Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

10 Jan 2014

Dispatches from Amazonia: 6. Brazil’s Dam Nation

Across the blue sphere of the southern hemisphere, nestled amongst the stars, the motto of 200 million proclaims "Ordem e Progresso". The hopes and dreams of an emerging economy, a GDP increase each year of 5%, almost immune to banking banalities, where former President Lula’s Bolsa Famillia has burgeoned the growing middle classes through education, medication and according to some, monetary sedation. Unlike Europe’s prevailing cynicism, Brazil is abuzz with industrial construction, roads extending to endless horizons, home spun money making business, each and all proving fruitful. But behind the financial façade, unrepentant consumption is posing consequences on social order, leading to civil unrest. The wealth divide is felt the most in unaddressed areas of the country, in particular Amerindian communities, whose world view is unaligned with that of government order and progress.

The Dam at Petit Saut
The clash of cultures is no better represented than at a hairpin bend in the river Xingu, one of the confluences of the great river Amazonas. Here, in the name of clean energy, the government is constructing the world’s third largest hydro-electric complex, which along with 200 other smaller projects makes the country the biggest producer of hydro-electricity globally. Comprising a huge dam at Belo Monte, a reservoir at Paquicamba, and a connecting canal, this megalithic construction will divert the waters of Xingu in order to collect 11,000 megawatts, enough to power 23 million homes. In Belem, at the marine mouth of the river, I met an engineer working on the project, who was almost buzzing with pride as he showed me the pictures of the site on his smartphone. The images were difficult to comprehend; walls of concrete, turbines the size of houses, and clear-cut spaces where forest once stood. Here was a Brazilian exalting on the strength of his country, its ingenuity and resourcefulness, a vision I could not share but certainly could envy.

In terms of natural order, this project is nothing short of a catastrophe. I had already seen the effects of flooding forest in Guiana, where I had flown over the Petit Saut reservoir, upon returning from a field mission by helicopter. An eerie but beautiful landscape of dead tree trunks reaching from newly arrived waters. My work in Amazonia has given me a new sense of perspective in the scale of the forest’s vitality, where I would collect over 300 invertebrates in 1m2 of leaf litter (and who knows how many microorganisms). At Belo Monte, 450km2 of land will be swept under the waters. Biologists working at the site are apparently to trap and relocate as many animals as possible, a scheme which seems both naïve and futile, but also ignorant of the functional relationship that an organism has with its habitat. In addition, the damming of the river will have an impact over an area much larger than the flooded forest. In an ecosystem where life process is shaped by the ebb and flow of the river, the rise in the wet season, the fall in the dry, to remove this seasonality is to herald an era of extinction.

Flooded Forest at Petit Saut, French Guiana
From a human perspective, saddest of all is the displacement of indigenous inhabitants of the forests, such as the Jurunda, numbering around 12,000 according to IBAMA, Brazil’s environment agency. Further up the river at Santarem, I spoke with an anthropologist who explained that for the Amerindians of Amazonia, where each living organism harbours a spirit, the loss of forest is a violation of the supernatural order. But the loss of territories kept by the population since the first humans spread down through America around 15,000 years ago, or since time immemorial depending on your perception of reality, is a grave crime, where vulgar discussions of monetary compensation and civilizing progress only act to rub salt in the wounds. Brazil, it seems, is a country painting its future with broad brush strokes, but which desperately needs to consider the finer details if the blazing optimism can be sheltered from coming defeat.