By Jaylan Boyle, Senior Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – A series of dams designed to tap the vast hydro-electric potential of the Amazon region are just one facet of the largest ever concerted effort to transform the fortunes of this traditionally impoverished area.
The Belo Monte dam program is just one of several planned in the near future, despite the disruption of some indigenous people like the tribes along the Xangu River.
Roading, gas pipelines and power facilities are all planned to create more stable infrastructure for some of the country’s poorest citizens, but many disparate parties are affected by the ambitious development: the surrounding controversy is arousing heated argument.
Not since the military dictatorship of the 1970′s has the Amazonia region experienced such a flurry of development, when roads were cut through the jungle to open the area to settlers. However, that is largely where investment in infrastructure stopped, and many of the region’s residents live still in subsistence fashion, without access to electricity in many cases.
In total more than US$30 billion will be poured into the region in coming years, much of it arguably chasing the promise of access to Amazonia’s vast natural resources, rather than fostering the socio-economic betterment of it’s people. So at least say critics of the planned development.
Another factor spurring the development in Amazonia is Brazil’s need to prepare on an infrastructural level for forecast population growth of between five and six percent in coming years, not to mention for the attention of the world as the country hosts both the FIFA World Cup and the Rio Olympics.
Opponents point out that the planned ‘mega-projects’ are at odds with Brazil’s seeming desire to be at the vanguard of world environmental reform. Only this year the government reversed an unbroken chain of refusals to commit to emission reductions, and signed on for one of the most ambitious carbon cuts yet seen.
Other measures such as investment in alternative fuel sources have been looked on favorably from afar. Yet Israel Vale, director of the Kaninde environmental group, charges the government with saying one thing and doing another, “They talk about reducing deforestation… but they invest in these ‘mega-projects” he said, “The rhetoric doesn’t match the reality”.
The ever-pragmatic president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has talked at length on the subject of environmental responsibility, but has made it patently clear that he has no time for those that would ignore the Amazon’s residents in the interests of preserving it, “I don’t want gringos asking us to leave Amazon people to die of hunger under the canopy of a tree,” he said in November.
Many of those most directly affected are speaking loudly in support of the development, “The people who want to protect the forest have never been hungry or needy” said Antonia Meyrilen, a 27 year-old training to be a carpenter in Porto Velho, the once dilapidated center near the Santo Antonio dam, forecast to go online in 2011. The project has brought shopping malls, hotels, and supermarkets to the town, and employs nearly 10,000 workers.
Among the indigenous Indian population feeling runs from skepticism to unbridled hostility. Representatives of the tribe living on the Xingu, one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, recently threatened to unleash a ‘river of blood’ if the Belo Monte dam goes ahead. The threats have escalated steeply recently, with the release of an open letter to president Lula in which the Xingu people said that the lives of workers on the dam would be ‘at risk’ if the project continues.