The Belo Monte dams will flood 516 km² in rural and urban areas, significantly less than the 1,200 km² predicted in previous versions of the hydroelectric plant that elicited a strong reaction from indigenous peoples and much international pressure in the 1980s. Jump with Folha into this contentious past that almost prevented the enterprise from seeing the light of day

Mark on the wall shows the level of the reservoir that will permanently flood the river bed in Altamira’s urban areaImage by Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress

Chapter 5 - History

A-four-decade struggle

The idea for Belo Monte dam began to be hatched in 1972 with this bit of everyday dialogue between a barge operator on the Xingu and John Dennis Cadman, a young Canadian engineer:

“What is the [river] level here?”

“I don’t know, man, but there’s a tide here”.

Cadman first visited Altamira, when he was 32, after attending a geology conference in Pará state. He decided to drive along the recently-inaugurated Transamazônica highway on the outskirts of the city to resolve, once and for all, a question that had intrigued him since this student from Princeton University in the USA came to Brazil to take part in a voluntary program: Why does the Xingu River curve 140 km to the east before resuming a northerly direction and emptying into the Amazon River?

“When I first saw the river it was 4 km wide. That’s a lot of river”, says the retired engineer, still with a heavy accent. He holds an atlas he bought in 1961 when he was studying the Big Bend of the Xingu.

A lot of river for one engineer means a promising energy generation potential. But he would need to verify another variable. Was there (at the Big Bend) some pronounced unevenness in the level of the river? This is essential information for anyone intending to build a hydroelectric plant there because the drop in a river’s level is decisive for power generation.

Ups and downs

Upon landing in Altamira, Cadman had asked the pilot what the level of the airport was, or rather, its altitude in relation to the sea level. “I think it’s 100 [meters above sea level]”, he answered. When flooding is at its peak, the river is only 5 m below the level of the airport, an estimate Cadman made as he hiked down a ravine that separated the landing strip from the water.

His plan was to, beginning at Altamira, drive 50 km down the Transamazônica to a village called Belo Monte do Pontal, just downriver from the Big Bend. The barge operator who was waiting for the group was a bit surprised by the engineer’s question about the level of the water. His answer about the river’s tide was the first one that popped into his head. But for Cadman, the barge operator’s intuition confirmed that he was on the right track.

“I estimated that [the village] should be close to level 5. It was the first time that I realized that there was a 90 m drop [in the level of the river] along the Big Bend”, recounts the man who became known as the “father” of Belo Monte. In the four decades since that dialogue, a succession of unforeseen occurrences and lobbying by the construction and electric sectors made Belo Monte a reality, despite strong opposition from Indians, environmentalists, and even energy experts.

The studies of the energy generation potential of the Xingu officially began in 1975 and lasted nearly five years. To map the topography, it was necessary to cut some clearings in the forest and take aerial photos. After this was done, the study of hydroelectric potential faced two problems, one technical and the other political.

Cadman, already an employee of the Brazilian government’s Eletronorte, became responsible for overseeing a contract with CNEC (National Consortium of Engineers and Consultants), the company in charge of the studies. The first two solutions the company presented, recalls Cadman, were terrible, technically speaking: they excessively inundated the forest and they increased costs by building the dam on unsuitable terrain lacking the needed stability.

“Upon hearing the first site chosen, Koatinemo, I got off the boat with a [geologist’s] hammer in my hand and everyone said ‘You don’t need it, this rock crumbles in your hand.’ And I thought: Oh my God.”

The engineer found the second obstacle a bit easier to maneuver around: inundating some of the land where Indians lived. But the country had changed a lot in those five years.

Flight over rock outcrops in the Big Bend of the Xingu River, where the outflow will be reduced during most of the year when Belo Monte starts to produce electricity, in 2015Image by Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress

The novelty of ecology

Belo Monte became the biggest symbol of a movement that arose and grew as a more democratic political system began to accept environmentalism, or “ecology”, as it was called at the time in Brazil. The federal government knew it would pay political costs if it built Amazon dams, like those designed during the dictatorship –among them Tucuruí and Balbina– that caused serious social and environmental impacts.

“In the 1980s, this matter, called the environment, arose. Before then, it never came up. It emerged with Conama [resolution] 001 of 1986”, says José Antônio Muniz Lopes, now the Eletrobras (federal holding company) director of energy transmission, and who, at the time, was an engineer working on transmission lines.

If Cadman is the father of Belo Monte, Muniz can be called its godfather. The engineer from northeastern Maranhão state has been at the forefront of the struggle to build this dam since 1986 and gets worked up when he speaks of its importance to the country. “I was already saying, at that time, that Brazil had only one alternative, Belo Monte or nuclear energy. Now both have to be developed”.

Muniz, Cadman and the Uruguayan Dario Gomes, then the chief engineer at Eletronorte, came up with a more viable solution only in 1988. The Kararaô dam would be built a bit upriver from where the Bacajá River empties into the Xingu for various reasons: to try to preserve that river of the Xikrin tribe, to avoid flooding the lands of the Paquiçamba and Juruna indigenous peoples, and to reduce the dam’s impact on the Big Bend. The flooding would create a 1,200-km² reservoir (the current project has a 516-km² reservoir).

That did little good. At this point, the image being spread was that of a war waged by a powerful state against a group of defenseless Indians, a David vs. Goliath battle that attracted attention and sympathy (for the Indians) from many corners of the globe. Brazilian politicians who still identified with the left remained against the dam, including the leader of the PT (Worker’s Party) at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. England’s Sting, one of the most popular rock stars of the time, became an ally of the Kayapó tribe.

In 1989, the first year direct Brazilian presidential elections were held since the military dictatorship seized power (1964), the Catholic church and various non-governmental organizations held the first Encounter of the Forest Peoples in Altamira. The government chose Muniz to defend the Kararaô dam.

The engineer says that he had never seen so many Indians, or so many journalists, in one place. His speech was the most awaited one. With José Porfírio de Carvalho, one of the country’s best-known experts on Indians, as a mentor, Muniz says that he was calm. He was advised in advance that the Indians would do everything possible to humiliate him, even threaten him physically. But he received the guarantee that he would not be hurt.

With this assurance, he stayed calm during the booing and verbal insults hurled at him during his speech. Muniz announced that the dam would no longer have the indigenous name of Kararaô, out of respect for the Indians. The situation took a turn for the worse when Tuíra, an Indian woman drew a machete, began to shout, and laid the blade of the weapon against his face. The image of a big knife pressed against the cheek of the engineer flashed around the world (Muniz has kept the cover of the “Manchete” magazine showing the photo). At the end of the meeting, he asked if all had gone well. An anthropologist, younger than him began to cry, the Eletrobras director recalls.

That photo turned into an epitaph for Kararaô. But Cadman, the Canadian, says that studies for that dam also stopped for another reason. The third solution for the dam project still seemed unviable. An expensive concrete structure would have to be built to divert the flow of the Xingu River and then remain functionless. Besides this, at the end of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, during which the Brazilian economy stagnated, money had run out to continue studies to find a new, cheaper, and more environmentally-acceptable solution.

Once again, luck entered the picture. Cadman was shifted to the environmental department of Eletronorte and in 1992, was asked to defend the dam at an environmental seminar at the Glória Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. With the objective of trying to end resistance to the project, Cadman came with a package of slides, recently-prepared by Eletronorte designers.

One of the designs illustrated an unprecedented dam structure. It referred to the first Big Bend project, the so-called Koatinemo solution in which a canal close to Altamira would divert water to the dam. This design had been put aside because of its location in a region of fragile rocks. In the slide, an inaccurate design put the canal somewhere else. “The guy [designer] invented a new canal”, says the engineer.

Cadman returned to Brasília and took a look at maps to check the possibility of excavating a canal at another site without flooding Indian lands. An area of stable rocks had been identified in the studies and the Canadian engineer realized that a fourth solution was possible. Kararaô began to take on features that would give it a new identity and a new name, Belo Monte.

1989 TV footage of the Kayapó Tuíra protesting against the engineer José Antônio Muniz Lopes, then in the employ of Eletronorte. She was complaining about the decision to build a series of dams in the Xingu River, later put aside by the Brazilian government. The picture of a machete on the face of the engineer (who suffered no injury) was published all over the worldImages: TV Cultura

Strategic retreat

After spending several months doing calculations, Cadman was summoned by Muniz: An alternative, which put the canal in another location had been seen as the only one capable of removing the project’s obstacles. “We’re putting all of our eggs in this basket. We have no Plan B”, Cadman remembers hearing Muniz say.

Studies were contracted in the 1990s to perfect the new concept. But the country was going through another economic belt-tightening. Belo Monte, with its complicated history and high price, seemed anything but a priority.

In 2001, with the major electricity blackout that marked the end of the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, another turn-around put the project back on track. It had become crucial to resume construction of hydroelectric plants. With the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency in 2002, the energy sector began to be headed by technicians who defended hydroelectric power, among them the current President, Dilma Rousseff, then the Minister of Mines and Energy. The money for infrastructure began to return, but the government couldn’t reduce the social-environmental resistance to Belo Monte –after all, Lula had played an important part in it.

According to Cadman, a meeting in early 2006 marked a victory for the barrageiros (dam enthusiasts). At a meeting room at the Presidential Palace, electric sector representatives gathered on one side of a table, with Dilma seated next to the President’s chair. Environmental sector representatives, led by then-Environment Minister Marina Silva, sat on the other side of the table. Those defending the dam won the day by a landslide.

Muniz, of machete fame, had already climbed to top level of Eletrobras. Indian resistance regained strength. As he tried to explain the advantages of the new project, Paulo Resende, another Eletronorte engineer, experienced a replay of the episode of the previous decade and, on May 20, 2008, ended up being cut by the blow of a big knife during a public hearing to debate Belo Monte.

In this same year, the National Energy Policy Council authorized the construction of a dam, under one condition, that it be the only one on the Xingu River. A strategic retreat from the initial objectives of the war.

The first projects, conceived in the 1980s, envisioned five dams upriver from Kararaô/Belo Monte. This would guarantee that better advantage would be taken of the river’s energy potential. Babaquara, a dam a bit upriver from Altamira, would play a special role by permitting the accumulation of more water.

Flávio Miguez, the deacon of engineers sitting on the influential Brazilian Dam Committee, affirms that Belo Monte always had an Achilles’ heal: its low energy-generating capacity. That is, the fact that, each year, it would only be able to generate less than half of the energy that its turbines were theoretically capable of producing, were there enough water.

The situation only got worse with the project involving canals, given that the reservoir would only have one-fourth of the accumulated water envisioned in the first projects and that no other upriver reservoirs would exist to release water to regulate its flow. “The Xingu reservoirs were eliminated, and Belo Monte’s was reduced in size. We lost the benefit of earning over R$3 billion [$1.3 billion] per year, on the average”, he said.

Not even opposition from celebrities like film director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver of “Avatar” fame was sufficient to reverse Lula’s decision. The auction to sell the Belo Monte concession took place in 2010.

Two of Brazil’s biggest construction companies, Andrade Gutierrez and Odebrecht, led one group of developers each bidding for the dam concession. Weeks before the concession auction, the consortium led by Odebrecht, announced that it would not be a bidder, alleging that it had calculated that the project would cost R$ 30 billion ($13 billion), 50% more than the official estimate at the time. The maximum energy tariff accepted by the government for selling energy would not be sufficient to cover that cost.

Declaration of war

After 35 years of studies and controversies, it would have been bad if the federal government conceded that there was no competition to build its biggest energy project. That’s when two government soldiers entered the field of battle: Valter Cardeal and Adhemar Palocci. They were the main representatives of two powerful government figures: Dilma Rousseff, already Lula’s chief of staff and a presidential candidate, and Antônio Palocci, the former Finance Minister, a federal congressman, coordinator of the election campaign of the future president, and Adhemar’s brother.

These Belo Monte battlefield reinforcements led to the hasty formation of a consortium –the embryo of Norte Energia– headed by the state-run Chesf (a power-generation subsidiary of Eletrobras), with the participation of small and medium-sized construction companies. The other group, led by Andrade Gutierrez, made a bid with a low discount, only 4% below the maximum energy tariff price, set by the government. The government-controlled consortium, led by Chesf, offered a bigger discount (6%) and emerged the victor.

One more battle over Belo Monte had been won, but the war was far from over.

Art editor: Fábio Marra
Art coordination: Mário Kanno
Design and development: Pilker, Rubens Alencar and Lucas Zimmermann
Infography, animation and interactive game Folhacóptero: Simon Ducroquet
Video editor: Douglas Lambert
Post-production and motion graphics of Folhacóptero: Demétrius Daffara
Subtitles: Maíra Martinez
Copyright 2013 Folha de S.Paulo. All rights reserved. All materials contained in this page may not be reproduced in any media, whether electronic or printed, without the prior written permission of Folhapress (