Impacts exceed forecasts at Iberdrola’s mega-dam in the Amazon, Belo Monte

Martintxo Mantxo (A Planeta)
(CASTELLANO)              (Rebelión)(IberTrolas)
Main picture: trees flooded by the Belo Monte dam (Photo: Xingu Vivo)

Iberdrola has once again published its 2022 profits, which are once again positive (for the energy company!) with 4.338,6 million euros, a rise of 11.7%. For anyone reading this, you would think straight away that this is the consequence of the high tariffs we have had to pay in Spain in recent months. But reading further, we see that in reality the result here has been negative, and that if it has obtained such profits it has been because of its business in the United States and Brazil. In Brazil, too, the tariff has risen disastrously for many families, by as much as 36%.

In Brazil, Iberdrola operates as Neonergia, which provides electricity to 34 million people. Part of its business in Brazil is the Belo Monte macro-hydroelectric plant, in operation since 2016. Iberdrola manages this plant as part of the Norte Energia1, consortium, in which it holds a 10% ownership stake. Despite its time in Brazil and in Belo Monte, many people are not aware of Iberdrola’s projects abroad: Iberdrola focused on Brazil and Mexico, economies with great energy and capital potential, and above all where it obtained very favourable conditions to ensure good profits.

The Belo Monte dam is the third largest in the world after the Three Gorges (China) and Itapú (Brazil-Paraguay) with 11,233.1 MW. A monster (to give us an idea: the largest hydroelectric plant in Spain is Aldeadávila with 1,243 MW, also owned by Iberdrola). Belo Monte is located in the middle of the Amazon, on one of the most important tributaries of the Amazon, the Xingu River, and home to many indigenous peoples. The project was widely condemned as an aberration. It was named Belo Monstruo. The dangers Sting warned about with the kayapó leader Raoni on those tours in the 1980s were none other than this dam. Seven years after its inauguration we can conclude that all those omens have not only been fulfilled but are worse than expected.

And new ones have been added, the worst being that of a new gold mine project, Belo Sun. The MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams) has now also denounced the project to build more than 3 km of walls along the Xingu River as a measure to «mitigate» the damage caused by the construction of the dam. The company plans to deposit some 576,000 tonnes of rocks on the banks. This will have a very strong environmental impact on the river, in addition to the existing ones. A project such as a reservoir ignores many aspects related to the river, its processes and the existing ecosystems: in this case, the Xingu varies its flow and its course according to the season, with a large area that floods during the flood season and is essential for the existence of an alluvial forest.

Occupation in 2013 of the construction site by the affected people: Juruna, Kayapó, Xipaya, Kuruaya, Asurini, Parakanã, Arara, Munduruku (Photo: Xingu Vivo).

But it has also taken all these years for the people affected with the option of compensation to receive it. After seven years of struggle, 370 families affected by Belo Monte in the Lagoa do Independente area managed to receive compensation (10/2022). These are families who were evicted from their homes in 2018 without the option of replacement housing.

One of the conditions for the construction of Belo Monte was that Norte Energia would also be in charge of improving the water supply and wastewater treatment system of the city of Altamira, which on the one hand was suffering a population increase and on the other hand was also limited with the water from the reservoir. The energy company is responsible for the Norte Energia Urban Improvement Plan, but with many shortcomings, as this equipment has not yet been transferred to the municipality. MAB activist in Altamira, Elisa Estronioli, told us that now «it is in a transfer phase».

Complaints continue

In 2022, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) finally also recognised that the Belo Monte licence had not respected due process of law and was in direct violation of the Constitution. Specifically, there was no broad public consultation, with the necessary information on the possible socio-environmental impacts, many of them severe and difficult to reverse, nor the necessary debate with society. Nor was there minimal consultation, especially with affected indigenous populations.

Belo Monte’s complex licensing process involved a Preliminary Licence. The project was paralysed in 2008 by the Federal Court, the subject of 28 lawsuits by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, and complaints by non-governmental organisations and individuals, including the scientific sector. The licences were always granted with conditions that are now proven not to have been fulfilled and many will not be fulfilled due to their impossibility. All of them received negative technical opinions from IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais – Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources).

According to the former environment minister at the time, Mariana Silva, now back in office, the Norte Energia consortium used a «manoeuvre» to circumvent environmental requirements and obtain this licence from IBAMA. Silva criticised the pressure against this institution, which is responsible for granting the permits, and for IBAMA itself for committing an irregularity.

The Xingu Vivo Movement reviews the effects that were predicted and their outcome a decade later in the document «Belo Monte and the prophecies of the end of the world», concluding that «What we anticipated at the time unfortunately did not encompass the totality of the tragedy that has been destroying the daily lives of the peoples of the Xingu region». (See video from 2011 predicting many of the current impacts.)

One of the predictions was the population growth of Altamira and the associated impacts: Altamira almost doubled its population, generating a collapse of services. First came the arrival between 2011 and 2013 of 45,000 workers, followed by thousands more in search of opportunities. This was reflected in an escalation of violence (in 2017 it was the most violent city in Brazil), becoming a centre of organised crime and drug trafficking, and feminicides multiplied.

This increase in the number of inhabitants had a direct effect on housing prices, which affected the population in general, but especially displaced families, whose compensation payments were not enough to cover these prices. As we speak, some 200 families are crowded on the margins of the Transamazonica highway, threatened with eviction.

Protest by affected people (Photo: MAB)

In the same way, despite being victims of a hydroelectric project, and despite living so close to the production site, the inhabitants of Altamira are faced with very high electricity bills (some of it will go to Iberdrola’s profits!). Another health issue is related to the reservoir, which has led to the proliferation of malarial mosquitoes that have increased malaria cases (40% from January to June 2020).

Belo Monte has been an environmental disaster in itself, but it has also served to provoke others: more destruction of the Amazon rainforest and more impacts on indigenous peoples. This disaster has been compounded by the Bolsonaro government, which has been so negligent on environmental and indigenous issues. Thus the project also contributed to deforestation, the largest in the Amazon. In 2021, almost 6,500 hectares of public forests were cleared in Altamira alone. It has also led to the invasion of Indigenous Lands (TI). As a consequence, they also denounce that the impact on the local indigenous peoples Xikrin, Arara, Parakanã and Ituna Itatá has been «catastrophic». In the case of the latter also because there are isolated groups at risk of genocide.

On 18 January, researchers from the Brazilian Amazon region also published an urgent appeal to the newly elected president Lula da Silva to alleviate the socio-environmental impacts of Belo Monte. The Observatório da Volta Grande do Xingu, which brings together local researchers as well as local people affected by the dam, sent a letter to the newly elected government and its respective ministers, especially after announcing a less permissive approach to environmental and social damage. In its letter, OVGX lists conditions that were not met in the project such as «the urban sanitation of Altamira, without which the region is subject to sanitary collapse; the guarantee of survival of the flooding and aquatic ecosystems of the Xingu, without which more than 4,000 fishermen have had to face poverty and hunger since the end of the works; and the protection of indigenous lands, without which deforestation, illegal mining and squatting have devastated almost all the territories affected by the construction and operation of Belo Monte».

Belo Monte and the climate emergency

The Belo Monte complex is situated on the Volta Grande of the Xingu River, a 130 km long curve that the river makes on its way north to the Amazon. At the other end of the bend is the town of Altamira. It lies at the foot of another dam, Pimentel, part of the same complex. From this dam, water is diverted through a supply channel to the main reservoir. Up to 80% of the river’s flow. The consequence is that by diverting water, the river at this bend is almost devoid of water, reducing this enormous river in the Amazonian summer to nothing more than a quagmire.

Map of the Volta Grande de Xingu and the Pimentel reservoir on the left, and Belo Monte.

This situation has now intensified with the current climate emergency. In 2020, the Middle Xingu region suffered one of the most severe droughts in recent years, with many of the Xingu’s tributaries drying up. The lack of rainfall due to global warming and thus the lack of water flow to fill reservoirs and therefore to produce energy is a clear fact. Here we have seen the minimum levels in reservoirs such as Yesa, or even proposals such as building another reservoir in Aizpurgi (already abandoned) to supply it with water for the regrowth project under construction, because with the climatic emergency it is not expected to be filled.

Therefore, the prediction that Belo Monte would not meet the energy production forecasts is also being confirmed. For the same reason, when the licensing process for the project was initiated, its annual production projection had already been reduced to 39%. Now, the effect is confirmed: in the second half of 2021, only one of the 18 hydroelectric turbines was in operation.

The environmental and social consequences are dire, as it means the loss of fishing, a basic food source for the communities, and also eliminates their means of transport, which was based on canoeing.

Ironically, the Belo Monte dam has also contributed considerably to the climate emergency. It is not just the greenhouse gases associated with all the oil consumed to move the machinery, earth and rocks. Or those associated with all the concrete used in its construction, 3 million m3 of which would correspond to 2,700 mt of greenhouse gases.

The greatest climate impact associated with the reservoir is the decomposition of trees covered by the water. This decomposition results in the emission of large quantities of methane, which has 25 times more impact on global warming than CO2. Porque a 478 km2 de selva inundada corresponden muchas toneladas de metano. This is how Dr Philip Fearnside (INPA) put it in Todd Southgate’s documentary «Damocracy». Fearnside compared the gases emitted by the decomposition of vegetation in the flood to that of 5 thermal power plants, and estimated a period of 41 years for these emissions to be cancelled out. This has also been confirmed in a report2 which states that Belo Monte generated up to a three-fold increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

The resettlement disaster

The human impact is terrible, as it includes the emergence of hunger and poverty. It translates into great social pressure in the indigenous communities, in the resettled villages and especially in the main city of the area, Altamira. The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) estimates between 40,000 and 50,000 affected people living in the flooded area. Of these, all were ribeirinhos and ribeirinhas (river dwellers) or indigenous people who lived on the river’s margins, with a clear dependence on water for fishing and agriculture. Another of the conditions imposed on Norte Energia to exploit Belo Monte was the return of the ribeirinhos to the banks of the Xingu, which has not materialised to this day.

Norte Energia built six Collective Urban Resettlements (RUC) outside Altamira with 3,850 poor quality prefabricated houses. One of them, Tavaquara, was a victory for the affected families as it was not planned at the beginning. This is the only one close to the river. The rest were resettled far from the river, which prevents these people from continuing their way of life and livelihood.

In addition, these resettlements suffer from deficiencies because they currently have no water. Laranjeiras and São Joaquim were built after the oversizing of the city’s general sanitation project and are at the «end of the line» of the distribution system. Today, they have to be supplied with water by tanker trucks.

The Conselho Ribeirinho (Riber Dwellers’ Council) listed 212 families excluded from resettlement. Of these, Norte Energia has only resettled 13. Part of the resettlement took place in Permanent Preservation Areas (APP) with restrictions on agricultural practices, which meant that the families were unable to maintain their self-sufficiency. All this creates more problems in these communities and also more pressure on the environment.

In the last six years, MAB’s struggle has resulted in the recognition of some 600 families who were initially not recognised as affected, but there are still 370 families to be recognised as affected. In 2021, MAB and families from Lagoa do Independente occupied IBAMA headquarters demanding that Norte Energia present a relocation schedule for 97 families who lacked sanitary sewerage connections. In 2018, Ibama acknowledged that the situation of the families in the area was the responsibility of Norte Energia.

Norte Energia, the concessionaire of the hydroelectric plant, filed the lawsuit in 2014 against MAB. The affected families also came out in protest and blocked the Transamazônica highway. Norte Energia took them to court, accusing them of preventing workers’ access to the construction site. The case was dismissed in 2022 on the grounds that it was no longer justified.

One of the many protests by families affected by Belo Monte at the offices of IBAMA (Photo: MAB).

And with all that Norte Energia still allows itself the luxury of cynism to declare that «the construction of Belo Monte preserved the Xingu River», claiming that it was built on the condition that it was the only one on the entire 1,800 km river, and that «Belo Monte uses only 200 km». ONLY!

Energy for whom?

In addition to the hydroelectric plant itself, the project needed to get all that energy from the Amazon to the rest of the country. To do this, a new transmission line was planned to run from the plant to São Paulo: 2000 kms. A new macro-investment also with a high environmental impact (towers spaced every 500 metres). This and another line, the 1,854 km Pré-Belo Monte, which supplies the Northeast and goes to San Salvador de Bahia, were awarded to the Spanish company Abengoa. Abengoa went through various financial vicissitudes before finally declaring bankruptcy in 2021. In 2017, with Belo Monte already completed, Abengoa had not completed the line, so the project was transferred to BMTE, owned by China’s State Grid, which also needed time to complete it. As a result, the Brazilian Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica (ANEEL) found itself unable to get the electricity it generated in Belo Monte. The cost of the delay was billed to consumer families with an estimated amount of more than 270 million euros.

Power from Belo Monte feeds the National Interconnected System, but the Canadian TSX:BSX wants to install its Belo Sun Mining gold mine in Volta Grande. TSX:BSX argues that one of the advantages of the site is precisely the energy supply. This confirms another prediction: that such an energy boondoggle would have to correspond to other, greater interests. One of the policies promoted with the construction of Belo Monte was to offer cheap energy to large mining companies to install their own processing plants in the country, as a way of guaranteeing their activity in the country. But it is also clear that once these projects are imposed, they attract and justify others.

An indigenous protest demands the removal of their criminal hands from Volta Gande de Xingu (Photo: Antonio Bonsorte, for Amazon Watch)

Belo Sun would be the largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil. They estimate that its subsoil contains almost 113 mt of gold, worth more than $8 billion. Belo Sun says the mine was designed to have zero environmental impact, but that’s hard to believe in Brazil with disasters like Mariana and Brumadinho, where companies promised the same. The tailings (mine waste) deposit from this project is expected to be more than double that of Mariana, which is not very encouraging. As in those sad cases, if there is an accident, or if there are leaks, they will end up in the Xingu River, as they did in the Dulce and Paraopeba rivers respectively. And from there to the Amazon. The omens are chilling.

The mine would also be only 10 kms from the Paquisamba indigenous territory of the Juruna people. These people have already been considerably affected by Belo Monte. Now, Belo Sun would add new affectations. Belo Sun claims that the local communities approved the project in a series of consultation processes, but they claim that these meetings were flawed and that they never approved the project. This was also the understanding of the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region (TRF1), which suspended the mining project’s licence in 2017 and revalidated it in 2022, and the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF), which found that there was a risk of devastating impact on these peoples and the ecosystem.

Furthermore, these meetings took place in the middle of the pandemic, authorised by the FUNAI (National Indigenous Foundation) itself. As is well known, Jair Bolsonaro’s government was characterised by its mismanagement of the pandemic, but also by its contempt for indigenous peoples. And FUNAI, as an organisation at the service of indigenous peoples, was an institution that this government tried to eliminate. Unable to do so, it placed police and army officers in positions of responsibility who defended business interests rather than indigenous interests (see more here). Thus the government declared the project «strategic» for the country within its Investment Partnership Programme (IPP).

Thus, in 2019 the advisor for indigenous, community and environmental affairs for Belo Sun Mining was a general, Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, who had been the president of FUNAI between May 2017 and April 2018. As has now come to light, another ex-military officer, Barroso Magno is also the representative in Brazil of Forbes & Manhattan (F&M), the financier of the Belo Sun project, since 2019. These companies have been trying for 10 years to be allowed to exploit in this part of the Amazon, which is protected as nature reserves and indigenous reserves. But as is already known, the Bolsonaro government’s objective was to dismantle these protections, as well as FUNAI and IBAMA themselves. So the game remained between militaries, and the representative of F&M and Belo Sun got meetings with the government to discuss the Belo Sun project from 2019.

An occupation of the construction site of Belo Monte: the indigenous are the criminals, Norte Energia is defended by the police.

We keep watching, Lula.

One thing to remember is that this project materialised with Lula in government. After his imprisonment and the manoeuvres to destabilise the government of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Lula became closer to social movements such as the MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams). Although not official, he did commit himself to reviewing past policies.

This also explains why his new government has once again included Marina Silva at the head of the Ministry of the Environment. Silva already headed it in the first government from 2003 to 2008. In fact, her positions on hydroelectric dams and other environmental issues were the trigger for her to leave the government and also the PT, which she had been a member of for 30 years. Her return is due to a change of position with the announced challenge of halting deforestation in the Amazon.

However, in June, Lula distanced himself from Silva’s proposals and stated that he «did not regret having defended the construction of Belo Monte and that if he had to make the decision to build the plant again, he would do so». But knowing what we know, we understand that he will need to be more critical than that.

Now Lula has shown his determination to stop illegal mining, and let’s hope that he will also do so with other projects that, although with large amounts of capital behind them, also involve major illegalities.

Demolished houses in the area affected by Belo Monte in the Boa Esperança neighbourhood, Altamira (Photo: MAB)

More information:


1 Norte Energia comprised of: Eletrobras (15.00%), Chesf (15.00%), Eletronorte (19.98%), pension funds Petros (10.00%) and Funcef (10.00%), Neoenergia (Iberdrola) (10.00%), Amazônia/Cemig and Light (9.77%), Vale (9.00%), Sinobras (1.00%) and J.Malucelli Energia (0.25%).

On the other hand, both the Bolsonaro government and the previous Temer government aimed to privatise large public companies, including Electrobras. The latter was partially privatised shortly before losing the elections, in June 2022, for 18 billion euros. Here too, Iberdrola was one of the companies that made no secret of its desire to take over the large Brazilian energy company. According to MAB: «The privatisation of Eletrobrás, carried out in 2022, was one of the biggest attacks on the country’s sovereignty promoted by Jair Bolsonaro’s government. In addition to making electricity bills more expensive for Brazilians, the operation handed over the management of the electricity sector and the rivers where hydroelectric plants are installed to the private sector at a bargain price.»

The government also facilitated the enrichening of its directors. Ten days before the end of Bolsonaro’s government, Eletrobras granted a raise of up to 3,500% to its directors: its director received 54,581 euros when his salary was 9,515, and a director went from a salary of 982 euros to 36,394 euros. This was after the 36% tariff increase that had such an effect on the population.

2 Study conducted by researchers from USP, Linköping University in Sweden, the Federal University of Pará and the University of Washington, and published in the journal Science Advances.


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