Amazonian Avatar

I’ve previously written about the disasters that dams can cause (see Water Damage), as witnessed in the southeast Queensland floods earlier this year. Dams disrupt hydrological cycles and can cause landslides, flooding and even earthquakes. The Three Gorges dam in China is a classic example, and even the Chinese government has now admitted that the dam’s environmental impacts are worse than they previously acknowledged.

But dams can have much wider-reaching effects than landslides and floods years later. The damage starts at the construction stage – entire towns and communities have had to be moved and rebuilt elsewhere to make way for dams. Once flooded, whole ecosystems are wiped out, animals suddenly lose their home ranges, and fertile land is written off the map for good.

Dams along North America’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines have altered the dynamics of salmon populations – fish can no longer reach their upstream spawning grounds because a mighty big wall is blocking their way. Serious concerns are held for the futures of these species; however it must be remembered that fishing pressures to feed an increasing global population go hand-in-hand with the dams’ effects.  

Fish ladders have become an overused carte blanche for environmental managers of dam projects to gain clemency from protesting locals. Unfortunately, the proof that these structures actually work is dubious.

 The devastating social, ecological and economic effects of dams are finally being realised in some places. In the United States, some dams are being removed and the previously-submerged ecosystems being restored to close to their natural state, reviving dying populations of native animal species and re-invigorating local human communities too.

In light of all this, it is utterly disheartening to hear that Brazil has just signed off on what will be the world’s third largest dam – Belo Monte, the “monster dam” – a hydro-power dam that will drown 120,000 acres of lush Amazon rainforest (some of it pristine) and human settlements, and could displace around 40,000 indigenous people. The dam will be built on the Xingu River upstream of a national park, which is just ridiculously blind decision-making.

Sunset on the Xingu River (Source: National Geographic)

The Amazon ecosystem is already on thin ice, and it is exactly these sort of infrastructure projects that will increase pressure on this unique jungle. A dam of this size, in this location, will create massive deforestation (already the main driver of ecological change in the Amazon), emit huge quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere and completely alter the hydrological cycle of the Xingu River. A map of the proposed dam shows that nearly the entire Xingu River will be diverted to create the dam. The original course of the river will then become a dead-zone of stagnant water, disease-incubation and declining animal populations.

This project, designed to meet Brazil’s “growing energy consumption”, was in planning for 30 years but has only just been approved this month, despite buckets of evidence that the energy consortium responsible for the project has not complied with numerous environmental or social conditions needed for approval.

Brazil’s Federal Public Prosecutor, Ubiratan Cazetta, emphasised the risks of granting approval to the project a couple of months ago, after this evidence came to light, and joined Brazilian and International scientists and legal experts warning the government to delay the project. Mr Cazetta said the environment and society of the region weren’t worth being sacrificed to satisfy the consortium’s timeline. Go Cazetta.

The dam has had a chequered history, with protests and repeated injunctions slowing the approval process over the years. It has attracted the attention of high-profiles, including Sting, Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron (Avatar was inspired by this and similar projects around the world), and indigenous groups, environmentalists and scientists have made it blindingly obvious they do not support the project.

Yet it goes ahead. Is it coincidence that the newly-elected Brazilian President used to be the Minister for Energy?

Brazil should talk to their Bolivian neighbours to learn a bit about respecting nature. So should Colombia, having approved El Quimbo Dam on the country’s largest river, the Magdalena. In a few years, more than 21,000 acres of some of Colombia’s most fertile land will be flooded, again displacing human communities and destroying ecosystems. The region to be flooded is already an established agricultural production area, producing cocoa, coffee, corn and other crops. (Yet we’re currently faced with global food production insecurity – go figure.)

It seems the world will not change, until the majority of positions of political authority are held by people who know that the Earth does not exist to be used and abused by us. Until that day, we are willing to sacrifice social and ecological well-being to keep our high-consumption lifestyle afloat.

© Manu Saunders 2011

2 thoughts on “Amazonian Avatar

  1. Cecile June 10, 2011 / 3:36 PM

    Hi Manu,

    I really like your blog, thanks for this article.

    Just like you, I can hardly believe Brazil just gave the green light to the 3rd largest dam in the world and to one that has been rejected time and time again in the last 30 years for socio-economic as well as environmental reasons.

    The last word hasn’t been said about this project yet. I believe that people worldwide will stand up for the Amazon and look at Brazil to resolve this issue – I am one of them.

    It’s the world’s greatest river system, we simply cannot afford to lose it.

    We can voice our concern in a letter to the Brazilian Embassy in Canberra. And Amazon Watch is fundraising to support the Indigenous nations that will be displaced should the dam be built, so they can respond to the decision by attending meetings with Government officials etc.

    This decision shows no respect for Brazil’s own people and is an unacceptable violation of human rights. It’s ecological consequences are also beyond comprehension. And what is surprising is that it’s all promoted under the banner of clean, green energy. By now it should be clear that big dams in healthy river systems simply do not qualify for this category.

    With hope,



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