Friday, July 12, 2024

6. The hydroelectric threat to the Amazon basin


For decades hydroelectric power was seen as the solution to Latin America’s energy needs. However, serious questions have arisen over its long-term viability. Ecologists warn of the potentially catastrophic impact of dams on the Amazon basin, the most complex network of river channels in the world.


Dams have also had hugely damaging impacts on indigenous and riverine communities. Moreover, major hydro projects have been plagued by massive corruption.


News related to this chapter

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A moratorium on fishing the piracatinga catfish in the Brazilian Amazon was extended for the third time since its introduction in 2014. There’s now no expiry date for the ban, although the ministries of environment and fishing have a period of three years to reevaluate it. The moratorium was instituted to protect the pink river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), known locally as the boto.

Brazil: Sumaúma – the year in images

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The Amazon: is this the Third World War?

What is happening in the Amazon is a war -- against the rainforest, its original inhabitants, and also against the rest of the world. Perhaps this is the Third World War, the war to end all wars?

The Amazon: Learning for a different future

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Belo Monte dam: conflict in the Amazon

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The Battle of Belo Monte

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As a response to the current investment in large hydroelectric dams as a foundation for Brazil's 'sustainable' economic growth, 'Costs' addresses the impacts...

The ashes of Belo Monte

The massive destruction of forest to make way for the Belo Monte dam and associated roads, reservoir and channels. Video: Repórter Brasil 2015 (in Portuguese)

The impact of the Belo Monte ‘Emergency Plan’

Drawn up without any proper consultation, or local participation, the so-called Emergency Plan was used by the developers to keep Indian people well away...

About the Authors

Marilene Ribeiro is an award-winning photographer and ecologist whose works investigate the relationship between human beings and nature concerning contemporary issues. She holds an MSc in Ecology and Wildlife Conservation and Management from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), and a PhD in photography from the University of Brighton (UK). Marilene’s works approach global issues seen through the lens of Brazil.

Sue Branford is a journalist who reported from Brazil for over a decade. A founding member of LAB’s editorial team, she has worked for the BBC, the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Economist. She has written five books on Latin America, mainly on Brazil. Her latest book, co-authored with Maurício Torres, is titled Amazon Besieged: by dams, soya, agribusiness and land grabbing (Practical Action Publishing and LAB 2018).


Leonardo Batista, aka Aronor (Ribeirinho Council): interviewed in Altamira, Pará, Brazil, on 14 October 2016 by Marilene Cardoso Ribeiro. Transcribed by Karina Ribeiro and translated by Paula Coppio, Edgar Refinetti, and Diego Satyro.

Maria Eliete Felix Juruna (Paquiçamba Indigenous Reserve): interviewed in Paquiçamba, Pará, Brazil, on 6 November 2016 by Marilene Cardoso Ribeiro. Transcribed by Karina Ribeiro and translated by Chris Whitehouse.

Antônia Melo (Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre): interviewed in Altamira, Pará, Brazil, in early September 2015 by Eliane Brum. Translated by Hugo Moss.

Maria Rosa Pessoa Piedade (ribeirinha at Palhau): interviewed in Altamira, Pará, Brazil, on 2 November 2016 by Marilene Cardoso Ribeiro. Transcribed by Karina Ribeiro and translated by Alistair Clark.


Aleixo, J. and Condé, N. (2015) Quem são os proprietários das hidrelétricas da Amazônia?, Instituto Mais Democracia, Rio de Janeiro.

Branford, S. (2016) ‘BNDES has long history of loans to gigantic construction companiesMongabay, 14 March

Branford, S. (2018) ‘Brazil announces end to Amazon mega-dam building policy’, Mongabay, 3 January

Brum, E. (2015) ‘O dia em que a casa foi expulsa de casa’, El País, 14 September

Fearnside, P.M. (2015) Hidrelétricas na Amazônia – impactos ambientais e sociais na tomada de decisões sobre grandes obras, 2 vols, Editora do INPA, Manaus.

Fearnside, P.M. (2017) ‘Brazil’s Belo Monte dam: lessons of an Amazonian resource struggle’, in McCoy (ed.), Die Erde Special Issue, ‘Resource Geographies: New Perspectives from South America’

FGV (2016) Indicadores de Belo Monte – um diálogo entre condicionantes do licencia-mento ambiental e o desenvolvimento local, Câmara Técnica de Monitoramento das Condicionantes da UHE Belo Monte (CT-05), Fundação Getúlio Vargas and Centro de Estudos em Sustentabilidade (FGV-EAESP), Rio de Janeiro.

Harari, I. (2018) ‘Ribeirinhos atingidos por Belo Monte exigem retomar seu território’, Amazônia, 14 February

Hurwitz, Z., Millikan, B., Monteiro, T. and Widmer, R. (2011) Mega projeto, mega riscos – análise de riscos para investidores no Complexo Hidrelétrico Belo Monte, Amigos da Terra – Amazônia Brasileira and International Rivers, São Paulo

Instituto de Enghenaria (2010), ‘Crítica ao Aproveitamento Hidrelétrico Belo Monte’, Opinião, Jornal do Instituto de Enghenaria, Brasil, No.59, July

ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) (2016) Belo Monte: um legado de violações

Latrubesse, E.M., Arima, E.Y., Dunne, T., Park, E., Baker, V.R., d’Horta, F.M., Wight, C., Wittmann, F., Zuanon, J., Baker, P.A., Ribas, C.C., Norgaard, R.B., Filizola, N., Ansar, A., Flyvbjerg, B. and Stevaux, J.C. (2017) ‘Damming the rivers of the Amazon basin’, Nature 546(7658), 363–9.

Little, P. E. (2014) Mega-Development Projects in Amazonia: A Geopolitical and Socioenvironmental Primer, Red Jurídica Amazónica (RAMA), Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR), and Articulación Regional Amazónica (ARA), Lima.

MediaLivre (2011) ‘Belo Monte derruba presidente do Ibama pela II vez’, YouTube video, 14 January

MPF (Ministério Público Federal) (2013) ‘Ação civil pública no. 0000655-78.2013.4.01.3903’, issued on 19 April 2013.

MPF (2014) Plano Emergencial UHE Belo Monte, video directed by Marco Paulo Fróes Schettino, MPF, Altamira /Pará

MPF (2015) ‘Ação civil pública no. 3017-82.2015.4.01.3903’, issued on 10 December 2015.

Pérez, M.S. (2015) ‘Where the Xingu bends and will soon break’, American Scientist, November/December, 395–403

Pontes, F. (2011) ‘Belo Monte de violências’. Piseagrama 2, 16–20

Ribeiro, M.C. (2018) ‘Dead water – a photography-based inquiry into the impact of dams in Brazil’, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham [PhD thesis], slideshow

Santos, S.M.S.B.M. and Hernández, F.M. (organizers) (2009) Painel de especialistas – Análise crítica do estudo de impacto ambiental do aproveitamento hidrelétrico de Belo Monte, 29 October, Fundação Viver, Produzir e Preservar (FVPP) de Altamira, ISA, International Rivers Network (IRN), WWF, FASE, Rede de Justiça Ambiental, Belém

Sevá Filho, A.O. (2005) Tenotã-Mõ – alertas sobre as consequências dos projetos hidrelétricos no rio Xingu, IRN, São Paulo.

Sullivan, Z. (2016) ‘Brazil’s dispossessed: Belo Monte dam ruinous for indigenous cultures’, Mongabay, 8 December

Further reading

Anderson, M. and Elkaim, A.V. (2018) ‘Belo Monte legacy: harm from Amazon dam didn’t end with construction (photo story)’, Mongabay

Assahira, C; Piedade, M. T. F; Trumbore, S. E; Wittmann, F; Cintra, B. B. L.; Batista, E. S.; Resende, A. F. and Schöngart (2017) ‘Tree mortality of a flood-adapted species in response of hydrographic changes caused by an Amazonian river dam.’ Forest Ecology and Management, 396, pp. 113–123.

Baird, V. (2011) ‘Peru’s dam busters’, New Internationalist

Barros, C. and Barcelos, I. (2017) ‘Battling a tide of sewage in Brazil: ‘For 17 days we lived with our feet under water’, The Guardian

BBC News (2017) ‘Amazon culture clash over Brazil’s dams’, BBC News

Benchimol, M. and Peres, C. A. (2015) ‘Widespread Forest Vertebrate Extinctions Induced by a Mega Hydroelectric Dam in Lowland Amazonia’, in PLoS ONE, 10 (7): e0129818

Branford, S. (2016) ‘Report from the Amazon: Altamira, a City Transformed by the Belo Monte Dam’, Amazon Watch

Branford, S. (2016) ‘BNDES funded Belo Monte dam — a mega-project with mega-problems’, Mongabay

Claret, A. (2013) Chegou o inv(f)erno. São Paulo, Outras Expressões (priest Antônio Claret’s essays on the local effects of the Belo Monte dam project (in Portuguese)

Friedman, U. (2014) ‘The Woman Who Breaks Mega-Dams’, The Atlantic

Fundação Getúlio Vargas (2015) ‘Indicadores de Belo Monte’,  (project monitoring to what extent Belo Monte has satisfied the conditions of its environmental licence, as well as effectiveness of related public policy, in Portuguese)

Fundación Proteger, International Rivers and ECOA (n.d.) ‘Dams in Amazonia’, (interactive website that provides data on dam projects within the Amazon region)

Hill, D. (2015) ‘Peru planning to dam Amazon’s main source and displace 1000s’, The Guardian

Hill, D. (2015) ‘Peru’s mega-dam projects threaten Amazon River source and ecosystem collapse’, Mongabay

International Rivers (2012) ‘Belo Monte: Massive dam project strikes at the heart of the Amazon’, International Rivers

Lees, A.C.; Peres, C. A.; Fearnside, P. M.; Schneider, M. and Zuanon, J. A. S. (2016) ‘Hydropower and the future of Amazonian biodiversity’, in Biodiversity Conservation, 25, pp. 451–466.

Moraes, M. and Pimentel, S. (2013) Amazônia Pública, São Paulo, Pública, 1st ed (in Portuguese)

Nilsson, C.; Reidy, C. A.; Dynesius, M. and Revenga, C. (2005) ‘Fragmentation and flow regulation of the world’s large river systems’, in: Science, 308, pp. 405–408

Poirier, C. (2017) ‘Xingu River Defender Antônia Melo Honored for Her Lifelong Struggle’, Amazon Watch

Poirier, C. (2017) ‘Victory for Indigenous Rights in Brazil as Court Revokes License for the Belo Sun Mine’, Amazon Watch

Pontes Jr, Felício. (n.d.) ‘Belo Monte de Violências’, (web blog by Felício Pontes Jr., a prosecutor for the State of Pará, in Portuguese)

Pskowski, M. (2016) ‘Dam opponents claim criminalization by Ecuadorian government’, Mongabay