For a left-wing icon and party, nothing could be worse than having to deal with a legacy of human rights violations. For a left-wing icon who cast himself as a defender of the Amazon on the international stage, nothing could be more dangerous than an ecological catastrophe in the planet’s largest rainforest with his fingerprints all over it. Brazil’s importance on the global stage is directly linked to the Amazon – as are international investments in the country. Lula’s popularity in a world haunted by the climate crisis is linked in a similar way. This is what the renewal of Belo Monte’s operating license means for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers Party.
After 13 years in government (2003-2016), the Workers Party has experience of power. The anti-Workers Party trend that led to Jair Bolsonaro’s election is usually explained by the corruption of the party in power. Although corruption is endemic among all of Brazil’s traditional political parties, as can very easily be proven, the Workers Party had presented itself as a different type of party. It is only natural that the outcry was all the greater because of this. However, some of those who cried foul about corruption in the Workers Party when it was in power remained silent in the face of the explicit corruption of Bolsonaro’s government, which leads one to suspect that the anti-Workers Party sentiment may not be due to the party’s mistakes, but rather to its successes: for example, its measures to address racial and social inequality in Brazil, which went further than any government before or since.
Now Lula and the Workers Party are back in government after four years of fascism. And, despite all the setbacks, the Workers Party is the only political party that emerged during the redemocratization period that has survived. If it can get past its history of corruption, particularly now that Lula carries the hope of millions of Brazilians to get their country back again, there is one thing that cannot be overlooked. And that thing is called Belo Monte.
Planned and auctioned during Lula’s first two mandates (2003-2010) and built during Dilma Rousseff’s period in office (2011-2016), the hydroelectric power plant has become an international symbol of human and environmental destruction in the Amazon. Imposed on the peoples of the forest and the city of Altamira, in the State of Pará, the plant is the target of 29 legal actions by the Federal Public Prosecutors’ Office. There is a high probability that in the coming years Belo Monte will be formally treated as a “crime” in rulings issued by the Supreme Court. This word is already being used to define it, both by its victims and the socio-environmental movements, as well as by the scientists who have been studying it since it was just one of the corporate-military dictatorship’s (1964-1985) projects that no one ever believed would make it off the drawing board. And now, like a boomerang made of steel and concrete, Belo Monte is back on the desk of the new government, which has to decide whether to renew the operating license.
Both Lula and most of the Workers Party have a hard time facing up to the truth about Belo Monte. But there is no escape from Belo Monte. This is what has been revealed by the special series produced by the journalist Helena Palmquist, who spent several days in Altamira and the region investigating the power plant’s impacts. The hydroelectric dam imposed without any prior consultation with the communities of the forest resulted in the eviction of 55,000 people. Today, a 130-kilometer long stretch of one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse regions called the Volta Grande (Big Bend) of the Xingu is drying up, threatening the ways of life of three indigenous communities, traditional riverside-dwelling families and hundreds of nonhuman species. Until now, riverside families who had their islands flooded and their houses burned have not been resettled near to the power plant’s reservoir, and this has caused hunger, sickness and death. Altamira has become one of the most violent towns in Brazil, and the children who were driven out of the forest have become teenagers in the city’s outskirts, which are dominated by organized crime.
This is a brief overview of the construction project’s impact. And there is abundant evidence of all of this. To deny the brutal impacts of Belo Monte is as impossible as denying there is a climate crisis. Both facts are very real – and reality imposes itself even on the deniers.
The operating license’s renewal may be the chance for Lula and the Worker Party to alter the narrative of their legacy in the Amazon, which has been corroded by Belo Monte. There is no longer any way to fix the socio-environmental destruction produced by the hydroelectric dam. But the license’s renewal may be a chance for the state to finally oblige Norte Energia, Belo Monte’s concessionaire, to comply with its legal obligations: out of the 47 measures that should prevent or reduce the damage caused by construction and operation, only 13 have been fully complied with. After everything that has happened, it would be totally unacceptable for this government to renew the power plant’s license without demanding full compliance with conditions that have so far failed to represented any real sort of constraint whatsoever.
At present, the dam is hijacking 70% of water of the Big Bend of the Xingu, preventing most species from reproducing, resulting in the death of millions of fish and condemning the region’s people to near starvation. It is vital the government fulfill its obligation to ensure that the water is shared in an ecologically viable way, one in which life, the greatest unmistakable principle, takes precedence. The families of riverside dwellers have now been living for more than a decade in the urban outskirts, having been dumped there whilst waiting for justice. For at least six years they have been waiting for a riverside dwellers’ territory that would give them back their way of life and save their children from being recruited into organized crime. Each additional day without a territory of their own could well mean one less life. And each one of these lives will be remembered.
It is time for the Constitution to finally be applied to Belo Monte. As Bel Yudjá, leader of the Paquiçamba Indigenous Land, in the Xingu’s Big Bend, says, “the river is our dignity.” It is regarding this dignity that the fisherman and riverbank dweller Raimundo da Cruz e Silva has written in this issue of SUMAÚMA, in a painfully poetic text: “The moment they cut the Xingu in half and it bled, we also bled”. Our trilingual journalism platform is vitally committed to giving priority to the forest’s authors – and Raimundo is one such talent who, up until this point, had been confined to the notebooks and scraps of paper scattered around his house on the banks of a river that is currently being used by Norte Energia as its private water tank. Not anymore. Raimundo is now speaking to the world in at least three languages. Soll, a young black man from the outskirts of Altamira who displays his resistance through art, took some of the photos that make up the special series on Belo Monte. Used to Altamira’s urban violence, Soll traveled to the Xingu for the first time to portray the offences committed against the river and its peoples.
O fotógrafo Soll Sousa e o pescador-escritor Raimundo da Cruz e Silva em comunidade na Volta Grande do Xingu durante cobertura especial sobre Belo Monte para SUMAÚMA. Foto: Helena Palmquist/SUMAÚMA
“Defeat and victory are only measured in history,” as Marina Silva, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, reminded us in an exclusive interview that marks six months since SUMAÚMA made its first appearance, which we celebrated on March 13 (thank you for supporting us to reach this milestone). Nothing better than an interview with an Amazonian whose public life is already part of Brazil’s history and the planet’s fight for climate change to mark the anniversary of a forest-based journalism platform. This phrase, which was uttered twice by Marina during our conversation, refers to President Lula, who was regarded as being finished when he was imprisoned for 580 days, but instead made a triumphant comeback as the only candidate capable of saving Brazil from the fascism represented by Bolsonaro.
Marina didn’t say it, but the phrase also applies to her, given that after getting 22 million votes in the first round of 2014’s presidential election she received less than 1 million votes in the 2018 election – and was also written off as being finished. Four years later, in 2022, she became the main protagonist in the broad front that led Lula to victory. She was Minister of the Environment during Lula’s first term in office, but left the government in 2008, in his second mandate, and in the following year resigned from the Workers Party. Now, she is the only one of the ministers from the Workers Party’s first government who has come back with Lula. She is also the one who publicly describes Belo Monte as what it clearly is: a “trauma”.
The renewal of Belo Monte’s operating license and Petrobras’ project to prospect for oil at the mouth of the Amazon are the two emergency issues on the environmental agenda at the start of Lula’s third term in office. The journalist Claudia Antunes writes about the latest chapter in Petrobras’ advance into the Amazon region. In February, the indigenous people of the State of Amapá were visited by a delegation from Petrobras, who peddled the now traditional story about how the enterprise will respect the environment and how the impacts will be mitigated. The indigenous people heard this same narrative many times in the State of Pará, before, during and after the construction of the hydroelectric power plant. They can explain to their relatives the simple fact that this familiar story has always proved a total fabrication.
Defeat and victory are only measured in history. This phrase can also be uttered by Belo Monte’s victims, who have never allowed the dam to become a “fait accompli”, much less a case that has been “overcome”, and never a fact that has been “forgotten”. By now Brazil should have learned the cost in blood of these deletions. That the renewal of Belo Monte’s operating license should have dropped into the Workers Party’s lap may seem like incredibly bad luck indeed for those who would simply rather forget – and may have forgotten. On the contrary, however. It is the chance for Lula and the Workers Party to do the right thing. Rarely do a president and a party have an opportunity of this magnitude. No matter what choice is made, there is only one thing that is certain: it will go down in history.
We hope you enjoy this 12th issue of SUMAÚMA newsletter. Please note that from now on we will change our newsletter publication schedule to every other Thursday. As always, the content will be a collection of stories and articles that we publish on our website and social networks during the previous 14 days.
Until next time,
Creator and director of SUMAÚMA