[Marxism] China-Brazil hydroelectric project generates protests
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 20 08:12:18 MST 2005
NY Times, November 20, 2005
Brazil Weighs Costs and Benefits of Alliance With China
By LARRY ROHTER
PAQUIÇAMBA, Brazil - Here at the great bend of the mighty Xingu River, the
Brazilian government is pushing to construct a dam that could end up being
the world's second-largest, generating huge amounts of hydroelectric power.
But the main beneficiaries of the project are not likely to be the Indian
tribes or other local residents, but instead a government halfway across
the world, in China.
To satisfy the appetite of a rapidly growing industrial base, state-owned
Chinese companies have begun involving themselves in mining projects in the
eastern Amazon, ranging from aluminum and steel to nickel and copper.
Processing each of those materials requires large amounts of electricity,
and the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, intent on forming what he
calls "a strategic alliance" with China, is eager to perform that task.
Meanwhile, the river dwellers whose lives will be disrupted by the dam
predict it will cause extensive environmental damage and encourage an
influx of poor settlers seeking jobs that will not exist. They also
complain that they will not receive the power they have long been demanding
of the government and will be forced to move.
"If this thing is built, then Lord help us," said José Carlos Arara, a
leader of an Indian settlement perched above the river. "The Chinese are
way over there. But we are right here, at the gateway of the dam without
water, medical care or electricity, and rather than help us, our government
wants to make things worse. If it were up to us, this dam would never be
Officials in Brasília, however, promise that the project, named Belo Monte
after the site where it is to be built, will control the flow of the river
so as to minimize its impact on the nine tribal groups that live here. They
also say that because Brazil cannot afford not to build the dam, they will
pay whatever price is necessary to placate the skeptics here.
"This is an important public works for a country like ours, which needs to
take better advantage of its energy potential," Márcio Zimmerman, director
of planning and development for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said in a
phone interview. "The north is a region that is in the process of
industrialization and development, and hydroelectric power is a long-term
source of energy that is cheap and renewable."
In its original form, the Belo Monte project dates to the 1970's, when it
was presented as a solution to predicted energy shortages in the southern,
industrialized part of Brazil. But environmental, human rights and
indigenous groups opposed the plan from the start, in part because of its
huge eventual costs, in the billions of dollars. The groups fought it in
the courts and in Congress, and by the time the previous government left
office in 2002, a court ruling appeared to have shelved Belo Monte for good.
But Mr. da Silva and his leftist Workers' Party came to power promising a
battery of social initiatives, including a "Light for Everyone" program
meant to bring electricity to poor and remote rural areas like this.
Sensing an opportunity, proponents of Belo Monte dusted off the project and
persuaded Mr. da Silva to make it a priority.
"There was dereliction in not building hydroelectric projects" in the
previous government, Mr. da Silva said recently. "With the projects that
are under way, we can permanently guarantee" supplies of energy to
consumers "for 5, 6 or even 10 years down the line."
But in partnership with China, Brazil is also committed to large industrial
projects in the Amazon that will consume huge amounts of electricity and
employ relatively few people. Among them are a pair of large plants that
will process bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum, near Belém,
the capital of Pará State in the eastern Amazon.
A Chinese company is planning to build a steel mill in São Luis, at the
eastern edge of the Amazon, as part of a venture with a Brazilian company.
In a separate project, a Brazilian company is already building another
steel mill near Belém to meet the demand that is anticipated from the
Chinese and American markets.
The iron ore for those projects comes from Carajas, south of here, which
has the world's largest reserves. Copper to supply China and other markets
is being extracted from the area, and building a copper smelter nearby is
"Everything in the Amazon that is electricity-intensive has a big Chinese
component and is getting strong official support, even though the main
beneficiary will clearly be China, rather than Brazil," said Mr. Pinto, who
wrote the book "Hydroelectric Projects in the Amazon." "Not only are the
Chinese going to be investing a minimal amount themselves, but they will
also be shifting the resulting pollution problems to the Amazon."
Mr. da Silva's government, mired in a corruption scandal that threatens his
chances of being re-elected next year, is so eager to move ahead on the dam
that in July it persuaded Congress to authorize the project, ignoring a
requirement to confer with communities that would be affected. Opponents
are challenging that action in the courts.
"Even though the Brazilian constitution says that we are supposed to be
consulted, no one came to talk with us," said Manuel Juruna, the leader of
the main community here. "We want them to know that for all of the
indigenous peoples of the Xingu, this project can only destroy our
traditional way of life by driving away fish, drying up our hunting areas
and bringing in its place nothing but hardship and suffering."
In Brazil's industrialized south, little mention has been made of the dam's
connection to Mr. da Silva's broader strategy of strengthening economic and
political ties with China. That policy is coming under increasing
criticism, especially in São Paulo, the nation's business capital, on the
grounds that Brazil's national interests are being sacrificed.
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