Looting, Dispossessing, Incarcerating

An Abolitionist Critique of Ecocide at the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam

November 9, 2022

The Brazilian prison and police abolition movement is growing by the day. What can we learn from the struggle against the brutal state violence experienced by Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people in Brazil? In this series, we’ll let the people building abolition in Brazil answer that. The many fronts of the struggle, the diverse character of the movement, from the local to the national and the international: this is the Brazilian movement for prison and police abolition.

In the second installment in the series, which appeared in Portuguese here, Aline Passos and Vitor Costa draw a connection between the ecological fallout from the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam between 2011 and 2016 on the one hand, and the criminal justice system on the other, paying close attention to events such as the uprising at the Altamira regional prison and plans to build the Vitória do Xingu prison complex.

The series’ first installment, “Building Grassroots Politics in Militia Territories in Brazil,” can be found here.

–Amós Caldeira

Translated by Amós Caldeira

Back in 2007, President Lula’s administration launched the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento [Growth Acceleration Program] (PAC). This was a federal development program that focused on three aspects deemed essential to Brazil’s economic prosperity: infrastructure, logistics, and power generation. The main project of this program was the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, located in Altamira, the largest municipality in the state of Pará.

Belo Monte was a project conceived during the Brazilian military dictatorship. Based on the notion of national integration, the military government envisioned several projects that would connect far away regions of Brazil to its center. These regions were said to be vacant, though of course this was far from the truth. Belo Monte’s project came to life from this initiative. In this case, the “vacant” regions were indigenous territory that was systematically stolen and looted by private groups, which were also perpetrators of open violence, often lethal, against native people. One example of this genocidal policy can be found in the final report of the Brazilian National Truth Commission: the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam was built in Akrãtikatejê territory and its people were violently removed.

Nonetheless, it was in the course of President Lula’s second term that the decision to build Belo Monte was made. Despite the combined resistance of the indigenous people and the population living near the region’s rivers, who both felt that the hydroelectric dam’s construction posed an immediate threat, the Chief Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency at the time, Gilberto Carvalho, stated in 2011 that Belo Monte would be built no matter what. He insisted that the planned construction provided “adequate environmental sanitation to the region and adequate relocation for the river people.” The issue, of course, is that none of that was actually provided.

During the course of Belo Monte’s construction, the city of Altamira saw its population explode. These were largely people who had been dispossessed, removed, relocated, or were simply in search of a job. From ninety thousand inhabitants, Altamira’s population soon reached 175,000, and today—due to the lack of census data—we would estimate the population at 115,000 inhabitants. The population’s staggering rise effected the utter collapse of the city. The lack of resources in public education, health care, recreation, and culture, not to mention in private goods and services, changed Altamira’s profile. What was once a quiet city was suddenly known for its violence.

According to the Atlas of Violence 2017, as reported by Ponte Jornalismo, considering the homicide rate, Altamira had become the most violent city in Brazil: from thirteen homicides per one hundred thousand inhabitants in 2000 to one hundred and fourteen homicides per one hundred thousand inhabitants in 2015. However, the extent of violence is even greater than the homicide rate suggests. The lack of access to rights, the removals and relocations executed without regard for people’s needs, and the state of food insecurity in the region are some of the factors identified by social movements as generating an increase in suicide among youth, as well as an increase in violence related to drug trafficking.

We therefore understand Belo Monte as part of a neoextractivist development model: a reconfiguration of Brazil’s relationship to the global economy elevating the economic agenda of developed countries and transnational corporations above the interests of the people that live in the territories where the extraction takes place. The main consequence of this development model is what we call ecocide. It’s the destruction of the whole ecosystem, encompassing the fauna, flora, human beings, and all forms of being in the world.

Once more, the history of Brazilian prisons reveals that the construction of new prisons does not solve the overcrowding problem of the old ones. It only reproduces it anew.

But, why would any of this be related to abolition? First, because there is a direct connection between extractivist megaprojects and the criminal justice system. This is a connection that we’ve been discussing for a while, and that we’ll address whenever we can, for it’s a connection neglected even among abolitionists.

In July 2019, sixty-eight people were killed during an uprising at Altamira’s regional prison. According to a report by the National Council of Justice (CNJ), produced after the uprising, the prison population amounted to 343 men, but the official capacity was only 163. Media outlets and the criminal justice system’s agencies stated that the cause of the uprising and deaths were, among other things, prison overcrowding, and they called for the construction of a prison complex in the neighboring city of Vitória do Xingu, as it was already planned by the state government. The idea that prison massacres can be avoided by building more prisons is one the premises behind proposals focused on a more humane approach to punishment since at least the Carandiru Massacre of 1992. This is a premise that has consistently been proven wrong.

Looking briefly at the data from the Prison Administration Secretariat of Pará (SEAP-PA), we find that the Vitória do Xingu prison complex was inaugurated in November 2019, with 612 beds, spread across two maximum security units (one for men and another for women) and one medium security unit. As was expected, in the following month, December 2019, the men’s unit was already overcrowded, with 379 inmates housed in facilities with only 306 beds—and 234 of these inmates were pre-trial detainees. Thus, the allegation that the July massacre wouldn’t have happened if the new prison were available is clearly indefensible. Once more, the history of Brazilian prisons reveals that the construction of new prisons does not solve the overcrowding problem of the old ones. It only reproduces it anew. The same goes for the “faction war,” a conflict between prison groups that only grows and evolves with each new prison inaugurated.

The Vitória do Xingu prison complex was included in the same set of construction plans to build Belo Monte. Norte Energia, the company in charge of the construction, was contractually required to deliver a prison. One of the first explanations for the massacre of July 2019 was, therefore, that the new prison had not yet been inaugurated. Tragically, what was a contractual obligation became a public demand in the words of some environmentalists and legal experts.

However, once inaugurated, the Vitória do Xingu prison complex became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The contractual obligation for its construction made it clear that nothing would be done to limit or reduce the effects of Belo Monte. The very existence of a prison among the compensatory measures for the harm and impact caused by the hydroelectric dam made one thing clear: the only policy considered for the Xingu region was law enforcement.

Thus, the rationale behind this process is the inverse of what many analysts stated at the time: it was not because Vitória do Xingu’s prison hadn’t been inaugurated that the massacred occurred at Altamira’s prison. It was because Vitória do Xingu’s prison was already included in Belo Monte’s construction plans that none of the social problems related to the increased violence in the region were addressed.

The prison itself is the impossibility of any compensation or reparations for the people affected by the hydroelectric dam. But the prison has gone nearly unnoticed, even among the many people that actively resisted Belo Monte. Well, unnoticed until now.

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