They have fought against this dam for decades, but the end is now in sight.

Big dams. Did you know they're the largest, most expensive structures we make?

The cost to build a mega dam goes way beyond money. They flood land, kill forests, destroy rivers and the life it supports, and displace tens of thousands of people.

Often, the culture and biodiversity destroyed by a big dam can never, ever be replaced.


Igre and her people in Brazil are facing just this reality. The Belo Monte is a giant dam being built on the river they call home.

We are starting to learn more and more not-so-good things about mega dams.

Big dams flood hundreds of thousands of acres of land behind them. They also harm rivers by depriving them of water and fundamentally altering natural fluctuations in flow and temperature. The loss of plants, fish, and other wildlife is astronomical.

Worse are the ongoing costs to cultures who live closely with rivers.

Belo Monte will flood an area of 190 square miles along the Xingu River. According to the Brazilian government, the flooding will force the relocation of up to 20,000 people, many of them belonging to at least 18 different ethnic groups. Nongovernmental organizations, like Amazon Watch, say the number of displaced may rise as high as 40,000.

The record of relocating cultures is not good. Forcibly removed from their homes and deprived of ways of life, once self-sufficient people can face hunger, rampant alcoholism, and high unemployment. Also, big dams are a "boom-and-bust" kind of development. Once they are built, many of the jobs go away.

Igre and other people of the Amazon have been fighting for decades against the Belo Monte Dam and their right to life.

Chief Rayoni of the Kayapo people, an international ambassador for the Brazilian rainforest and the people who live there, traveled to Paris in 2000 with a petition against the Belo Monte.

But after years of protesting and working with others to appeal to courts for their human rights to the land and their way of life, they have lost. The Belo Monte, which will be the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam, will close the river and begin operation in August 2015.

To make matters worse for indigenous people, it is just one of several mega dam projects on Amazonian rivers planned by the Brazilian government to fuel its booming growth.


People who have been watching and assessing dams are beginning to speak out against big dams and in favor of a whole suite of “agile energy alternatives" like wind, solar, and mini-hydropower facilities.

Sure, all sources of energy have negative impacts, but here's why people who once supported big dams are having second thoughts:

  • The actual construction costs of big dams are too high to ever yield a positive return and countries often end up in debt trying to repay loans for big dams.
  • The reservoirs for big dams in tropical places emit high amounts of methane due to the lush jungle covered by waters each year as the basin fills. One study reported 3.5 times more CO2 released than an oil power plant generating an equal amount of electricity. Oy!
  • Building dams leads to deforestation, and deforestation is a main cause of reduced rainfall in places like the Amazon. Without forests, there is no rain, and without rain, rivers dry up. So healthy forests are the key to providing water!

Rivers and their people need your help.

The fight is already on against the next big dam project.

The Brazilian government is planning to build five dams in the Tapajós River basin. In November 2014, members of the Mundukuru tribe organized with Greenpeace to raise awareness of the threats to their human rights. The sign, made with stones on a sandbar of the river reads, "Free Tapajos."

More people need to know that big dams are not "green" energy. It's not necessary to force people pay these terrible natural and cultural costs to produce the energy we need to live well.
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
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This story was originally shared on Capital One.

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