[Marxism] China-Brazil hydroelectric project generates protests

Louis Proyect 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

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 
being discussed.

"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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