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Loss of home, community and recognition

The construction of the gigantic Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant in Brazil forced thousands of people to relocate. The Kiel geographer Dr Sören Weißermel has investigated the process of expropriation and its consequences.

Since 2011, the third largest hydroelectric power station in the world has been under construction in the Brazilian Amazon region. Belo Monte – "beautiful mountain" – is the name of this major civil engineering project, whereby three dams on the River Xingu form two giant reservoirs, together approximately the size of Lake Constance. Since the initial planning started in the 1980s, the project has been accompanied by massive protests. The criticism mainly concerns the impact on nature and the environment from flooding approximately 500 square kilometres of agricultural land and valuable rainforest, as well as the forced relocation of many people.

The protests continued after the start of construction, and through judicial decisions led to a temporary building freeze on numerous occasions. "But since the project is of great national interest, these were lifted again and again," reported Dr Sören Weißermel from the Department of Geography at Kiel University, who conducted doctoral research on site for a total of around one year. By now, the land is flooded and the power plant is almost finished. The first turbines have been generating electricity since 2016.

"Between 30,000 and 40,000 people have been affected by the construction," estimates the Kiel geographer. Either because they had to leave their homes, which were flooded, or because the dam has virtually drained the river basin and deprived the indigenous peoples living there of their livelihood. "The hardest hit have been the traditional riverside inhabitants, the Ribeirinhos, and the population of the city of Altamira, approximately one-third of which was flooded. " In his doctoral thesis, he focused on the situation of the Ribeirinhos, and examined how the expropriation process was negotiated, which conflicts arose, and how the people resisted. Where the dam is now there used to be small settlements of simple houses on an island or on the banks of the river, where the people fished and grew vegetables. "In addition, they had a house in the city of Altamira, which they lived in when they wished to sell their products, or utilise municipal services," explained Weißermel.

Couple in front of traditional house
© Sören Weißermel

For the construction of the dam, the Ribeirinhos had to give up their traditional island house and life directly on the river.

newly built neighborhood in the city of Altamira
© Sören Weißermel

As compensation, those affected were able to move into a replacement house in a newly built neighborhood in the city of Altamira. The social networks were torn apart by the move to the new quarters. They had to give up fishing and their entire way of life.

They were compensated for the loss of their previous dwellings, either through a replacement house or financial compensation. During this process, many got a bad deal. "If they lost both houses, they only got one replacement house, and the second house was financially compensated. Most of them accepted a house in the city, because the resettlement areas in the countryside were very badly situated. Thus, only the rural house was financially compensated, but only with a very small sum." In addition, the replacement houses in the city were right on the outskirts, and had no access to the river. They had to stop fishing, and give up their previous way of life.

"I have extended the meaning of expropriation in my work, as this was not only limited to the material realm, but meant the collapse of their entire way of life. The people were forced to leave their homes, and thus also lost access to resources, their social network and their day-to-day culture." The Kiel scientist analysed these complex forms of expropriation, and the negotiations between the responsible consortium, those affected and other stakeholders involved. He determined that the resistance to expropriation was primarily a struggle for recognition. "This loss of recognition plays a large role in my work, because it was very important there. It led to mental and physical problems such as depression, cardiac arrhythmias and blood pressure problems. Many have said that they actually aren't really 'living' any longer."

Through the political resistance to the expropriation, the victims have gained recognition and public awareness. Their way of life, their Ribeirinho existence, has been recognised. This has not yet translated into payouts for those affected, and in view of the change of government in Brazil, the chances for improvement in the social situation have decreased. "The new president Jair Bolsonaro and his government have a repressive policy towards minorities. They increasingly see the Amazon region as an economic factor, and will instead increase its exploitation," suspects Weißermel, who was honoured with the Faculty Prize in 2018 for his doctoral research in the Urban and Population Geography working group (led by Professor Rainer Wehrhahn). He also received the ADLAF Prize for interdisciplinary Latin America research, and the Hans Bobek Prize of the Österreichische Geographische Gesellschaft (Austrian Geographical Society).

Kerstin Nees

Further reading: Sören Weißermel: Die Aushandlung von Enteignung. Stuttgart 2019