The Brazilian Environment Agency, IBAMA, now has the EIA for the Belo Monte dam project, and parts are beginning to leak out.
Wading through the mix of academic, governmental and industrial jargon, it is easy to lose sight of the real, actual and immediate impacts that this monstrous project will have on the environment and the people of the Xingu.
The sections I have seen so far cover the impact on the area known as the Volta Grande, and on the diversity and populations of fish species. They make depressing reading. Phrases like “The impact will be irreversible, of the highest significance and of a high magnitude. The duration will be permanent, it will affect the entire cycle, the impact will be immediate and will take effect in the short term. The nature of the impact will be negative” occur several times.
My thoughts go back to our time on the river. We navigated the bubbling, crystal waters of the Volta Grande when we visited the Yudja (Juruna) village of Paquissamba. The river was alive with rapids, and fish were plentiful in the healthy waters. Occasionally, local people, both Indians and settlers, would pass in their boats with a friendly wave.
All of this will come to an abrupt halt if this project goes forward. The rushing, clean water will be replaced by fetid, stagnant pools and lakes full of mosquito larvae and dying fish. The already difficult-to-navigate channels will dry up and become impassable. The rocky riverbed, stripped of its water, will attract the attention of illegal gold prospectors, adding to the environmental destruction.
People who rely on the fish for their daily food will be forced from the area into the fringes of Altamira, to swell the already crowded and insanitary shanty towns which line the urban waterways. Nobody knows what will happen to the Yudja, or to the Arara settlement on the opposite side of the river. The Xicrin of Bacaja will no longer be able to navigate the river from their villages to the town, making the already long and dangerous journey in search of medical help impossible. Having made the Indians reliant on outside help, the government now plans to cut them off from the outside world.
The most productive land, in the areas beside the rivers which are flooded by rich sediment-laden water each year, will disappear below the water, or be left permanently dry and starved of its annual input of natural fertiliser. The people who farm this land will lose their livelihoods and be forced to migrate.
In terms of biodiversity, the impact could not be greater. The Volta Grande attracts adventurous fishermen from all over the world to pursue the rare game fish to be found there. These, some of them endemic, will be dramatically affected; many are likely to die out completely under the environmental stress of such a sudden and profound change in the local ecology.
My loss will be the chance to visit again a place of wild and unfettered beauty, to battle the rapids and to explore the myriad channels, backwaters and islands. But the loss to the local people and to mankind will be greater, the loss of species and the loss of a vibrant ecosystem, which is one of the few areas of the world where Man has had only a marginal impact.
Millions of tons of concrete will change this place forever. We need to fight this environmental crime with all of the weapons available to us.