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September 25, 2017

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Brazil dam changes the Amazon and the world

ALTAMIRA, Brazil--An army of 8,000 workers, hundreds of trucks and a fleet of bulldozers are carving up this Amazon outpost to build the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam, amid concerns it could irreversibly harm the way of life of local indigenous people.

The Belo Monte dam — a frenetic island of activity in the sweltering Amazon in Brazil's north, which has alarmed many environmentalists with its utterly massive scope and potential damage to local traditions — casts a long shadow over the upcoming Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

More than 100 heads of state and thousands of participants from governments, the private sector and NGOs will converge on Brazil for the June 20-22 event marking the 20th anniversary of the "Earth Summit" in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

It aims to break years of deadlock on pressing environmental issues and set up long-term paths toward green development.

The US$13 billion dam on the Xingu River in many ways is the perfect illustration of the kind of extremely tough choices Brazil's government has to make, navigating often conflicting needs to develop its electric power grid, encourage economic growth and job creation, while also showing respect for its indigenous people and their traditions.

After centuries of slow-going, Brazil in under two decades has emerged as a key international economic player, on the back of massive natural resources, newly booming farm wealth and now manufacturing heft as well.

There is no shortage of tough choices for Brazil — the world's sixth-largest economy — with respect to the controversial Belo Monte dam.

On the one hand, it has managed to reduce the rate of deforestation that used to take place in the Amazon basin, and claims to have the most renewable energy in its grid of any major economy.

But it has an economic imperative to develop its domestic energy supplies if it is going to keep up with demand and potential economic growth. And it has a tradition of massive public works operations, from dams to highways, in the Amazon basin.

A sweeping overflight of the Belo Monte construction site offers a feel for its positively pharaonic scope.

In a clattering twin-engine craft soaring over the Xingu, one of the major jungle rivers that empty into the Amazon, the staggering volume of earth already moved is evident.

Meanwhile workers resembling bees in a hive from high are racing to bring out the stone at three separate local quarries, jarring amid the dark green scenery and stifling humidity.

About 900 massive trucks and heavy machinery teams rumble in the jungle for about 17 hours a day.

By the end of this year, there will be 12,000 workers forging ahead with the massive project, an amazing 24 hours a day.

Then staffing will almost double again to 22,000 workers pushing Belo Monte forward in 2013.

Its first turbine is supposed to roar into operation in 2015, and to be fully onstream in 2019.

The dam has its supporters — businesses and workers, by and large — but it has drawn staunch opposition from environmentalists such as rocker Sting, and director James Cameron of "Avatar" fame.

It will use enough cement to built 48 football stadiums identical to Rio's 92,000-capacity Maracana. The staggering volume of digging that has to be done to redirect the river with a 20-kilometer canal will relocate the same amount of earth as was moved to make the Panama Canal.

Even as the local population booms as workers move in, health and education services are clearly not able to keep up with the breakneck pace of change.

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