Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t

Of the most controversial topics in Latin America today, few are as divisive as the politics of dam building. At the surface, it looks like a rather innocuous issue – surely not something that could pit the hoi polloi against the burgeoning bourgeoisie. But that is what has happened. After years of grassroots campaigns and Internet barrages of the celebrity-crazed media, the largest of these projects have been given the go-ahead – often over the impassioned pleas of environmentalists and indigenous groups alike. The Belo Monte Dam in the remote Brazilian state of Pará and the HidroAysén Dam (actually a compilation of five different dams) to be built in Chilean Patagonia are the most visible of these projects. They represent the greatest challenge faced by states today: Balancing energy needs with the preservation of cultural and ecological heritage. The first of these sites, the Belo Monte project, promises to deliver 4500 MW of power – enough to power the entire state – and an estimated 100,000 jobs to the long-neglected north of Brazil, one of the most impoverished regions of this aspiring economic superpower. The construction of Belo Monte (BM) was to showcase a government eager to appeal to all Brazilians (and their votes), rather than the traditional recipients of largesse in the south. Once built, BM will be the third-largest hydroelectric station, as measured in the wattage of power produced, in the world (behind the infamous Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam operated jointly by Brazil and Paraguay). Not coincidentally, this project has run into the same controversy as the aforementioned Three Gorges; namely, the large-scale displacement of extant peoples. Around 1.3 million Chinese were forcibly removed for this project, and countless archaeological and cultural sites were buried forever. The effects of damming the Xingu River are in some ways no less drastic: It will flood an estimated 140 square miles of the Amazon rainforest and risk the extinction of hundreds of species endemic to this area, the most ecologically diverse on Earth. The impact on local indigenous tribes should not be neglected: Traditional lands will be permanently submerged and hunting patterns disrupted. Incomplete environmental impact surveys and charges of corruption abound (this is Brazil we are talking about). Environmentalists have teamed up with indigenous advocates to contest the dam’s construction; but the inefficiency and bias of Brazilian courts is well documented.

The controversy surrounding the Chilean HidroAysén is a variation on the same tune. A rare Andean deer’s fate may soon be drowning in a new lake created by the 15,000 submerged acres of remote Patagonia. This region, long famous for its rugged beauty (and a favorite of trekkers) would be changed immutably: lakes leeched, fjords flooded, and glaciers glossed. Nevertheless, both Chile and Brazil are struggling to meet growing energy needs – as an exploding middle-class is starting to demand dishwashers, televisions, and electric toothbrushes for the first time.

The problem, of course, is not endemic to Latin America. Sustainable and clean energy is inefficient, space-intensive, and unsightly. Governments of developed and developing countries are forced to make difficult choices about its implementation. In deciding these #FirstWorldProblems, unlikely alliances between disparate groups are often forged, re: coalition of the Kennedys with local Native American groups, united against the government. Recently, a hyper-controversial highway that would connect La Paz, Bolivia with the Pacific Ocean by cutting through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory was defeated after indigenous groups and opposing politicians marched on the Presidential Palace, forcing President Evo Morales into the awkward position of opposing the interests of the native populations he claims to represent.

Unfortunately for concerned parties, governments have a pretty good track record in getting these infrastructure initiatives passed. Victories like the Bolivian highway are few and far between. It appears that, for the time being at least, non-economic concerns must settle to reside as gnat-level nuisances before the inescapable floodwaters of state-interest.