Construction of hydroelectric dam contributed to rise in cost of living and electricity for local population, and exacerbated problems in housing, water supply and sanitation, according to study supported by FAPESP (photo: Guillaume Leturcq)
Published on 05/12/2021
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – In a little more than 40 years, the city of Altamira in the southwest of Pará State in the Brazilian Amazon has been the site of two massive infrastructure projects. The first was construction of the Transamazon Highway in 1971-73. The second was construction of the Belo Monte dam and hydroelectric power plant in the Xingu River Basin, beginning in 2011.
The social and environmental impacts of these two projects are among the research interests of Emilio Moran, a professor affiliated with Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States and a visiting researcher at the University of Campinas’s Center for Environmental Studies (NEPAM-UNICAMP) in São Paulo State, Brazil. Moran believes that the disruptions caused by both projects in Altamira display several similarities.
“When I first went to Altamira in 1972 to do research on the Transamazon Highway, I witnessed a population explosion from 1,000 to 10,000 inhabitants in less than a year, with a jump in the cost of living and rapid social and spatial change in the city due to the speed at which construction was moving,” Moran said during a seminar held at FAPESP in São Paulo on August 27-28, 2019.
“On returning to the region in 2010 to do research on Belo Monte, I was surprised to find a similar situation: the population had again exploded, rising from 75,000 to 150,000 in two years, and many problems had been caused by the massive scale of the project. Forty years on, it seems that the lessons about how to manage large infrastructure projects hadn’t been learned.”
The results of research on the social and environmental impacts of Belo Monte were presented to the seminar attendees. One of the main findings was that despite an investment of BRL42 billion, the project had failed to drive the sustainable economic development of the region via job creation and improvements to sanitation, healthcare, education and other public services that had been promised before and during construction. To the contrary, the project contributed to a rise in the cost of living and electricity for the inhabitants, exacerbated existing problems due to the poor quality of housing, water supplies and sanitation, or a lack thereof, and led to a decrease in food production and fishing in the region.
Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, explained that SPEC program is designed to fund a stay of at least 12 weeks in any given year by an internationally recognized foreign researcher with an outstanding scientific record in his or her knowledge area to set up a research center at a university in São Paulo State and lead a research project supported by FAPESP.
“The goal is to create research opportunities that are of excellent quality and internationally competitive, and also to enable young researchers based in São Paulo to work with foreign scientists who are leaders in their areas,” Brito Cruz said.
It was with this mission that Moran divided his time between MSU and NEPAM-UNICAMP, leading a project designed to scientifically treat an issue that was highly politicized from the start, as he put it. The issue was the social and environmental impacts of the construction of the Belo Monte dam.
“We set out to collect all possible information from all the actors involved, such as the construction consortium, the government agencies responsible for implementation, and the local inhabitants, in order to apprehend the complexity of the process and document it rigorously without introducing analytical bias,” Moran said.
New spatial organization
For Moran, the only benefits the dam has brought the area are the paving of a long stretch of the Transamazon Highway (which had for decades been an impassable bog in the rainy season) and the commerce and creation of jobs on the building site during the construction. Many of these jobs were short-lived. Job openings peaked in the third year of construction, after which separations exceeded new hires until construction ended, Moran said.
Population growth due to the migration of 50,000 people to Altamira in 2011-15 to work on the construction site and in retail or other services resulted in a frenzy of property speculation in a city that already suffered from a chronic housing deficit. The growth also gave rise to new plattings, both planned and unplanned, and new outlying neighborhoods.
All of these changes led to a new spatial organization in Altamira. “The urban population was redistributed. Before the dam, it was concentrated in the city center. With the onset of construction, it spread out into other areas,” said Guillaume Leturcq, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and a participant in the research project.
The increase in population density also worsened the city’s basic sanitation deficit, the researchers noted. Before the Belo Monte dam, 86% of Altamira’s population used wells for drinking water, and more than 90% dumped domestic waste in septic tanks.
The rapid growth of a city without a sewerage system and the lack of immediate investment in sanitation led to a rise in the numbers of water wells and septic tanks, heightening the risk of water contamination.
“The dwellings are very close together, so when a new neighbor digs a well, you can’t be sure how far it is from your septic tank,” said Cristina Gauthier, a PhD researcher at MSU who studied sanitation issues during the project.
The higher water level in the Xingu River due to the dam aggravated the problem by narrowing the distance between the septic tank beds and the groundwater. “Contaminants leak faster from septic tanks into the water table,” Gauthier said.
The dam reservoir also displaced 22,000 people who lived along the Xingu and low-lying areas of Altamira. When these areas were flooded, the inhabitants were moved to five housing projects built by the consortium responsible for the construction of the hydropower complex on the outskirts of Altamira, more than 2 km from the city center.
Until then, the inhabitants had used stilt dwellings near creeks and marshes. Many members of these riverine fishing communities lived on islands in the Xingu and kept stilt dwellings in the city so as to be near health clinics and schools and to sell their catch.
“When they were resettled more than 2 km from the city center, these people lost contact with neighbors and families who had lived nearby in stilt dwellings and low-lying areas. They also lost their connection with the river,” Leturcq said.
“It was a migration process unlike any other in Brazil. Altamira has been more directly affected by the construction of a dam than any Brazilian town.”
The river and island dwellers who were forcibly resettled were the segment of the population most affected by the construction of the hydropower complex, according to the researchers.
The rights of the indigenous communities and fishermen were recognized, but people living downstream of the dam were ignored by impact assessment studies and when it came to paying compensation for damage caused by the construction of the complex, according to Vanessa Boanada Fuchs, a researcher affiliated with the University of St Gallen (HSG) in Switzerland and a participant in the project.
“The managers of the dam complex had never heard of river dwellers with homes in the city as a traditional population group and claimed they were merely fishermen,” Fuchs said.
“We argued that these people should be compensated for the two homes that were part of their lifestyle. They were forcibly displaced from the islands flooded by the dam and from their houses on stilts in the city. The managers refused to recognize this way of life. The compensation process was disrupted by the resulting controversy.”
The river dwellers are still trying to win recognition for their way of life, with the support of federal prosecutors, according to Fuchs.
Much less studied than indigenous communities who live on reservations, the river dwellers are descendants of migrants from the northeast, many of whom went to work in the Amazon during the rubber boom.
A large number of the river dwellers are relatives of indigenous groups such as the Juruna, but they consider themselves ribeirinhos and live in scattered communities along the rivers and outside protected areas, Fuchs explained.
“Although their origins are different and they live in different territories, they share some sociocultural and environmental practices in which the river plays a central role,” she said.
Because neither the government nor the construction consortium considered them a population with specific rights like indigenous groups have, many river dwellers were removed as if they were ordinary inhabitants of the city and were compensated in cash or offered a new home in a resettlement project far away from the river, according to Fuchs.
“The women in these communities fished with their menfolk, and moving the whole family away from any river caused a loss of household income,” she said.
Construction of Belo Monte caused economic losses for riverine communities living downstream of the dam on the Xingu but also for those living upstream, according to the researchers.
Laura Castro-Diaz, a PhD researcher at MSU, studied a riverine community in Vila Nova, downstream of the dam. There she was told of a decrease in the abundance and diversity of fish species, including the Piraíba catfish (Brachyplathystoma filamentosum) and the Peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris), both of which are important to the local economy.
“Construction of the dam reduced water flow and this resulted in a loss of fishing spots. It also increased the river dwellers’ expenditure, as they now have to travel to find fish,” Castro-Diaz said.
Agriculture has also been affected by Belo Monte, which has impaired the productivity of family farms in Altamira by luring away the labor force to work on the hydropower development.
In the period 2010-14, 34% of the region’s landowning agriculturists and 29% of its family farmers reported a decrease in the available labor supply due to rural exodus, as workers migrated to the city to look for a job with the Belo Monte consortium. Wage costs rose as a result.
In the same period, 60% of the region’s family farmers abandoned annual crops such as rice, beans and corn, while production of cocoa and beef cattle increased, according to data presented by Miqueias Calvi, a professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and also a participant in the project.
“The construction of Belo Monte was supposed to be a contribution to progress and economic growth in the region, to a large extent because of the promise that it would boost agriculture, among other activities, in order to meet growing demand from a growing population,” Calvi said.
Altamira now imports food from other parts of Brazil, including fruit from São Paulo in the Southeast, fish from Santa Catarina and rice from Rio Grande do Sul in the South.
“The positive economic impact of Belo Monte was temporary and transient. It failed to contribute to the creation of a basis for sustainable development. It was a lost opportunity,” Calvi said.