EJ Series, Part 3: (Re)articulating sustainable hydropower: The resistance against Belo Monte

This blog is based on a paper presented by Ed Atkins at the Environmental Justice 2017 Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017, and is a part of his broader PhD research.

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The building of a mega-dam is characterised by a contest between the dam’s proponents and opponents. Within this process, the storylines that are used to frame the debates about hydropower often provide a legitimising device, in which the impacts of a project become concealed or justified (Molle et al., 2009).

Yet, these storylines can also be adopted as a tool of resistance. Opposition groups often critique a project by highlighting environmental degradation, the exclusion of minority populations, or notions of injustice – with the languages of social and environmental justice and human rights becoming a key storyline within resistance to hydropower projects (Orellana, 2005; Sneddon & Fox, 2008)

I explore these resistance storylines in my doctoral work, focusing on the case of the Belo Monte project in contemporary Brazil (due to be completed in 2019). Standing against these dams is a coalition incorporating local actors, civil society, international non-governmental organisations, political and religious leaders, and researchers. In my research, I focus on how these groups articulate the projects and their opposition against them. This is based on a series of interviews, questionnaires and document analysis conducted between September 2016 and May 2017.

A storyline of environmental justice has historically provided a route of resistance against dams in the Brazilian Amazon. This was evident in the 1989 opposition to Belo Monte’s successor project, Kararaô. This resistance forged links between local grievances and demands and global discourses of justice, sustainable development and environmental protection (Zanotti, 2016). In the face of this opposition, the World Bank withdrew potential funding, and the Brazilian government abandoned Kararaô.

Yet, this storyline of environmental justice has been unsuccessful in the contemporary resistance to a resurrected Belo Monte (Bratman, 2015; Zanotti, 2015; Fearnside, 2017). I have argued elsewhere that this can be understood as the result of the absorption of the contemporary language of sustainability into pro-dam storylines, transforming it into a device of legitimacy that presents hydropower within sustainable development agendas. This is lent credence by international policy, with climate change a key driver for hydropower projects (Moore et al., 2010). At the time of writing, 2,188 hydropower projects are provided with such funding via the Clean Development Mechanism, a key part of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The language of sustainability has been transformed from a storyline of resistance into a discourse of legitimacy for hydropower. The challenge for opposition networks becomes to not only to resist the dam itself, but also to dispute its transformation into a sustainable project. It is this point that provides my research with its starting point: how do contemporary opposition groups contest and reconfigure the storyline of sustainable hydropower?

I argue that, in the case of Belo Monte, resistance discourse returns to previous storylines of environmental justice but reconfigures this language, to re-politicise sustainability and the projects in question.

This can be seen in how interviewees pointed to a maldistribution of costs and benefits not only to appeal to notions of justice but also to render impacted (and neglected) populations visible. Riverine populations, indigenous communities and urban dwellers are all argued to have been impacted by the construction of the Belo Monte project, despite official claims to the contrary. Numerous cases were alluded to from rising prices to evidence of women being trafficked and forced into sex work. All impacts discussed were targeted at official accounts, within which such problems remained unreported and unmitigated.

The lens of analysis is widened, drawing attention to a misrecognition of effect. Respondents argued that the true impacts of the project had been limited by official storylines of sustainability, with the project’s sustainability relying on a narrow understanding of the concept and a denial of numerous impacts faced by many.

Storylines of participation were also widened. Whilst interviewees presented participatory mechanisms as tokenistic, these assertions became linked to the powerful interests behind the Belo Monte and São Luiz do Tapajós projects. The political proponents of the projects were presented as intent on securing the construction of dams and unwilling to listen to the concerns of those impacted. President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) was singled out for criticism. Interviewees provided accounts of a meeting with representatives of the local opposition in which, through frustration, Rousseff punched the table and asserted that Belo Monte will be built, regardless of local complaints. The former-President was presented as a political ‘steamroller’ that silenced dissent and pushed dam projects through at all costs.

The fuel for this ‘steamroller’? In the minds of many interviewed, the answer is simple: corruption. Respondents linked the construction of dams in the Amazon to a political corruption scandal that is currently gripping Brazilian politics. The Lava Jato investigation has implicated construction companies, politicians and employees of state institutions in an all-encompassing network of bribery and patronage. Following this scandal, opposition actors, highlighting plea bargains as evidence, asserted that the construction companies bribed the government with campaign donations, to ensure that the Belo Monte project would go ahead – and that they would be involved.

Within this resistance storyline, traditional notions of environmental justice are transformed. The focus turns from notions of participation, distribution and recognition and towards the uncovering of undemocratic power, political corruption and impunity. In doing so, the resistance coalition both highlighted the impacts of the Belo Monte project and uncovers the political motivations behind it.

Although not successful, this resistance storyline critiques and discredits the storyline of sustainability legitimising the construction Belo Monte. The use of a language of sustainability as a legitimising device shown for what it is: a facade under which social and environmental impacts are concealed. With the concept of sustainability becoming defined by its negation, the roots of an alternative (and just) sustainability can be found in struggles such as these.


Bratman, E. (2015). Passive revolution in the green economy: Activism and the Belo Monte dam. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 15(1), 61–77.

Fearnside, P. M. (2017). Brazil’s Belo Monte: Lessons of an Amazonian resource struggle. Die Erde, 148(2-3): 167-184.

Molle, F.; Mollinga, P.P. and Wester, P. (2009). Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power. Water Alternatives, 2(3): 328‐349.

Moore, D.; Dore, J. and Gyawali, D. (2010). The World Commission on Dams + 10: Revisiting the large dam controversy. Water Alternatives, 3(2): 3-13.

Orellana, M.A. (2005) Indigenous peoples, energy and environmental justice: The Pangue/Ralco hydroelectric project in Chile’s Alto BíoBío. Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law, 23(4): 511-528.

Sneddon, C. & Fox, C. (2008). Struggles over dams as struggles for justice: The World Commission on Dams (WCD) and anti-dam campaigns in Thailand and Mozambique. Society and Natural Resources, 21(7): 625-640.

Zanotti, L. (2016). Radical territories in the Brazilian Amazon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ed Atkins is a PhD candidate in Environment, Energy & Resilience at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. His research explores the contested language of sustainability, the politics of water, and the disputes that surround megaproject-construction. He presented this paper at the Environmental Justice 2017 Conference, hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute in November 2017. This post – and the paper presented – are drawn from his doctoral work at the University of Bristol.