Hundreds Occupy Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam Construction Site

ALTAMIRA, Brazil, June 17, 2012 (ENS) – As Brazil hosts the Rio+20 UN summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, in the Amazon region 2,000 miles to the north 300 women and children affected by construction of the giant Belo Monte Dam Friday began a symbolic occupation of the dam site to “free the Xingu River.”

Indigenous peoples, farmers, fisherfolk, activists and local residents marched onto a temporary earthen dam recently built to block the flow of the Xingu River. With pick axes and shovels they opened a channel in the earthen dam to restore the river’s natural flow.

Demonstrators open a channel in an earthen dam across the Xingu River that paves the way for the Belo Monte Dam, June 15, 2012 (Photo by Atossa Soltani/ Amazon Watch / Spectral Q)

Demanding the cancellation of the $18 billion Belo Monte Dam project, demonstrators positioned their bodies to spell out the words “Pare Belo Monte” meaning “Stop Belo Monte.”

They aim to send a message to the world before 134 world leaders gather in Rio June 20 to 22 to make commitments to ensure development that protects the planet for future generations while serving the needs of today’s nearly seven billion people.

A delegation of international observers and human rights advocates, including Brazilian actor Sergio Marone of the Drop of Water Movement, came to witness and raise awareness of the protest.

Demonstrators erected 200 crosses on the banks of the Xingu to honor the lives of those lost defending the Amazon. They planted 500 native acai trees to stabilize the riverbank that has been destroyed by the initial construction of the Belo Monte Dam.

Also Friday morning, hundreds of Altamira residents marched to the headquarters of dam-building consortium Norte Energia, NESA.

The actions are part of Xingu+23, a multi-day series of festivities, debates and actions to mark 23 years since the residents of the Xingu first defeated the original Belo Monte Dam proposal.

Residents have been gathering in the community of Santo Antonio, a hamlet displaced by the consortium’s base of operations and in Altamira, a boomtown of 130,000 affected by the dam, which if completed would be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project.

Amazon residents position themselves to spell out “Pare Belo Monte” as a message to the Brazilian government to stop construction of the $18 billion dam. (Photo by Atossa Soltani/ Amazon Watch / Spectral Q)

Antonia Melo, coordinator of Xingu Vivo Movement said, “This battle is far from being over. This is our cry: we want this river to stay alive. This dam will not be built. We, the people who live along the banks of the Xingu, who subsist from the river, who drink from the river, and who are already suffering from of the most irresponsible projects in the history of Brazil are demanding: Stop Belo Monte.”

Sheyla Juruna, a leader from the Juruna indigenous community affected by the dam said, “The time is now! The Brazilian government is killing the Xingu River and destroying the lives of indigenous peoples. We need to send a message that we have not been silenced and that this is our territory. We vow to take action in our own way to stop the Belo Monte Dam. We will defend our river until the end!”

The Belo Monte Dam is one of about 70 large dams planned for the Amazon Basin.

The demonstrators at Belo Monte are pointing to the gap between reality and the Brazilian government’s rhetoric about Amazon dams as a source of “clean energy” for a “green economy.”

In Rio, Brazilian government officials are highlighting Brazil’s use of hydropower as a clean, sustainable source of electricity. Last year, Brazil generated 44 percent of its electricity using sources such as hydropower, wind, ethanol and biomass in its energy matrix, while the world average is 13.3 percent.

Maurício Tolmasquim addresses a public hearing of the Senate subcommittee that monitors work on the Belo Monte dam, May 23, 2012 (Photo by Peter France courtesy Brazilian Senate Agency)

“The share of hydroelectricity is one of the highlights of the Brazilian energy matrix,” attendees heard from Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of the Empresa de Pesquisa Energetica, the public agency responsible for research that supports energy sector planning.

“The country has the third largest hydroelectric potential in the world, behind China and Russia, and so far only used one third of this potential,” Tomasquim said Thursday. “Of course we have a challenge because much of what remains to be explored is in the Amazon region, which has a wealth of biodiversity that must be preserved. But is not incompatible in order to preserve the Amazon and the construction of dams.”

The protesters warn that more than biodiversity is at risk and Brazil’s dam-building plans will have “devastating and irreversible consequences for one of the world’s most precious biomes and its peoples.”

The Belo Monte dam would divert 80 percent of the Xingu River’s flow through artificial canals, flooding over 600 square kilometers (232 square miles) of rainforest while drying out a 100-kilometer (60-mile) stretch of the river known as the Big Bend, which is home to hundreds of indigenous and riverine families.

Protesters say that although it has been “sold to the public as clean energy,” the Belo Monte dam would generate an enormous amount of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than the most abundant greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

The initial filling of a reservoir floods the existing forest, leading to the death and decomposition of the carbon-rich plants and trees. The rotting organic matter releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The decaying plant matter then settles to the bottom of the reservoir, and its decomposition releases dissolved methane.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.