For scientists gathered at this FAPESP-hosted webinar, projects like the Belo Monte dam and the Transamazon highway have had few local benefits and led to a rise in poverty, violence, deforestation and disease (image: webinar screenshot/FAPESP)
Published on 10/11/2021
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – In Brazil, central government has always planned development of the Amazon region around large infrastructure projects that have had very few local benefits. Instead, construction of giant hydroelectric dams and roadbuilding have led to significant social and environmental changes, including a rise in poverty, violence, and outbreaks of disease.
These were the conclusions of the experts who took part in the third event in the series “Health and Environment in the Amazon in the Context of COVID-19”, hosted by FAPESP in August.
The series of webinars was proposed by researchers involved in the project “After hydropower dams: social and environmental processes occurring since the construction of Belo Monte, Jirau and Santo Antônio in the Brazilian Amazon”, supported by FAPESP under the auspices of the São Paulo Excellence Chair program (SPEC).
“Much more than construction of a hydroelectric power station, the Belo Monte project in the area of Altamira, Pará state, resulted in massive conversion of communities who had lived integrated with the forest into a group now living in poverty. When COVID-19 arrived, these people were exposed to the virus in the rows of box-like and unhealthy homes to which they had been moved in the so-called Collective Urban Resettlements [RUCs]. They had to buy food and other stuff in order to survive. This, in turn, forced them to circulate in the city,” said Eliane Brum, a journalist who witnessed these changes while living in Altamira.
Over a decade after the construction of Belo Monte began, the first generation deforested by the project came of age, Brum continued. The forest community was converted into a group of impoverished individuals.
“Belo Monte intensified deforestation in areas where it was already happening and extended it into new areas,” she said. “It augmented existing land conflicts and led to more land conflicts. It intensified encroachment of protected areas and created new land invasions. Last but not least, among its great ongoing crimes, it’s drying up an entire ecosystem, the Big Bend section of the Xingu River [Volta Grande].”
As an investigative journalist who focuses on the Amazon, she has learned that the city of Altamira is a sort of vanguard. “First because it’s on the Transamazon highway, a symbol of forest destruction by the civilian-military dictatorship [1964-85]. And second, because since the return to democracy it’s become the site of Belo Monte, a symbol of forest destruction by the administration led by President Dilma Rousseff, who was herself tortured by the dictatorship,” Brum said.
The city’s disfiguration has made it a sort of laboratory for what happens to forest communities when life is destroyed in a short space of time, she added. “Furthermore, the climate collapse is robbing us of the possibility of an indeterminate future, like a field of opportunities. The future is now largely determined by the climate collapse and by the sixth mass extinction of species, both caused by human activities,” she said.
In this context, the high suicide rate among young people from the former forest community, albeit alarming, is no surprise, according to Brum, who cited several suicides of adolescents in Altamira before the pandemic came to the region, known as the Middle Xingu.
Between January and April 2020, she said, 15 people committed suicide in the city. Nine were aged 11-19. The population of Altamira is estimated at 115,000. The annual suicide rate there is almost three times the national average.
“In the first four months of 2020, the number of suicides in Altamira had already equaled the 12-month total in 2019. Although it may be imprecise to compare a city with a country, the comparison suggests the enormity of what’s happening in Altamira. Mental health workers who have analyzed the situation are unanimous in relating the suicides to the city’s disfiguration by Belo Monte,” Brum said.
It was in this context that COVID-19 came to the region in which the Belo Monte hydropower project was built. According to Osvaldo Damasceno, a professor at the Medical School of the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) in Altamira, one of the main problems for health workers posed by the construction of large dams in the region is the difficulty of estimating population fluctuation and its impacts while projects are in progress.
“Besides this problem and the lag in delivering healthcare structures before the peak of a project, funding is another major issue,” he said. “In some cases, hospitals and other health services are delivered to cities only after construction is completed. Worse still, there’s no oversight by the Health Ministry and no increase in limits to transfers of funds to local authorities, so funding for health services often falls short. Local and state authorities are simply unable to operate health services on the scale required by the growth of the population, whose needs increase proportionately.”
According to Damasceno, Norte Energia, the company responsible for building and operating Belo Monte, promised to deliver ten intensive care beds and to distribute rapid serological tests. “Delivery of the intensive care beds was promised for August 2020, but the pandemic peaked in the region in June.”
Cristóvão Barcellos, a researcher at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), an arm of the Brazilian Ministry of Health, noted historical precedents for the type of development embodied by large dams. Similar problems resulted from the construction of Santo Antônio and Jirau, large hydropower projects near Porto Velho, state capital of Rondônia, also in the North region.
“According to the research we did while the dams were being built, transmission of leishmaniasis increased significantly, even in areas not very close to the dams, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS rose sharply throughout the municipality,” Barcellos said. “The construction companies don’t accept any responsibility. They say hydro projects don’t cause AIDS. The pace of deforestation also accelerated.”
After projects are completed, employment dwindles and urbanization expands at hectic speed. “People find themselves out of a job and have to migrate to a big city. The result is devastation of the area by gold diggers and loggers,” he said.
Besides large infrastructure projects, huge problems are also caused by logging and mining companies interested only in making a quick profit. “They don’t retain wealth, create technology or train workers. They incentivize mobility of people and capital, not real development,” Barcellos said.
“Many projects in the Amazon claim to be taking development to the region. That’s arrogant because it assumes only the Southeast region has solutions for the Amazon. Another famous phrase, ‘Integrar para não entregar’, was coined by the military dictatorship in an attempt to persuade people that sovereignty can be protected by deforestation.” The slogan can be rendered as “Use it or Lose it” (literally “Integrate or Forfeit”).
Examples of the impact of this thinking include the developmentalist surge of the 1980s and 1990s, he continued, when there was a gold rush and open-pit gold mines cropped up all over the region but most of all in southeastern and southwestern Pará, Amapá, Yanomami Indigenous areas and Porto Velho, spreading mercury contamination, and environmental and social degradation.
“In that sort of Wild West, full of degraded areas and without any participation by the state, gold production grew explosively, reaching 30 kg per year,” Barcellos said. “But it couldn’t last, and not long afterward, as production declined, the number of malaria cases rose. That’s the kind of project implemented in the Amazon, with no state participation but with plenty of banditry and small entrepreneurial groups, many armed, occupying Indigenous land. It’s no accident that the tension between gold diggers and the Yanomami has persisted for such a long time.”
The series of webinars on “Health and Environment in the Amazônia in the Context of COVID-19” is an initiative of several Brazilian higher education and research institutions – the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), the University of São Paulo (USP), UFPA, the National Space Research Institute (INPE), the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR), and the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) – in collaboration with Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States.
A recording of the first webinar can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kd13uoLoUCY. The second webinar is at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKqXys_V3RY. The third event in the series is at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTRai1C8Go4&t=161s&ab_channel=Ag%C3%AAnciaFAPESP. And the fourth is at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXgd2C06M2k&t=3234s&ab_channel=Ag%C3%AAnciaFAPESP.