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Aaron Vincent Elkaim: 2016 Finalist

Meandering 1600 km before connecting to the Amazon River, the Xingu River has been home to Brazil’s indigenous people for millennia. In 1961, the famous Brazilian activist and anthropologist trio the Villas-Bôas brothers succeeded in protecting the entire upper Xingu basin through the establishment of the first Indigenous Park in Brazil. Fifteen years later, under military dictatorship, a new plan would seal the fate of the lower Xingu. The original plans for the Belo Monte Dam Complex included six dams and would flood 1,225 km² of Rainforest. In 1989, indigenous groups led by the Kayapó mounted a massive public campaign to oppose its construction due to fears that their river would be destroyed. International financiers soon pulled their support, and the project was shelved.

In 2007, then Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the Accelerated Growth Program, the largest investment package to spur economic growth in Brazil in the past forty years. A cornerstone of this program is the industrialization of the Amazon, with a reworked plan for Belo Monte at the forefront of a proposal to construct over sixty major hydroelectric projects. Now nearing completion, the Belo Monte Dam is considered the third largest dam in the world and is displacing over twenty thousand people.

Hydroelectric dams are touted as clean and renewable sources of energy, yet hundreds of square miles of land are flooded and complex river ecosystems permanently transformed while new infrastructure and population growth open the forests to increased logging, mining, and agriculture. Environmentalists believe Brazil’s energy demands could be solved with solar and wind investment; meanwhile, Brazilian corruption scandals have been connected to what is now the largest infrastructure project in South America.

When a river is dammed an entire region is changed forever. Where the River Runs Through explores the lives of those living within Brazil’s dam boom. Indigenous and riverine people who depend upon their environment for survival are facing new realities as the Belo Monte Dam nears completion; at the same time programs meant to compensate the impacted people remain unfulfilled. On the neighboring Tapajos River, the Munduruku Tribe of thirteen thousand people, are fighting against government plans to build the next mega dam, the San Luiz do Tapajos, that would flood their traditional territory and destroy the river that is their sacred home.

The impacts of hydroelectric energy are severely misunderstood around the world; the realities of this “green energy” fall on the remote communities who are directly impacted. Where the River Runs Through seeks to recognize their voices so we can better understand what is lost when a river is dammed. —Aaron Vincent Elkaim

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