Analysis of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in the Amazon rainforest

 Tribal inhabitants of Xingu River

Photo from International Rivers 

Nature Conservancy a decade ago estimated the value of earth’s ecosystem services to be at least $33trillion a year. At the time of estimation it was close to gross world product. Something about that figure wasn’t quite clear and I always wondered how they managed to come up with the number.

A recent article on the controversial Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam to be built Xingu River in Amazon rainforest reminded of that estimate again. The plans to build this dam have repeatedly failed since 1970s; fierce pressure from environmental groups had been one of the reasons. Now, after four decades Brazilian government has given a green signal for this hydroelectric dam project.


Here is the government’s take on the project (excerpts from here):

According to Brazil’s environment minister Carlos Minc - The winning company would be forced to spend around $800m (£501m) offsetting the environmental damage caused by the project.

On television he confidently said

"There is not going to be an environmental disaster”. Environmentalists and indigenous leaders have strongly opposed the plans, which the government admits would see around 500 sq km of land flooded and activists believe would see thousands displaced.

"Not a single Indian will be displaced. They will be indirectly affected, but they will not have to leave indigenous lands,"


Reasons for Governments interest: The dam will eventually produce around 11,000 GW of electricity.


When does it start: The dam is expected to start production in 2015 will cost around R$20bn (£6.8bn)


Concerns of environmentalists and indigenous leaders:

"We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia," Megaron Tuxucumarrae, a leader of the Kayapo Indians said.


"We are opposed to dams on the Xingu and will fight to protect our river."


$800 million to offset the environmental damage on the company that will build this project? And how do we calculate it? How was this number arrived at? Do we understand the rainforest ecosystem (for that any ecosystem) well enough to put a price tag on the damage this dam project will cost? Biodiversity once lost is lost, there is no price tag one can put on that. How will we ever be able to pay back for the lost biodiversity? Any attempt to put a price tag on natural resources and biodiversity to me seems to be an act in haste.


Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam is just one of the projects in Brazil. There are 229 new hydroelectric projects planned by government in the near future.


The government’s interest in these projects is to generate electricity and drive economic growth. The intent sure seems to be good. This may also mean GOOD for the INDIAN community in Brazil with infrastructure development bringing its usual benefits. In this high decibel “development” talk the question “Is what they really want?” seems to be getting lost! The natives responded aggressively when the government lifted the embargo on the Belo Monte licensing process. Do they really want development, the way we understand it? The emotions and the sentiments of the community is well articulated by one of the Shamans in this article from the Guardian ….

"They ruin the Indian's water. They ruin the Indian's land.""We don't want to negotiate," added Komuru. "We don't want money. We don't want things that are worth nothing. We want our land."

While looking for tools to asses the feisibility of Hydro Projects i came across this HydroCalculator. With the tool, one can perform a basic analysis of the economic feasibility of hydro projects as well as calculating some simple environmental and social indicators that can be compared to those of other dams. I am yet to try this tool!!!

Post By: praveena