Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Brazilian government and its people were duped into thinking that the Belo Monte dam would solve the country’s hungry growing energy needs. According to some estimates, approximately forty percent, maybe more, of the future energy produced by Belo Monte dam will be consumed by the mining industry.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

There are over twenty companies with plans to mine gold, diamond and tin, including some Canadian companies, who have already been granted mining concession to begin digging in the region.

Located North of major Brazilian cities, Belo Monte will become the third largest dam in the world. The project will be built thousand of kilometers from where consumers really require the energy.

The costs of energy transmission are likely to be expensive, and people still don’t know how these costs will manifest themselves on the energy bill.

The geopolitical strategy of creating waterways through dams in the Amazon also serves military needs, although such interests may be less clear on the actual wheeling and dealing of Belo Monte concessions.

Only recently the Brazilian Supreme Court has overturned the building suspension of the dam project. The privately-owned consortium responsible for building the megadam was accused of manipulating the environmental and social impact statements, allowing the project to go forward and making it a heavily publicized and political topic for environmentalist and development watch groups.

According to a report by the TCU (The Brazilian Court of Audit), the most expensive projects in Brazil are the champions of irregularities. Scandalous infrastructural development projects like the PAC conducted by Delta, for example, have been the champs of “superfaturamento,” a common over-billing corruption scheme in Brazil.

These projects have been famed for delays and over-billing, giving way to unfinished projects. Sad to say the least, business dealings still have strong overtones to Brazil’s lingering exploitative colonial history.

There are multiple small hydroelectric dams in the Amazon not far from where Belo Monte plans to start its turbines in 2015. Environmental impact analysis should take them all into consideration, and not be done as if each project was an isolated case. The true hydrographic and hydrogeological impacts on the Amazon Basin ecosystem are unknown.

In the approximately 500km² area that will be flooded, 20,000 indigenous people, many living in traditional ways, will be displaced. In addition, thousands of other people, including the twelve thousand construction workers building the damn, will be out of work once the project is finished, leaving them with only one local employment possibility: the mining industries.

The workers who are not employed by the mining sector may be forced to resort to exploitative activities including illegal deforestation, generating a positive feedback effect.

Droughts this year are forcing the government to invest billions of reais in new thermal power plants. The future power reliability of Belo Monte can be questioned since the Amazon experiences dramatic rainy and dry seasons, having an impact on the flow of water, and consequently on its energy production capability.

Hydroelectric energy is not as clean as you may think, specially when political interests and mining companies win concessions for large scale projects as seen with the Belo Monte mega dam. Corporate responsibility should hypothetically be at the center of any mega-project. There is no excuse for Belo Monte to ignore some of the most fundamental principals of sustainability, the triple bottom line.

Brazil is hungry for more energy, and consumer electronics purchases are on the rise. The country has to increase its energy matrix to include more wind, solar and geothermal sources. Together, they only account for a little over one percent of the energy matrix today.

The installed costs of photovoltaic (PV) cells in Brazil are still three times as expensive as wind and more than four times that of hydroelectric power. Brazil receives large amount of solar radiation and strong winds during its dry seasons, when hydroelectric energy production is low.

Brazil also contains high quality quartz mines in addition to well-established metallurgical silicon industries, but unfortunately there is no active PV solar fabrication in its territory. The economies of scales of fabricating PV in Brazil would certainly bring the prices of renewables down and can divert the need for more hydroelectric dams.


Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


  1. Yeah, over-billing? no just one more case in the traditional way of governing in Brazil. This time I won’t say that the mainstream media hasn’t done its part, the problem is it seems that there is no rule when some administration wants to build a white elephant. What I have heard is that the IBAMA the environmental agency has kept only one opinion about Belo Monte: The project is not viable because offers to many risks for the forest. Apparently, the tecnical saying can’t stop Dilma’s wish, even that the law says IBAMA is the authority on the environmental issues.
    Aditional interesting information: A huge number of workers have already moved from Northest region (the poorest one in the country) to work at the dam in the North of the country(the second poorest region). And the peculiar charactiristic of the dam is that the flow of the river will allow Belo Monte works with 1/5 of its capability in a regular basis. Over-billing ? Of course not it’s just brazilian culture.


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