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June 24, 2017

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Brazil dam changes the Amazon and the world

And that is happening against the backdrop of many towns being flooded to build the dam. About 6,000 families are readying to move out now as their houses will soon be underwater.

"I do not want to go somewhere else," said Helinalda de Lira Soares with her three children close by. She lives in a neighborhood of humble, rustic wooden housing on stilts at the water's edge, near a drain pipe clogged with garbage. But she says she is proud of her home, and does not want to leave.

Neither she nor her neighbors have any idea where they will go.

"Construction on Belo Monte is going really quickly ... but the public housing they promised in the city and other towns is moving really slowly," she said.

The government and power company building the dam have pledged massive investment in housing and local infrastructure as well as aid for indigenous communities. So far, little of what was promised has panned out.

And in the crosshairs of the massive Belo Monte project: the relatively tiny local indigenous community of 2,000 people who traditionally fished the Xingu to survive.

Once built, the dam will have a capacity of 11,233 MW — generating about 11 percent of the country's power.

That will put it behind only China's Three Gorges Dam and the Itaipu dam shared by Brazil and Paraguay. The new dam will flood 502 square kilometers — almost doubling the area the river takes up now.

Local residents look likely to be hard hit by the loss of water volume in the river on which they depend for their livelihoods, especially in an area called Volta Grande.

"We live on fishing, and we are going to see the river basically dry up, we feel very threatened," said Marino Felix Juruna, the son of the local indigenous leader in Paquicamba, home to about 60 ethnic Juruna people. They live about three hours from Altamira by speedboat.

Their humble village of wooden homes and a primary school boasts some incongruous satellite antennas and upscale speedboats.

"Since the indigenous people were the only ones threatening the project, they have been co-opted with speedboats and giveaways," said Jose Cleanton, a Catholic missionary working with indigenous communities, who warned that their survival as a community was at stake.

"There are alcohol problems, and the problems of everyone leaving the traditional village," said Cleanton. The Juruna people have asked for a fish-raising facility and for a bigger school.

For now they are waiting, as the world around them rumbles fast toward change.

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