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Brazil: Deeper Media Coverage of Belo Monte Dam Needed

This post is part of our special coverage Dossiê Belo Monte (Belo Monte Dossier) [pt] and Forest Focus: Amazon.

A lot of information is shared everyday around the world about controversy surrounding the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric powerplant in the Amazon. At the same time, however, it is unclear how well circulated the concerns of those to be directly affected – the river-dwellers, ’caboclos‘ and indigenous peoples – by what some have labeled ‘pharaonic’ construction work.

For Verena Glass, journalist and communications coordinator for the social and environmentalist collective Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (Movement [River] Xingu Alive Forever) [pt], “Belo Monte is not a matter for Brazilians only, as it deals with human rights violations”.

In April 2011, after several traditional communities complained to the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Right (IACHR) asked the Brazilian government to immediately suspend the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project in order to safeguard indigenous rights. Since then, mainstream media has started giving more attention to the coverage of the events related to Belo Monte.

Protesters against the Belo Monte dam, Altamira. Photo by K. L. Hoffmann copyright Demotix (19/08/2011)

Protesters against the Belo Monte dam, Altamira. Photo by K. L. Hoffmann copyright Demotix (19/08/2011)

More than a year after the request was sent, the final report of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations about the situation in Brazil was presented [pt] on May 30 in Geneva. Among five of the highlighted concerns of the participating countries, the report enumerates the effects of large-scale construction work on the forced removal of the populations, and stresses the need to improve the protection of the indigenous and Maroon peoples.

Given the circumstances, Glass stated that international media is covering the events in Belo Monte more effectively than national media, as well as promoting a deeper debate, one that makes it onto the radar of the United Nations.

Action against journalistic sloth

Glass believes that some phenomena spurs media coverage of the Belo Monte Damn, leading to greater awareness and mobilization. One such example is musician Sting's efforts to protect indigenous rights through the NGO that he founded, Rainforest Foundation. One such example is musician Sting's efforts to protect indigenous rights through the NGO that he founded, Rainforest Foundation.

Anthropologist and economist Betty Mindlin pondered:

O aumento dos protestos pelas redes sociais contra as obras no Pará me alegram muito e é importante que grandes nomes estejam participando das discussões da Amazônia.

The increasing protests through social media against the construction in Pará make me very happy and it is important that big names are taking part of the Amazon's discussions.

The media has a great responsibility in the formation of public opinion, she said, but the scholastic education of the Brazilian population should also address Belo Monte's environmental and social issues. Mindlin believes in the viability of economical development allied to social justice. However, in order to accomplish it, social movements must take strong action above all in Brazil and trigger the interest of the students. “This critical view must exist since the early days”, emphasized the anthropologist.

About 150 families from neighborhoods that will be flooded by the construction of the Belo Monte dam were violently evicted by police in Altamira, Brazil.  Photo by K. L. Hoffmann copyright Demotix (17/06/2012)

About 150 families from neighborhoods that will be flooded by the construction of the Belo Monte dam were violently evicted by police in Altamira, Brazil. Photo by K. L. Hoffmann copyright Demotix (17/06/2012)

According to Glass, there is a lack of precise and comprehensive information about the individuals who will be affected by the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program, PAC) project. She said she considers that the distortion and misinformation concerning the social impacts of the dam are the result of a simplistic choice between good and evil, which ends up representing a “Manichean” view on traditional and river-dwelling communities.

Leonardo Sakamoto [pt], a journalist, PhD in Political Sciences and professor in the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC-SP), highlighted:

As pessoas das grandes cidades brasileiras olham para a Amazônia como sendo, de um lado, habitada por ‘bons selvagens’, e, de outro, um vazio demográfico,

People from big Brazilian cities look at the Amazon as if it were, on one hand, inhabited by “good savages”, and on the other hand, a demographic void.

According to Betty Mindlin, we live in a divided society in which there are myths both good and bad, such as that the Amazon is uninhabited, which ends up favoring destructive occupations of the territory.

Photographing a photographer of Rio Madeira, Porto Velho, Rondônia. Photo by Guilherme Jófili on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Photographing a photographer in Rio Madeira, Porto Velho, Rondônia. Photo by Guilherme Jófili on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand, Leonardo Sakamoto stated that nowadays there is still a lot of passion for the rights of the people, mainly the indigenous, and many forget the submission of those people to the capital. “Those individuals are flesh and bones,  they have interests”, emphasized the journalist, referring to the promises of reward made by Norte Energia (the company in charge of the construction work) to the local population. That way, said Sakamoto, having a Manichean approach is easier for journalists as it does not require thinking and finding the facts:

O jornalista é fruto do que ele vive e por isso reproduzimos os mesmos erros de cobertura do passado.

The journalist is the product of what he lives and because of that we make the same coverage mistakes as in the past.

For both Sakamoto and Glass, media should show that what is wrong in the region is not good against evil. “What there is is not all good”, said Sakamoto. Both journalists believe that in order to give a voice to the alternatives arising beyond the “good and evil” agenda about Belo Monte, a critical discourse must be developed, taking into account individual circumstances and opinions. The easiness and shallowness of producing a superficial and sporadic news piece,  as most of the mass media vehicles do, doesn't ensure it.

Belo Monte as a spearhead

Aerial view of the hydroelectric powerplant of Santo Antônio, Madeira river, Rondônia. Photo by Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento PAC on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Aerial view of the hydroelectric powerplant of Santo Antônio, Madeira river, Rondônia. Photo by Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento PAC on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant follows the energy model of President Dilma Rousseff's government and will cost the public treasure around R$ 30 billion [approximately USD$ 14.75 billion] – one of the biggest investments in the history of the Brazilian Development Bank.

PAC also includes dams of Madeira, Jirau and Santo Antônio rivers, with the latter having its two turbines in operation for two months. Meanwhile, with a budget twice as big as Santo Antônio's, Belo Monte may become the spearhead for planning other constructions.

As the journalist from the collective Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, Glass said:

Dependendo da resistência em Belo Monte, o governo vai pensar se vale a pena construir em outros lugares.

Depending on the resistance in Belo Monte, the government will think if it is worth building in other sites.

Journalist and sociologist Lúcio Flávio Pinto also questioned the media's coverage of the dams. On his blog Cartas da Amazônia (Letters from the Amazon), he stated [pt] that the attention of the media and the opinion of the Brazilian people is taken to paroxysm before it can lead to an action:

Quando o momento de intervir se apresenta, está desatenta, já perdeu o interesse, passou para outro item da agenda.

When the moment for intervention presents itself, it [the media] is inattentive, it has already lost interest, it has moved on to another item on the agenda.

He suggested that instead of focusing only on the issue of Belo Monte, mainstream media should follow the Santo Antônio hydroelectric dam on the Madeira River, Rondônia, in operation for almost two months, and concluded:

Uma vez tornadas prontas e acabadas, os que a vinham acompanhando partem para outro front.

Once they become ready and finished, those who were working on them leave to go to another front.

It is still unknown if the goals of recent protests against Belo Monte are practical or only in defense of a cause that will soon disappear. The superficiality and distortion by the Brazilian press only increase the uncertainty about the case. Sakamoto advocated for a “trench journalist” to take a deeper look at the everyday perspectives and real interests of the Amazonians.

This article was originally published on the blog of Priscila Kesselring [pt], in the scope of the project Repórter do Futuro (Reporter of the Future) – a course of academic complement for journalism students that intends to debate questions about the Amazon and the diverse conflicts related with it.

This post is part of our special coverage Dossiê Belo Monte (Belo Monte Dossier) [pt] and Forest Focus: Amazon.

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