Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the world's third-largest dam has had a rocky month. Two indigenous occupations and a worker's strike at the construction site of Belo Monte, Brazil's most expensive public project ever, have shown that the dam, billed as socially responsible development by President Dilma Rousseff, is facing significant pushback. There are more than 50 lawsuits in regional and federal courts challenging the dam's legality -- and although indigenous demands make up Belo Monte's splashiest headlines, there is another important but lesser-known conflict playing out in the town of Altamira, just 25 miles from the main dam site.
Maria Reis, a fishmonger whose home hugs the shore of the Xingu River, is furious, and she is not alone. As Belo Monte rapidly takes shape downriver on the Xingu, Altamirans like Reis are accusing the Brazilian government of failing to properly balance the rights of local citizens against the national interest.
"Dilma is always on TV saying she wants a new Brazil without poverty and with progress. But what progress is it that kills people, kills dreams?" says Reis.
In response to outcry from environmentalists, indigenous groups, and activists, the dam has been redesigned to minimize its impact on the local communities and environment, scaling down the originally proposed five-reservoir dam to one "run-of-the-river" project. Thus re-envisioned, Belo Monte will only flood 516 square km of land as opposed to the originally planned 18,000 square km, minimizing displacement and the flooding of indigenous lands. With its maximum capacity of 11,233 megawatts, the dam has become a top priority in Brazil's PAC 2 (Program for Accelerated Growth), a spending plan of $582 billion on public projects from 2011 to 2014.