'The Last Bit of Paradise': Giant Dam Threatens Brazilian Rainforest

By Jonathan Stock in Altamira, Brazil

Photo Gallery: Environmental Sins in the Amazon Photos
DPA

The construction of a giant dam in the Amazon region of Brazil is threatening parts of the world's largest rainforest. But the indigenous tribes living here are keeping quiet in return for millions of dollars in promises.

They search for dead meat, and rummage through the trash. They come from the forest and live on the city's waste. They're called "urubus" in northern Brazil, black vultures with curved beaks and lizard-like heads.

The old people say the birds bring bad luck. There are now thousands in the city of Altamira, more than ever before. They blacken the sky when seen from a distance, and at closer range their silence is unsettling. Black vultures, lacking the vocal organ found in birds, the syrinx, rarely make any noise at all.

"The urubus," says Bishop Erwin Kräutler, "are an unmistakable sign that the city is in chaos." Kräutler, a native Austrian, is the bishop of one of the world's large prelatures, which is larger than Germany. He talks about chaos, speaking into every camera that's pointed at him, and he speaks loudly -- too loudly for the big landowners, the corporations and the government. His enemies have placed a bounty on the bishop's head for the equivalent of almost €400,000 ($543,000), and even the largest newspaper in northern Brazil wrote that it was time to "eliminate" him.

Bishop Kräutler is now 73. He's been living in Altamira, on the edge of the rainforest and in the middle of the Amazon region, for almost 50 years. For the last 30 years, he has been fighting the construction of the dam directly adjacent to the city, a project that is financially lucrative for many in the area.

He and his friends from environmental organizations advise the victims, file lawsuits against government agencies and plan rallies. He has spoken with prosecutors and the country's supreme court, has met with the president twice and was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize, but all to little avail.

'Beautiful Mountain'

Altamira's population is expected to reach 300,000 soon, up from only 100,000 not too long ago. The developers call the dam Belo Monte, or "beautiful mountain," while the dam's opponents call it Belo Monte de Merde, or "beautiful mountain of shit." The dam attracts workers, causing the city and its garbage dumps to grow, which in turn attracts black vultures from the jungle.

Kräutler's fight is a struggle against the biggest construction site in the largest rainforest on earth. The first of 24 turbines is expected to be up and running in 2015. Starting in 2019, the dam will have as much generating capacity as 11 nuclear power plants. To achieve this, 18,000 workers are moving as much earth as was moved to build the Panama Canal. They are creating a reservoir larger than Lake Constance to build the world's third-largest dam, which is also expected to become a symbol of Brazil's motto "Ordem e Progresso," or "Order and Progress."

"When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation," Kräutler says, quoting Matthew, Chapter 24, Verse 15. He says that the reservoir will be a dead, putrid lake, and that the dam will spell the end of the river that feeds into it, the Rio Xingu, the largest tributary of the Amazon, which flows directly past the bishop's see. According to Kräutler, there will be a rise in dengue fever, the river upstream from the dam will flood the city, and the government will have to resettle at least 40,000 people, especially the poorest of the poor, who tend to live near the water.

Meanwhile, the indigenous people living downstream from the dam will be left high and dry, forced to leave their land when they can no longer catch fish. Kräutler calls it "the last bit of paradise."

'Avatar' in Brazil

He is convinced that the government, contrary to its promises, will build more dams along the river to produce the electricity it needs for industry and for economic growth in the entire country. Brazil's power consumption is expected to increase by more than half by 2020, at which point Belo Monte will cover one-tenth of the energy needs for a country almost as large as Europe. Given the dam's estimated construction cost of almost €11 billion, say proponents, how significant is a single bend of the river, and how significant are a few hundred local tribes people?

The dam is Brazil's most controversial project. Everyone in the country has an opinion about Belo Monte, especially after it was criticized by a few actors in the serial TV dramas known as telenovelas that are so popular among Brazilians. On the surface, it appears to be a relatively straightforward situation. On the one side of the controversy are the Norte Energia construction consortium, corrupt government officials and the Energy Ministry, and on the other side are the indigenous people, the rainforest and hundreds of thousands of turtles. It's an age-old conflict, pitting good against evil, like the one depicted in director James Cameron's film "Avatar," in which native people shoot arrows at the bulldozers of big corporations.

When Cameron came to the Amazon region in the spring of 2010, because he believed that the story depicted in his film had suddenly become a reality, he arrived on a propeller plane and was taken up the bend in the river in a motor boot. He spoke to a group representing several indigenous tribes. The Cacique Giliard Juruna, a headman of sorts, was also there. He had seen Cameron on television and was proud of the fact that the director had come to the region.

Cameron said: "You already have the greatest wealth in the world." He pointed to the river and said: "You have fish." He pointed to the forest and said: "You have the forest." It was his way of explaining their world to the locals. He also said: "You have the kind of wealth that my world doesn't understand." Then he returned to the city and donated half a million dollars.

It was the same message that his film had conveyed: The local people are saints, but to survive they need a white man, like ex-Marine Jake Sully in "Avatar." One wonders how much that visit actually changed Cameron and what he meant by the wealth that our world doesn't understand. Cameron seems a little like the musician Sting, who once sang at a benefit concert for the indigenous people of the Amazon, but who also flew to New York on the Concorde once and raved about how great it felt to be flying at twice the speed of sound.

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