David Cassuto

In 2010, a Brazilian colleague and I were invited to lecture on environmental permitting at the Federal University of Pará in Belem, Brazil. The state of Pará is to be home to the proposed Belo Monte Dam. Nonetheless, we deliberately chose not to discuss the dam. Feelings run so strongly on both sides of the issue that it seemed presumptuous for a North American (me) and a Brazilian from the south of the country (my colleague) to swoop into the region and opine on such a controversial topic. We decided instead to speak in general terms about the vagaries of permitting. However, because permits lie at the heart of the Belo Monte legal battle, the title of the talk led some to think that we would be discussing the dam. The room filled with partisans.

During the Q&A, someone asked the inevitable Belo Monte question. Even as I attempted to stammer out a diplomatic deflection, an audience-member jumped up, declared “I can answer that,” put his laptop under his arm, and strode to the podium. He then delivered a 25 minute disquisition on why Belo Monte was both legal and desirable. In all of the scores of talks I have given all over the world (and all over Brazil), I have never seen anything like that. But then, Belo Monte inspires behaviors one does not often see. For example, a few years ago, a Kayapó woman placed her machete against the face of an Eletronorte representative and demanded that the dams not be built. When considering the legal landscape of Belo Monte, it is worth surveying the cultural and physical geography as well.