Belo Monte: a big pile of… problems!

Feature story - April 20, 2010
A big pile of manure, specially ordered by Greenpeace to the Brazilian Government, is the best representation of what this infrastructure project means to Brazil

Three tons of manure in front of the main entrance of the Brazilian Agency for Electric Energy (ANEEL) building.

It was right before dawn in Brasília, the federal capital of Brazil, when Greenpeace activists throw out three tons of manure in front of the main entrance of the Brazilian Agency for Electric Energy (ANEEL) building, where the government intends to auction the concession for building the Belo Monte hydro power plant, in Pará, in the Amazon. Over the top of the manure pile, the activists placed two signs stating: "Big pile of… problems" and other, more explicit: "Big pile of shit". [Belo Monte means a beautiful hill, in english].

It is true that the protest took a scatological path, but this was the only way to show, in one image, the cursed legacy that Lula Government will leave behind if it kept insisting in this adventure. If built, Belo Monte will be an economic mistake, a social and environmental crime, not to mention a stain on Brazil's history. The project echoes an obsolete development model, which the country doesn't need and should not invest on, specially when it's perfectly possible to generate the same amount of energy with much less impact.

"Belo Monte is the example of Brazil small-minded, it replicates an old model of energy that benefits few at the cost of a huge social and environmental destruction", says Sergio Leitão, Greenpeace Brazil Campaign Director. "To support Belo Monte is like looking to the country's development through a car's rearview mirror. Brazil of the present and of the future may follow a road that allies energy security, economic growth and respect to the environment and the people".

The initial costs foreseen by the government to build Belo Monte - R$ 7 billion (approximately USD 4 billion) - would be suffice to build a wind park of approximately 12,000 MW. The original estimate cost was reviewed already - now it is around R$ 19 billion (around USD 10,85 billion)! This means that the project will take an enormous amount of public money to meet a few national and international private interests. Rather than funding 80% of this project, the Brazilian Economical and Social Development Bank (BNDES) could invest Brazilian resources much more wisely.

Another argument to justify the construction of the dam is the cost of energy generation, of R$ 83/MWh (approximately USD 47). But this cost estimate does not include the social and environmental impacts of the project. To insist on these arguments is to ignore the life of those who depend on the Xingu river to live and to ignore the value of the standing forest for keeping the climate balance of the Earth. It is so obvious, but it is worth repeating for those still in power: price does not mean everything.

The costs of wind power generation is of R$ 150/MWh (approximately USD 88), and of biomass cogeneration plants is of R$160/MWh (approximately USD 94). "Today, wind and biomass energies are economic viable options to Brazil and have significantly less social and environmental impacts than Belo Monte", explains Ricardo Baitelo, Greenpeace Brazil energy campaigner. "The difference of those tariffs to the R$ 83/MWh (approximately USD 48) planned to Belo Monte obviously isn't worth the social and environmental losses of the endeavor." Renewable energies are also far ahead nuclear and oil fired thermal plants, that cost R$ 240/MWh (approximately USD 140) and R$ 550/MWh (approximately USD 320) each.

Attack right on the heart of the forest

On top of Lula's general blindness to more friendly-energy generation, Belo Monte would be built in one of the most beautiful regions of the Brazilian Amazon, a high biodiversity spot in the south of Pará.

To date the site has a good preservation rate. It's almost an untouched island among so many devastated areas. But the history of the Amazon occupation shows that, together with a government mega infrastructure project follows a wave of destruction, which sweeps away forests and traditional people such as the indians that the depend on the Xingu river for their livelihood.

Even though the project's initial size has been reduced, its impact is unacceptable. Fifty thousand hectares of forests will be destroyed, turning it to probably the biggest deforestation rate of the year. Also, what no one in the government wants to say is that deforestation does not limit itself by the area of the plant. It grows much further driven by a promise development that rarely comes true.

As if none of these constituted damage enough, to protect the forest is vital to stop climate change - a commitment assumed by Lula and his former Chief-of-Staff Dilma Rousseff (and current Presidential candidate) at Copenhagen Climate Summit. To insist in Belo Monte is a mistake. In all aspects.