August 30, 2010
The decision last week by the Brazilian government to move forward on the $17 billion Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu river will set in motion a plan to build more than 100 dams across the Amazon basin, potentially turning tributaries of the world's largest river into 'an endless series of stagnant reservoirs', says a new short film released by Amazon Watch and International Rivers.
The film, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, uses a Google Earth 3-D tour to illustrate the potential impact of the dam. Belo Monte's reservoirs will flood 668 square kilometers, including parts of the city of Altamira, displacing more than 20,000 people. It will reduce the flow of the mighty Xingu to a trickle during parts of the year, reducing water supplies for downstream indigenous populations, blocking fish migration thereby disrupting local fisheries, and likely condemning several aquatic species to extinction. Flooding of forest areas will generate massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent that CO2, and increase the risk of malaria in surrounding areas. Furthermore, if earlier dam projects in the Amazon are any model, Belo Monte will contribute to large-scale deforestation by local people who can no longer earn income from fishing or traditional livelihoods. Electricity grids, transmission lines, and access roads will put further pressure on the rainforest.
The Belo Monte Dam would be "a disaster for the Xingu River, for the rainforest, and certainly for all the indigenous people and families living along the river," said Weaver, an actress who starred in last year's blockbuster Avatar. "Their way of life will disappear."
Belo Monte has faced fierce opposition from indigenous people, activists, and even celebrities like Weaver and James Cameron, the director of Avatar, Titanic, and the Terminator series of movies. But the project is backed by powerful interests, including the mining sector: Belo Monte is being built to supply electricity for new mines in the Amazon. The video includes a "flyover" via Google Earth showing the nearby Carajas mine, one of the largest iron ore mines on the planet.
The 10-minute video, created by Amazon Watch and International Rivers with technical assistance from Google Earth Outreach, comes as part of the Altamira-based Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (Xingu River Forever Alive Movement) campaign against the dam.
Antonia Melo, a leader and spokesperson of the Xingu River Forever Alive Movement, said the video will help people better understand the impacts of the project.
"Even for people who live along the Xingu River itself, the impacts of damming the river are difficult to understand. This animation can help the local population visualize the potential damage caused by Belo Monte, and can encourage them to take action," Melo said in a statement.
Rebecca Moore of Google Earth Outreach said she hoped the video would lead to more engagement on the issue.
"Because Google Earth provides such a realistic model of the real earth, it can allow both ordinary people and decision makers to visualize and understand complex environmental and social issues more easily and deeply," she said in a statement. "Ideally, this can lead to a more informed and constructive dialogue, especially for controversial issues such as the Belo Monte Dam."
A Google Earth version of the video can be downloaded at Belo Monte Tour.
Belo Monte is among the most controversial of some 146 major dams planned in the Amazon basin over the next two to three decades. Earlier this month International Rivers launched a new website, Dams in Amazonia, outlining the sites and impacts of these dams with an interactive map.