision to hold an auction on April 20 for bids by consortiums of private construction companies for the enormous and lucrative job of building Belo Monte.
The Attorney General of Brazil, channeling an infuriated Lula, threatened to have the attorneys of the Public Ministry arrested and imprisoned for interfering with the project , but the lawyers of the Public Ministry stood firm. They have not been arrested, but the threat of this illegal attempt at repression of political opposition to state policies remains open and has been repeated by the AG.

President Lula meanwhile defiantly vowed to build Belo Monte regardless of the legal and constitutional obstacles, many of which arise from the government’s disregard of the legal procedures that must be followed by any project for the construction of major development projects in indigenous land or other local communities. His disregard of legal and democratic process struck many as reminiscent of the pre-democratic military regime which had originally conceived the Amazon dam projects. Lula also brushed aside the technological criticisms of the project raised by many engineers, the ecological issues raised by biologists and environmentalists, national Brazilian and international NGOs, and as goes without saying, the protests of indigenous people and local Brazilian settler organizations that the dams would destroy their material base of existence.

In the week before the auction, a courageous Federal judge in Altamira handed down a judgment based on one of the Public Ministry’s two briefs annulling the government’s decision to hold the auction. This was immediately reversed by the Regional Appeals Court in Brasília. The Altamira court judge then handed down a second order to cancel the auction on the day before it was scheduled to be held. His decision, a 50-page document with extensive legal arguments, precedents and references, was also based squarely on the Public Ministry’s documents. In a travesty of due process, this decision was also reversed by the Appeals Court within 24 hours and the auction was held. In neither of the two cases did the Court of Appeals attempt to deal with the legal arguments of the decisions of the lower Altamira court, simply appealing to the extra-legal criterion of Brazil’s need for energy and the demands of the Project for Accelerated Development.

This blatant corruption of the legal system by political pressure from the government, with the acquiescence of one of the highest courts of the land, outraged much of Brazil’s legal profession and further aroused the opposition of the broad and growing array of elements of Brazilian civil society who have been organizing against Belo Monte and the other planned Xingú dams. Many of these elements joined together in a march in Brasilia on April 12 that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte, and called for the cancellation of the project. In this march they were joined by James Cameron, writer and director of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

James Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi, the indigenous natives in his film Avatar, that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

As this is written, a Kayapo delegation led by Chief “Raoni” (or as he pronounces it, Rop-ni) of the Xingu Kayapo, is travelling through France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, visiting government ministers and heads of state and appealing for support of the indigenous campaign against the Xingú dams. Other campaigns, some involving other tours by indigenous leaders, are getting under way in other European countries and in North America. The Brazilian government’s attempt to push ahead the Xingú dam scheme in the face of the mounting storm of opposition from local settlers, indigenous peoples, environmentalist and human rights NGOs, other sectors of Brazilian civil society and important elements of the state itself (such as significant parts of the judicial system and political opposition) is thus becoming a problem for Brazil’s foreign relations. Within Brazil, it has already moved from its original status as a localized problem involving indigenous rights and ecological impacts of a dam in a remote part of the Amazon to a major legal, political and constitutional crisis involving Brazil’s political conduct as a democratic state.

At stake in this crisis is Brazil’s political ability to reconcile and accommodate the demands of its capital-intensive policy of economic growth, epitomized by its “accelerated development” project, with the principles of constitutional legality and democracy supported by its rapidly growing middle class, in alliance with the indigenous and settler groups of its vast Amazonian interior. An irony of the Xingú dam project is that it has done much to bring this historically unique alliance into political being, and in so doing has inadvertently made a profoundly hopeful contribution to the development of Brazilian democratic civil society. This contribution, however, has only been realized thanks to the courage, leadership and political resourcefulness of the Kayapo, other indigenous groups who have supported them, and the Brazilian social movements of the Xingú Valley.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the struggle over the Belo Monte project, the broad alliance of indigenous peoples, Brazilian settlers and social movements, environmentalists, human rights organizations and elements of the Brazilian state committed to democratic legality and constitutionality in common opposition to the dam scheme the movement has built, will continue the fight against the other dams the government hopes to build in the Xingú, with catastrophic effects on the flora, fauna and human inhabitants of the Xingú valley.

Terry Turner is a cultural anthropologist who has worked with indigenous people in the Amazon for 50 years. He is the president of Survival International USA, and a member of the Brazilian Panel of Specialists on the Belo Monte project, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, and Adjunct Professor at Cornell University. Comments? Write to TERENCE TURNER at

This commentary is also posted at Anthropologyworks.