* Dam to displace up to 30,000 people
* Drying rivers could isolate Indians, reduce biodiversity
* Doubling of local population will pressure resources
By Raymond Colitt
XINGU RIVER, Brazil, May 24 Beptum Xikrin
contemplates the Bacaja River from his village of thatched-roof
huts, wondering how he will catch fish or take Brazil nuts to
market if a planned dam on the Amazon's mighty Xingu River
will, as ecologists expect, all but dry up this tributary.
After nearly three decades of sometimes violent protests,
Beptum and 1,000 other indigenous people in this remote region
of the Brazilian Amazon have resigned themselves to the fact
that the world's third-largest dam will be built in their
"They decided to build it against our will; what can we
do?" said Beptum at a meeting of tribesmen, many with body
tattoos and large earlobe piercings.
A start date for construction of the Belo Monte dam has not
been set yet, but it is expected to come online in 2015.
Near the meeting tribesmen, a naked girl with a partially
shaven scalp plays with a broken doll in the dirt, while a
woman roasts manioc flour -- a staple of the Brazilian diet --
over an open fire.
The apparent calm is likely to change when, further
downstream, trucks and bulldozers move more earth than was
shifted during the construction of the Panama Canal.
The building of the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric plant,
estimated to cost between $11 billion and $17 billion,
illustrates the dilemmas Brazil faces as it strives to make the
leap to developed-nation status.
Supporters say the dam, which will be built by a domestic
consortium led by state-owned power company Eletrobras
ELET4.SA, will create jobs in a downtrodden region and help
power Latin America's largest economy.
But critics say the race for economic prosperity also
brings social and environmental costs. The 6 kilometer-long
(3.75 miles) dam will displace 30,000 river dwellers, partially
dry up a 100-kilometer (62.5 mile) stretch of the Xingu, and
flood a 190-square-mile (500-sq-km) area three times the size
of Washington D.C.
Despite the warnings and intense international pressure
from the likes of Hollywood director James Cameron, President
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has vowed to push ahead.
Some analysts say he wants to showcase the project ahead of
October's presidential election to benefit his chosen
candidate, Dilma Rousseff, who until recently headed the
government's public works projects.
Lula's defense of the dam also reflects Brazil's newfound
confidence and determination to exert control in the often
lawless Amazon region by developing the local economy.
"We want there to be an industry here, not only an
extraction of wood, iron ore, bauxite and aluminum," Lula, who
grew up in poverty, said on a visit to the region last month.
In the late 1980s Brazil's debt-ridden, young democracy was
forced to cancel the project under intense international
pressure, including a campaign by rock star Sting.
Today, Belo Monte is one of nine hydroelectric dams being
planned in the Amazon and part of the largest development
strategy for the region since the 1964-85 military dictatorship
plowed muddy roads through the world's largest rain forest.
The hugely popular Lula has cracked down on illegal logging
and cattle ranching in the Amazon but more often has chosen to
create jobs than protect trees. Many locals fear they won't
benefit from Belo Monte.
"It's a terrible idea. The energy won't stay here. It'll
curtail our leisure and the jobs of many people," said Antonio
Jose de Nascimento, 51, pointing to the Xingu from his fish
stand in Altamira, the region's largest town.
Across the street a "for sale" sign on a rickety, wood
shack on stilts reflects the despair of many residents in one
of Altamira's several neighborhoods that will be flooded.
Promises of replacement housing are consolation to only a few.
With the local population expected to double to 200,000 in
Altamira, already stretched public services could collapse
altogether and provoke social strife, the government
environment agency Ibama warned. After its report, which also
said changing river levels would reduce biodiversity and cut
off outlying communities, two Ibama officials resigned in
December under government pressure.
While many now accept the dam as inevitable, others say
they will continue to fight it.
"The legal battle is just beginning. The project is
unconstitutional, it's rotten to the core," said Erwin
Krautler, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Altamira.
He says Lula, who pulled millions out of poverty with a mix
of market-friendly policies and social welfare, has become
hostage to the interests of big business.
Public prosecutors and others claim environmental impact
studies are flawed and that the dam is unconstitutional because
the indigenous people were not formally consulted.
"It's unacceptable and illegal to build a dam this size
without knowing the full environmental impact or consulting the
indigenous people," says Clarice Cohn, an anthropologist at the
University of Sao Carlos in Sao Paulo state.
Authorities say the dam won't sit on indigenous lands.
Not everyone in Altamira disagrees with the dam. Waldir de
Souza, a 42-year-old electrician, says it would create jobs and
prod authorities to pave the road to Altamira, helping to
reduce the cost of goods.
"We are very forgotten here. Everything is expensive."
BLESSING OR CURSE?
To compensate for the impact on nearby communities, the
consortium is required to invest in housing, health and
"This region won the lottery with the construction of the
dam, it will leap from poverty to development," said Mauricio
Tolmasquim, head of the government's Energy Research Company.
But locals warn corruption may undermine such gains.
"Oligarchies rule here, corruption goes unpunished. The
shower of money will go down the drain," said Bishop Krautler.
Back in their village, the Xikrin debate the pros and cons
of development. They have a public phone, whose satellite dish
sticks out like a sore thumb among palm trees, scrawny dogs and
discarded soda bottles. But few have the phone cards needed to
Unlike their self-sufficient forefathers, most native
Indians need to sell farm and forest produce in town to buy
tools, medicine and also consumer products.
"I want a refrigerator to store my fish; a TV would be nice
too," says 34-year-old Princore Xikrin, with his six children
crammed into a windowless, dirt-floor hut.
Most of the Xikrin also want a road to get to town more
cheaply but are unaware of the prostitution, alcoholism and
land conflicts that roads have brought Indians elsewhere.
"We want only the good things from the white man. We don't
want drugs or other problems," said an elder Xikrin, recalling
that life was easier in the jungle when he was a kid.
(Editing by Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman)