Involuntary Displacement and the Belo Monte Dam: Changes in Self-Perception of the Volta Grande's Displaced Riverine Peasants
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Akin to large-scale hydroelectric damming projects worldwide, construction of the Belo Monte Dam in Altamira, Brazil will transform the Volta Grande (or “Big Bend”) of the Xingu River. Preliminary licensing for dam construction has been granted to the NorteEnergia Consortium, who states that it will aid the Brazilian quest for energy security through adding about 11,233 MW of installed capacity to Brazil’s energy grid. However, the Belo Monte is expected to play an integral role in altering the social and ecological structures that dictate the lifestyles of the Ribeirinhos (or riverine community members) who reside there by diverting the flow of the river and involuntarily displacing thousands of community members. These community members come from a background of mixed European-indigenous descent and therefore cannot be protected under the same human rights laws that protect indigenous groups in the region. It is only natural to inquire what may happen if an individual or group of individuals is forced to move from a subsistence-based community to an urban setting. Theodore E. Downing makes the argument that involuntary displacement of subsistence-based communities may lead to previously unknown social, cultural, and economic impoverishment. He explains that while the degrees to which displaced community members feel insecurity may vary, all displaced persons face the risks of landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, increased morbidity, food insecurity, loss of access to common property, and social disarticulation. The loss of this “social geometry” as Downing puts it creates existential questions and loss of identity and social disorder. The NorteEnergia Consortium has compiled mitigation plans as dictated by Brazilian licensing procedures that address aid and compensation for involuntarily displaced individuals, but it is my belief that these mitigation plans may be more effective by taking into account self-perception of displaced community members. Through the examination of past research, interviews, participant observation, and the social mitigation plans developed by NorteEnergia, my research first discusses the differences in self-perception between the community and the urban setting. It then delves into the mitigation projects associated with the Belo Monte Dam in order to supplement the theory that policy makers are developing insufficient mitigation plans due to a misunderstanding of the aforementioned self-perceptions. Finally, it will provide some potential solutions to make mitigation policies more effective for displaced communities.