Brazil’s Hydroelectricity Project: Damning One World to Save Another

The continued construction of dams to harness the immense power of the amazon river in Brazil is an ongoing and controversial dispute, causing arguments and division throughout the country. Reducing the country’s greenhouse emissions whilst matching the ever-increasing demand for energy within the country represents a major challenge for Brazil as well as the rest of the world. However, this comes at a cost…

Damning the Indigenous

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Tribal Land

Building a dam in the Amazon would have a devastating effect on the indigenous tribes who live in the soon to be flooded areas. Many tribes have lived in the Amazon for centuries, living a traditional lifestyle untouched by the outside world. Much of their land is thought of as sacred making leaving it behind very difficult indeed. Forcing thousands of tribe members to relocate would cause huge trauma to the tribe, one which they may not survive.

Environmental Disaster

Not only would the dam have huge human effects, it would also have a large environmental impact. The Amazon rainforest is home to an outstanding amount of flora and fauna, most of which have never been recorded by scientists. The flooding of a large area would cause devastation to the local ecosystems and turn the once prosperous carbon sink into a carbon source as the flooding would cause vegetation to rot, releasing a large amount of methane. Methane is 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period and thus would contribute significantly to global warming, making the building of the dam less environmentally friendly than it may initially appear. Hundreds of undiscovered species found in the forest will be lost forever and the location of the dam would affect spawning routes of fish, thus endangering food security across the Amazon.

Belo Monte Corruption

Corruption has been at the heart of past dam building projects in the Amazon. During the building of the Belo Monte dam, large construction companies were said to have paid bribes to assure they were guaranteed to win the contracts. There are many more stories of corruption on multi-million dollar projects in Brazil. Additionally, there has been a significant gang presence and numerous deadly battles for land ownership in the area and Brazil has the highest murder rate of environmentalists in the world. In 2015, 45 Amazonian activists were killed. This political environment is hardly conducive for trying to build an ethical, environmental project.

45 Amazonian activists were killed

You just Kant

Whilst some may argue that the positive outcomes of a dam building project can justify the negative actions required, a Kant based ethical framework would reject this. Kant believed that ethics should be based on the action itself, stating people should always do the right thing irrespective of the result. In this instance, displacing indigenous tribes and causing environmental harm is clearly not a ‘right’ action and so the building of the dam should not go ahead.

WATER OF LIFE

Electricity from hydroelectric sources produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation and their power output can be quickly ramped up and down to meet fluctuating energy demands. Additionally, they provide a reliable back up for the varying and undependable energy output from other renewable sources such as wind and solar. Brazil is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% as agreed as part of the Paris agreements and the construction of these dams mark a continued progression towards that goal.

The Jirau Dam on the Madeira River.

Building Brazil

The construction of the dam would generate thousands of jobs in Brazil, contributing hugely towards its growth as a developing country.  Not only this but the relatively cheap electricity produced by hydroelectric power when compared with other energy sources such as nuclear and renewables, offers another important economic benefit. The Belo Monte Dam, an existing dam in the region, has a capacity of 11,233MW and cost £15b to build. Whilst this seems a large amount of money, it’s much cheaper per MegaWatt than other renewable energy sources, as shown in the table below:

Cheapest Renewable Energy In The World!

Capacity, MW Cost, million £ Cost, millions £/MW
Belo Monte Dam 11,233 15,000 1.34
Hinkley Point C 3200 18,000 5.63
Welspun Solar MP Project, India 151 218.4 1.45
Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, US 845 2400 2.84

One Vs Hundreds

 To achieve this high amount of energy production from wind energy instead of the dam, it would require approximately 1400 of the largest wind turbines in the world (Vestas V164).

The Greater Good 

Whilst there are some drawbacks to the construction of another hydroelectric dam in the region, producing cheap electricity, generating jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will benefit the lives of many more people in Brazil than those directly impacted by its construction. Adopting a utilitarianism approach is comfortably in favour of the continued construction of the dam since it benefits a far greater number of people than it hinders. This method considers the benefits of the majority of people and is used to make ethical decisions that make the greatest number of people happy. It would not only benefit the people of Brazil but also the rest of the world by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping to tackle climate change, which needs to be a collective effort from all nations.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

 Both of the two ethical approaches considered give two very different and contrasting outcomes in this situation. However, both on their own do not fully work and an approach which is a compromise of the two should be considered. Utilitarianism disregards the indigenous people and the local ecosystem, whilst Kant does not recognise that there sometimes have to be sacrifices in order to make improvements.

What are your views?

Group 26: Andrew Craigie, Sam Cheney, Steve Carson, Matt Elkington

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11 thoughts on “Brazil’s Hydroelectricity Project: Damning One World to Save Another

  1. I see the argument from both sides, however, I feel the dam should have been built where it does not impact on the tribe, these people and the way in which they have lived for many many years will not survive being uprooted especially as they see this land as sacred. On the other hand I see the need for alternative renewable energy, this article makes very interesting reading and makes you question what is ethically right in these circumstances.

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  2. A very interesting topic which is not highlighted in western media enough. It’s a tough decision as to which side is ethical, especially as the Amazonian tribes generally lack the capacity to give their feedback on these intrusive proposals given their language and cultural barriers.

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  3. A very thought-provoking article that examines an issue that is not as black-and-white as it might seem at first. Just like the way windmills can harm local wildlife, dams can cause ecological damage despite their elimination of emissions. It’s important to examine these issues from all angles. (Also the headings were so awesome and clever, bonus points for those!)

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  4. Does it make a difference where on the river the dam is actually built? Can it be moved 20 miles or so in either direction to have less of an impact? Or are there indigenous tribes up and down the river?

    After reading about the pros and cons of the project, I am really glad I don’t have to make the decision on whether or not to build the dam.

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  5. Is the article talking about the one dam given as an example or a more extensive dam building project with many new dams? That was unclear to me. That makes a big difference on the facts and figures.

    Also, the Amazon is a flooded forest ecosystem. Vegetation is going to rot and release methane every year anyways. Granted a lake behind a dam will be permanently under water but will this change the the overall methane output?

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  6. These types of projects always provoke discussion on both sides of the spectrum. While it seems hard to quantify the impacts that could occur from the potential loss of many unclassified species of plants and animals, not to mention the loss of a “way of life” for the indigenous tribes, it’s much easier to calculate the benefits and economic impact that hydroelectric power provides, and the jobs created, as a result. If this was a Corps project, there would need to be a lot of studies performed, including an Environmental Impact Study. These studies would fully account for various alternatives, the potential destruction, and mitigation of the damage.

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  7. I enjoyed this read, a balanced look at the pros and cons!
    It’s hard not to find the amount of cheap electricity this dam would provide tempting. And it seems that whatever source of renewable energy, there are often downsides… protests and objections to new wind farms, etc.

    Its clear the Paris agreement has put a lot of pressure on countries to do what they can to meet the ambitious targets… but there should be no cutting corners. A huge dam in the middle of rain forest isn’t putting the protection of the planet first, I hope Brazil is able to find an alternative solution, I guess we will just have to stay tuned!

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