A recent New York Times article written by Alexei Barrionuevo discusses the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil. This ambitious project, if completed, would cost over 11 billion dollars and become the third largest dam in the world. Once built, the dam would provide a desperately needed source of energy for the future of growing cities such as São Paulo. Even more importantly, it would provide an alternative means of reaching the energy goal that would be more environmentally green than other proposals, or would it?
While there is no denying that the dam is a desperately needed source of future power, it is tough to say that the project is economically and humanitarianly sound when, if completed, it would flood over 200 square miles of land that is the home to several indigenous populations. Moreover, it dry up over sixty miles of river, putting an abrupt end to those who rely on those portions of the river for fishing and their very way of life, not to mention the destruction to the area’s ecosystem. Granted, this is a question that society has faced several times before, but how can one balance the need to provide power to future populations against the homes and livelihoods of people in the present time?
As a response to the anticipated effects of the building of the dam, the indigenous tribes of the area have been busy. On October 27, 2011, hundreds of indigenous people who feared the destruction of their homes arrived at the dam construction site wearing war paint and carrying bows and arrows. Before going on, it is important to note that these displays were ceremonial as the group intends to protest nonviolently. In addition to occupying the site, they also blocked off a section of the Trans-Amazon Highway right near the construction site. Despite the presence of police and security officials, they did nothing to keep the indigenous people out of the site, which could very well mean that they felt some sympathy and support for the cause. After arriving, this group of indigenous people demanded to speak to a senior Brazilian official in order to begin a new set of negotiations in an attempt to prevent the dam from being built. If these attempts to revive negotiations fail, one cannot help but wonder if the over 70 indigenous populations that would be effected will make good on their initial promise to completely occupy the area with nearly 3,000 dedicated individuals. In addition, several members of this group have vowed to sacrifice their lives to the cause if it comes to that.
So, the question is how the government of Brazil will respond to this and other nonviolent protests? Will the indigenous people, and the international environmentalist groups supporting them, be able to stop a project that could destroy over 200 square miles of homes and villages? Questions like these are always difficult when the few have to oppose the needs of the many and the needs of progress. However, in reaching these needs, people have to remember that progress works both ways: while the building of the dam will be a progression in alternative energy and electricity for growing populations, it will also be a reversal of progress in respect to humanitarian efforts and good will.