The Energy Crisis and the South American Pharaohs: Brazil’s Large Dams and the Social and Environmental Costs of Renewable Energy, 1973-1989
Brazil is the ideal model for studying the environmental controversies surrounding hydropower. A swell of large dams built by the military dictatorship sent Brazil into the top echelons of global hydropower producers. But these concrete leviathans also created a wealth of social and environmental problems that engendered the rise of an environmental lobby opposing further dam construction. My dissertation will look at the environmental controversies surrounding the four largest dams that Brazil’s military government built: Itaipu, Tucuruí, Sobradinho, and Balbina. My preliminary research suggests that pessimism among Brazilians towards hydropower resulted not from the inherent environmental costs but from the manner in which the dictatorship erected them. The exigencies of the 1973 energy crisis and the desire for immediate economic growth pushed the military dictatorship to plan grand hydroelectric projects that were at best expensive and at worse economically pointless, and to skimp on mitigating the social and environmental costs.