Countering Internal Colonialism: Hydropower Development, Collective Action, and Environmental Justice in the Brazilian Amazon

Authors: Peter Klein*, Bard College, Heather Randell*, University of Maryland School of Public Health
Topics: Political Geography, Development, Latin America
Keywords: Brazil, collective action, environmental justice, development
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: Roosevelt 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The Brazilian Amazon has been a site of large-scale development projects since the 1970’s, when the government began constructing highways intersecting the rainforest, encouraging colonization, and promoting resource extraction and cattle ranching. These projects achieved national-level goals, yet rarely benefited local populations. Development in the region continues at a rapid pace, with mining projects, expansion of mechanized agriculture, and the construction of dams, roads, ports, and pipelines. The Brazilian Amazon can be viewed as a case of internal colonialism, in which politically and economically powerful urban centers control resources in poorer, rural areas while failing to invest in development for those regions. Amidst this system, local communities demand that they benefit from development projects and participate in meaningful decision-making. We examine these efforts as they are manifested in the Belo Monte Dam, Brazil’s largest development project. On the one hand, dam construction offers thousands of needed jobs and government investment in the region. On the other hand, Belo Monte has led to substantial social and environmental impacts. Using data from semi-structured interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores social mobilization among displaced farmers and fisherfolk affected by construction. We highlight mechanisms through which groups used collective action to achieve positive livelihood outcomes and show factors that contributed to the ability of local populations to mobilize against internal colonialism. This case broadens understandings of environmental justice, the political economy of the environment, and social movements. We also discuss implications of these findings for future large-scale development projects throughout the Global South.

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