Conflicts and mega projects in Latin America. Belo Monte and Urrá dams analysis

Master's Thesis, 2015
74 Pages, Grade: 2.3


Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations


First Chapter – Introduction

Second Chapter - Theoretical framework.
Resource Conflict linking Water:
What is an environmental scarcity induced conflict?
Practical concepts: What is a mega projects? What is a dam? What is the consequence of a dam construction?

Third Chapter – Cases
Urrá dam, Córdoba department. Colombia.
Some history:
Timura Analysis:
1) Political and economic differences between groups:
1.1) Political differences:
1.2) Economic differences:
2) Ineffective land regulation system.
3) Corruption and bureaucratic redundancy contribute to the increase of violence.
4) Different land (spiritual, economic) value. Land’s value for local population is higher than for other people.
5) The overlapping of legal systems and possession rights caused confusion that lead to conflict.
6) External factors can increase the risk of conflict.
a) Economic liberalization policies:
b) Political decentralization:
c) Lack of opportunity access:
d) People’s frustration over lack of opportunities after democratization or liberalization process:
Other key factors:
1) Scarcity strategies:
2) Social Construction of degradation:
3) Regional development:
4) Local people participation:
Belo Monte dam, Pará State. Brazil.
Belo Monte impacts:
Timura Analysis:
1) Political and economic differences between groups:
1.1) Political differences:
2) Ineffective land regulation system:
3) Corruption and bureaucratic redundancy contribute to the increase of violence:
4) Different (spiritual, economic) land value:
5) The overlapping of legal systems and possession rights caused confusion that lead to conflict:
6) External factors can increase the risk of conflict:
Political decentralization:
Lack of opportunity access:
People’s frustration over lack of opportunities after democratization or liberalization process:
Other key factors:
Scarcity strategies:
Social Construction of degradation:
Regional development:
Local people participation:

Forth Chapter- Conclusion:
1. Economic and political differences:
2. Land distribution and violence:
3. Corruption and bureaucracy redundancy:
4. Local land value:
5. Economic development plans:
6. Both countries face recent democratization and economic liberalization processes:
7. Positive social construction on the environment degradation by powerful actors:
8. Local participation:



I would like first to thank God for having the grace to share my life with Celene Patricia and Isabel Cristina, my parents, family and (new and old) friends. Their love, support and patience was fundamental during these two long Master years.

This thesis would not have been possible unless the academic support from my thesis tutor Dr. Ramos Barón and my academic tutor Prf. Dr Richter. Also I want to thank Dr. Sharma and Prf. Dr. Koloma Beck for their recommendations and help during the thesis colloquium.

I owe my deepest gratitude to Mr. Benjamín A. González Ibarra, Mr. Frykeiesus Geybreiesus Naizghi and Mr. Richard Stupart for them help, comments and corrections during this research. This also goes to many colleges from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy that give me their help and friendship during my studies.

Finally I cannot find words to express my gratitude to the DAAD, institution which economically supported my studies and gave me this amazing opportunity. Additionally, I want also to show my gratitude to the Willy Brand School of Public Policy professors and staff.

¡Muchísimas gracias!

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Latin America became a hotspot for construction of infrastructure due the liquidity and financing of the international lending market (Velloso, 2014). The region is building infrastructure for its future - especially hydroelectric dams - due increasing requirements for electricity. According to Feansile (2006), the construction of “hydroelectric dams represents major investments and major sources of environmental and social impacts” (p.16). The construction of hydroelectric dams “lead to displacement of large local populations, adverse impacts on downstream water users and ecosystems, changes in control of local resources, and economic dislocations” (Gleick, 1993, p.93). This may imply conflicts between the dam constructors (government, license firms and contractors) and local populations (NGOs, citizens, indigenous and opposition groups). These disagreements could trigger disputes among ethnic or economic groups, between urban and rural populations, and across borders (Gleick, 1993). From all this problematic comes the research questions from this thesis:

- What are the key factors that influence the emergence of conflicts in the development of the selected hydroelectric mega-projects, Bello Monte in Brazil and Urrá 1 and 2 in Colombia?
- How managing those factors may lead to better alternatives to intervene socio-environmental conflict?


Lateinamerika ist den neuen Hotspot für Infrastruktur bauen, weil Finanzierung Möglichkeit und internationalen Markt Liquidität gibt (Velloso, 2014). Die Region baue Infrastruktur für seine Zukunft, insbesondere Wasserkraftwerke aufgrund der zunehmenden Forderung von Strom. Nach Feansile (2006), die bauen von „Wasserkraftwerke repräsentiert Höhe Investierung und Hauptquellen der ökologischen und sozialen Auswirkungen“ (p. 16). Wasserkraftwerke bauen „führen zur Verdrängung von große lokalen Bevölkerung, negative Auswirkungen auf die nachgelagerten Wassernutzer und der Ökosysteme, Veränderungen in der Kontrolle der lokalen Ressourcen und wirtschaftlichen Verwerfungen“ (Gleick, 1993, p. 93). Diese könnte Konflikte zwischen Wasserkraftwerke Bauern (Regierung, Firmen und Bauunternehmen) und Bevölkerung (NGOs, Bürger, indigenen und Oppositionsgruppen) bedeuten. Dann könnte das problematisch Auseinandersetzungen zwischen den ethnischen und wirtschaftlichen Gruppen, zwischen städtischen und ländlichen Bevölkerung auslösen, und über Grenzen hinweg (Gleick, 1993). Von all dieser Problematik kommen die Forschungsfragen aus dieser Arbeit:

- Was sind die Schlüsselfaktoren, die die Entstehung von Konflikten bei der Entwicklung der ausgewählten Wassermegaprojekte, Bello Monte, in Brasilien, und Urrá 1 und 2, in Kolumbien, zu beeinflussen?
- Wie die Verwaltung dieser Faktoren können zu besseren Alternativen führe zu sozio-ökologischen Konflikten einzugreifen?

First Chapter – Introduction

“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.”

Proverbs 17:14.

South America is a region rich in natural resources, and historically an exporter of raw material. At this moment, the region is building several mega projects, including dams. Hydroelectricity plays an important role as an energy source in the region. This is because of its particular geographical conditions and an increase in the demand for energy. Additionally, liquidity in the international lending has encouraged dam construction financing in countries in the region (Velloso, 2014). Dams involve several problems which affect neighbouring population, however (Velloso, 2014; Feansile, 2006; Gleick, 1993).

This thesis will be based on two research cases: the Belo Monte and Urrá dams. The first dam is located in the Amazonian region of Brazil and the second on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. The reason for choosing these two cases is that they are both severely contested projects by local, indigenous, and opposition groups. During the construction phase of both dams, they faced similar legal, political and economic challenges. Urrá was completed in 2000 however had other expansion works ongoing until 2009. Belo Monte will be finished in 2019.

Regarding the theoretical framework, both cases will be analysed with theories from the socio-environmental conflict studies literature. This theoretical framework is based on Timura’s (2001) paper. Additionally, ideas from Dietz, Stern, & Rycroft (1989), Libiszewski (1991), Homer-Dixon (1994), Reuveny & Maxwell (2001), Stalley (2003), Fearnside (2006), Salehyan (2008), and others have been used where appropriate.

Using a theoretical framework and analysing both cases with it, will assist in answering the research questions:

- What are the key factors that influence the emergence of conflicts in the development of the hydroelectric mega-projects at Bello Monte in Brazil and Urrá 1 and 2 in Colombia?
- And how might managing those factors lead to better alternatives for interventions in socio-environmental conflict?

This thesis has four chapters. The first is a brief introduction. The second is the theoretical framework, containing definitions and theoretical discussion of conflicts and hydroelectric projects. Next, a third chapter develops the historical background, and an analysis of Urrá and Belo Monte, using the theoretical framework. Finally, the last chapter includes a conclusion and a recommendation for future cases.

This research work is based on information gathered from secondary sources. The reason for this is because it was impossible for this research to undertake a research trip and obtain primary data, therefore the thesis is limited in how the work was made. Nevertheless, by triangulating it, it was possible to validate the obtained information. The secondary information was obtained in different languages, mainly Spanish for Urrá and Portuguese in the case of Belo Monte. Also some German, French and English secondary sources and research papers were found.

The research objective and expected goals are to find, analyse and explain the key factors that played a major role in the eruption of social conflicts in the constructions of dams in Latin America. Other, secondary outcomes are to find best practices for similar future situations, generate recommendations for the construction of hydroelectric projects and determine factors which might drive the escalation of similar conflicts. The research concludes with discussing potential best practices that can be used to manage conflicts.

Second Chapter - Theoretical framework.

“Environmental conflict appears to be increasing exponentially” Lach. (1996, p. 211).

The question guiding this research needs to be initially addressed linking different concepts – practical and theoretical in a specific oriented theoretical framework. Concepts such as: socio-environmental conflict, development initiatives are linked here with human endeavours such as mega-projects and hydroelectric dams. The idea is to provide a logical framework in order to explain and analyse two case studies selected for this research: Belo Monte and Urrá dams. With this entire framework, the research question will be answered. The chapter’s order is first the definition of resource (especially water) conflict followed by the interrelated definition of mega-projects and dams.

Resource Conflict[1] linking Water:

The only non-contested perception about water aspects is that it is a key resource which has economic and ecological functions. However, in the academic literature, the link between water and conflict has several answers. First, the pro-argument will be enumerate, and later the con-arguments. Also the local and international occurrence of the conflict will be discussed. Towards the end of this chapter some concepts related will be analysed: resilience strategies, governmental role, and social construction of degradation. All these analysis and answers will give some clarification and will help during the following parts of this research.

Stalley (2003) mentions on water access that it is perhaps the most commonly mentioned environmental variable related to conflict. Around the planet countries, regions and nations share river and lake systems. Within complexities of sharing those water resources, there are pacific or conflictive relationships. But, in the case of people dependant and based on river or lake systems any important intervention on those systems cause huge problems to their way of life. The reason behind conflict over property and access rights to water relies in three interdependent factors: first, as proposed by Libiszewski (1991) almost every ecosystems function relies on it, second, there is no substitute for human consumption, as well as it is difficult to transport or to produce it (Stalley, 2003, p. 39). And finally, because without water life, agriculture and transport are almost impossible.

It is common to read in news, institutions and NGOs[2] discussing things about the future water wars. Some people say that in the next century conflicts will erupt because competition over natural resources. Also academics, like Reuveny & Maxwell (2001, p. 720), mention a future role of water triggering conflicts and wars. Using past events, classified by these authors as water triggered conflicts. They mention for example: the 1989th Mauritania-Senegal conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the 1980th South Africa and Lesotho conflict, the 2000th Syrian-Turkish Euphrates dispute and the China’s Ningxia Province conflict. Other authors like Bob & Bronkhorst (2010, p. 19) give a different perspective over the water scarcity conflict. They mention: this type of conflict has some particularities. First there is the obvious necessity to access fresh water and, second, conflict has a food insecurity aspect. Without water access the agricultural productivity decreases. Homer-Dixon (1994, p. 6), an influential scholar in the subject, affirmed environmental scarcities are conducing, in several places of the Global South, to violent conflicts. “These conflicts are probably the early signs of an upsurge of violence in the coming decades that will be induced or aggravated by scarcity” (p. 6). To sum up, there is in the social science literature that many scholars argue as a causal link between scarcity and conflict.

Also there are other researchers that sustain middle points. For example, Matthew, Brown, & Jensen (2009) say the environmental factors are seldom the only cause of conflicts. There are many other aspects which play an important role; such as economic hardship, amount of trade between actors, ethnicity issues or political unrests. Although, academics agree “exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses can become significant drivers of violence” (Matthew, Brown, & Jensen, 2009, p. 8). Conflicts over resources are not the key factors that trigger conflict; however exist other multiple factors as part of any conflict.

But, on the other hand, there are scholars who refute all established ideas of resource conflict theory. As an example Stalley (2013) mentions is common to some academics to make risky predictions about the imminent water, or resource, wars. The scholar also mentions that these same academics place the resource conflicts and water scarcity as a threat to national security, making the issue a state security agenda. Regarding the eruption of water wars, Barnet (2000) mentions there is a problem with this argument. He finds it very difficult, or almost impossible, to separate and identify the key conflict factors. All other factors contribute in the conflict escalation, resource is only one part of the whole picture; “conflict over water tends to be over something else. It seems that the broader political context is more relevant that the specific instance of water scarcity” (p. 276). For Barnet the argument for water wars, or in any case resource conflict, are unconvincing to be seriously considered as a conflict cause.

Stalley (2003) argues the relationship between environmental variables and conflict is not clear enough. According to him “there is no quantitative study that explores the link between environmental variables and international conflict” (p. 33). He says arguments of specialised literature are based on the relationship between international conflict and scarcity. Also, he mentions the link, because of its absence in many cases, can be highly discussed. Stalley quotes Wolf (1999), because the second totally neglects the water war argument and says that there has been never a single war over water. Other academics works have similar arguments, for example Schwartz & Singh (1999). They mention a connection between conflict and resource scarcities is not perfectly clear. For them environmental factors are interconnected as part of political, social or economic dynamics of a conflict.

Other scholar who criticizes these ideas is Salehyan (2008). He mentions the linkage, generated in resource conflict “new wave research”, is neither sufficient nor weak. “Causal pathways are complex and contingent on a host of additional factors” (p. 316). Others, like Hagmann (2005), go even further and totally neglect environmentally induced conflict literature. He challenges all empirical and theoretical conclusion of this literature. Hagmann’s argument is based on that this literature assumes a casual linkage between quantity and quality or certain resource in a place and the conflict emergence. For the author the whole concept is ambiguous and elusive. Hagmann says: “This elusiveness largely results from preconceived causalities, academic philosophies that combine eco-centric and anthropocentric conceptions, and the failure to provide an explicit explanation of agency in human-nature interactions” (p. 20). He criticizes a neo-Malthusian approach of some scholars. For him some scholars use simple causality view over the conflict’s complexity, population coping strategies and/or regional diversity. Hagmann concludes with a harsh critique and totally neglecting the concept of environmentally induced conflict (p. 21).

Timura (2001) asks himself if simple scarcity can be a violence cause. He answers the argumentation and models supporting water wars –with linear explanations- do not study or analyse other important secondary factors. For Timura (2001) “social histories, symbolically-mediated perception, and local political economies play in the outbreak of violence” (p. 104). In this same idea, Timura (2001) mentions, as previously mentioned academics in this research chapter, apparent conflicts (or perception) over natural resources have multiple aspects. Which are previous to the conflict eruption, such as social, political and economic conditions and world understanding by each contested group. Timura (2001) criticizes the current environmental discourse; he argues that the next environmental discourse needs more anthropological understanding and theory-building (p. 111).

Timura (2001) enumerates other factors apart from the linear scarcity – conflict nexus, fundamental for understanding conflict's dynamic. The author on his paper: “Environmental Conflict” and the social life of Environmental security Discourse” researches, compares and analyses several environment conflicts around the Global South[3]. And he finds some important features and dynamics (p. 110-111.), which will be used as a research theoretical framework:

- Political and economic differences between groups.
- Ineffective regulation system over land. The state organization fail to distribute the land. Also, another problematic, is the overlapping of land ownership during the establishment of new migrants.
- Corruption and bureaucratic redundancy contribute to the increase of violence. The access to law and a just procedure by all people is a guarantee against conflict. Timura (2001) says that if this does not exist, it reinforces existing differences between the contested groups.
- Different land (spiritual, economic) values. The land’s value for local population is higher than for other people.
- Legal systems overlapping and several possession rights cause confusion that lead to conflict.
- External factors to the place of conflict can increase the risk of conflict. The author mentions as examples: economic liberalization policies, political decentralization, lack of access of opportunities and frustration of people over the lack of empowerment after a democratization or liberalization process[4].

Summarizing the previous ideas, this research follows the framework proposed by Timura (2001) because it shows to be effective interrelating the broad set of factors involving a socio-environmental conflict. Dams, in particular the both cases there will be analysed, have a broad range of factors and participation of actors. Some factors such as the role of the state, land value, democracy and participation, external actors, etc. Timura's framework is a complete structure to understand the emergence, evolution and perhaps the intervention in socio-environmental conflict.

Moreover, the literature over resource conflicts divides itself between international or domestic conflicts. Many realistic ideas where presented before in this chapter (Reuveny & Maxwell, 2001; Stalley, 2013; Elliot, 1996). All mention a possible conflict between states for resources access. Additionally, natural resources securitization and water access militaristic discourse have another complete literature body. Elliot (1996) explains, “primarily a realist agenda, one that seeks to identify the kind of environmental degradation (water) that might present internal and external threats to national security or lead to interstate war or violence” (p. 150). Elliot argues, in the realistic thinking about the scarcity problem, that environment degradation is in itself not a trouble. The problem arises when environmental degradation threatens a state(s). He mentions that if there is a linkage which can be proved between violence and resource, ergo military intervention has a pretext. For Elliot (1996) “the zero-sum understanding of the world” is the main focus of states over the environmental conflict” (p.152). The state’s interest is the link between conflict and degradation; they are not interested in the ecosystem's degradation per se. The state’s only interest of this degradation is that which will affect their future non-renewable resources access, says Elliot (1996). Of course, a verifiable link can be difficult to observe. Therefore the author rightly points the complicated possibility of discovering a link between both variables.

Elliot (1996) gives a comparative sum up of the literature body and states two comparative arguments. The first “is symptom focused. Environmental degradation and conflict is a threat to national security and therefore the usual military-security responses should be invoked” (p.162). The second is “cause focused and advocates that the causes of environmental degradation must be addressed to avoid rather than resist environmental threat” (p. 162). Both reactions have different ranges, the first is narrow because it only tackles the problem. The second is broader in options, nevertheless, it does not have a role in the main literature or in policies creation.

Solutions over water disputes among states seem to be highly regulated. Stalley (2003, p. 39) quotes, from Wolf (1999), that until the year 1984 there were over 3,600 signed treaties dealing with international water resources. Water conflicts between states can be solved in international courts. The court rules over borders and river or lake water usage. There are peacefully and legal mechanisms to solve parties disputes[5], there is no need to solve any international water dispute with violence. Not following such peacefully procedures can imply condemnation from international organizations and further consequences.

On the other hand, as Timura (2001), Stalley (2003) or Homer-Dixon[6] (1994) say, conflicts over resources access develop locally. There are many actors, perspectives, bureaucratic difficulties, economic interests and less international protection to a vulnerable population caught inside a conflict. Because of this, there is not an international watchdog which regulates each internal country conflict and the proper dynamics (social, economic, political, etc.) of it. Therefore when a local socio-environmental conflict arises it affects, most of the time, the most vulnerable population. Regarding this part of the population, Lach (1996, p. 213) mentions one unfortunate truth, in which low-income population bear environmental problems of a society.

There are other things that can be discussed in order to analyse specialised literature and continue to construct a theoretical framework. When scarcity emerges, lack of good methods of resource sharing, resilience[7] strategies and innovation play an important role in order to adapt for a new reality. As Reuveny & Maxwell (2001) mention, technological innovation to solve overpopulation and resource depletion problem is a critique for all Malthusian[8] theories. The specialized literature still differs in this important point: does resource conflict motivate innovation or not? Homer-Dixon (1994), for example, mentions innovation capacities are lost during and because of conflict. So it is not possible to argue that conflict erupted due to non-resource reasons. If the population had tools (innovation and resilience) to stop the problem and control the resources access; hence the population could solve their conflicts. Perhaps this is the reason why in the Global North social-environmental conflicts are not frequent. Reuveny & Maxwell (2001) mention that at a time when resources are available and abundant “actors' behaviour changes so that conflict is no longer considered a rational option” (p. 738).

Regarding the government role as a guarantee to solve and control conflicts inside their borders, Salehyan (2008) argues that there is a part of the literature which prioritizes environmental conditions over human capacities and resilience strategies. Also this author says with his argument that governments are seen as a victim and not as a key actor. Governments have redistributive power to tackle conflicts and come with a solution. The literature, which Salehyan (2008) opposes, says that governments are incapable and overcome by difficulties. Salehyan is criticising Homer-Dixon's arguments. For him Homer-Dixon's argument is giving bad or irresponsible governments excuses to act as victims.

Finally, another idea that is important to mention briefly is the social construction of the degradation. Dietz, Stern, & Rycroft (1989) define social construction of the degradation when society perceives degradation or destruction of a resource as something normal or even positive. The discourse of development or modernity has the problematic which these authors mention. These authors conclude with a tragic example: “A society that treats as clean a water supply with high concentrations of typhoid bacteria, pesticides or heavy metals will suffer a high toll of illness and death; a society that sees an implacable enemy as benign is likely to fall victim in war. So a construction discrepant with reality may prove very costly” (p. 53).

What is an environmental scarcity induced conflict?

In this second part environmental scarcity induced conflict will be analysed and defined. Also several arguments, with different positions over this concept, will be developed. The definition of environmental conflict is contested and not easily demarked. There is a reason for this academic dispute, explained by Dietz, Stern, & Rycroft (1989): “Our findings support the contention that environmental conflict is defined in ways that parallel the values and political interests of different actors in the conflicts” (p. 61).

According to Martin (2005), referring to Homer-Dixon, environmental scarcity is an indirect cause of conflict. Scarcity, says the author, can detonate or increase the usual conflict causes. He continues and says, “such amplification of existing social fault-lines is associated with institutional failure that is linked to scarcity and poverty” (p. 330). It can be concluded that scarcity induced conflict is an amplification of previous problems. Scarcity itself does not produce any dispute, but, according to Martin it is a previous conflict prerequisite.

Homer-Dixon (1994) gives three causes of environmental scarcity of renewable resources: environmental change, population growth and unequal social distribution of resources. Environmental change refers to a human-induced decline in quantity or quality of a renewable resource which occurs faster than it is renewed by natural processes. Population growth reduces a resource's per-capita availability by dividing it among an increasing population. Unequal resource distribution concentrates resource in hands of few people and subjects the rest to greater scarcity (p. 8). Homer-Dixon (1994) exemplifies the concept with this statement: “reduction in the quantity or quality of a resource shrinks the resource pie, while population growth divides the pie into smaller slices, and unequal resource distribution means that some groups get disproportionately large slices” (p. 8). The author mentions that interaction of environmental change and population growth becomes complicated when there is also an unequal resource distribution. Nevertheless, shortage of any resource can be subjective because it can be socially constructed. Next the author defines resources and divides them into traditional non-renewable and renewable. He denotes two important definitions of renewable resources, useful for the present research. First he mentions, renewable goods (flora and fauna) and, second, renewable services such the hydrological cycles, currents or climates.

Libiszewski (1991) says these conflicts have different manifestations, such as economic, ethnic, religious, ideological or territorial conflicts. The conflict core is a dispute over national interests, resources, among other things. For Libiszewski (1991), conflict incudes degradation. Nevertheless he concludes something different from Homer-Dixon. He mentions that scarcity induced conflicts are rarely resource conflicts per se. There are many other factors that trigger and intervene in the conflict.

In the other hand, there are scholars opposing environmental scarcity and conflict link. For example Martin (2005) says that practically there is no interest in knowing why in most of the cases environmental scarcity lead to peaceful arrangements. In his paper, Martin’s objective is to find peaceful ways to solve local competition to insufficient means. He concludes that scarcity brings peace. As a resilience strategy, the author mentions, different groups work together to develop and achieve a peaceful cooperation order. For him scarcity encourages the population to sit, discuss and solve their disputes.

Both theories because both seem logical, therefor it is impossible to follow one or another. In one side, scarcity can trigger a protracted conflict. On the other hand scarcity force people to act and solve their differences. During the development of this research and analysis of both cases it will more clear what happens in each case.

Practical concepts: What is a mega projects? What is a dam? What is the consequence of a dam construction?

Because this research will be over the conflictive dynamics of two dams, defining what are dams and their effects is fundamental for this research. Also, it is important to have a perspective and to define a mega project. Finally, the most common dam consequences for the local population will be enumerated.

A mega project, according to Merrow, Mcdonnell & Arguden (1988), is that project whose capital cost for completed construction exceeds 1$ Billion[9] (1984 dollars). They mention that other common way to also define a mega project is by calculating the total days of engineering or construction days necessary to finish the work. According to these authors, mega projects faces multiple challenges: short cost estimation, complexity, wrong economic assumptions, parallel infrastructure construction, material and workers shortage and the magnitude of the project produce inevitable environmental change. Also, because high complexity and required investment, it is probable that some investors come from the Global-North. This has as consequence a high profile cultural and languages difference between investors and local population. In this study, Merrow, Mcdonnell & Arguden (1988) mention key factors which made those projects costlier: government investing involvement, imported workers, subcontractors and regulatory problems (only when the government is not part of the project). Another conclusion is that governments regularly are willing to pay more in order to finish on time the projects (1988).

There are two Latin American cases analysed, as success stories, in the Merrow, Mcdonnell & Arguden’s (1988) paper: Itaipú dam and Ponce petrochemical complex. For the case of Itaipú “the key ingredients were very careful definition of the project in the early stages and virtually complete harmony between the national partners during the course of the project” (p. 42). Brazil and Paraguay, partners of the project with international investors, contributed with a better regulatory outgoing of the construction. Paraguay, because of its budget limitations, played a controlling role. In the case of the Ponce petrochemical plant in Puerto Rico, the project did not suffer any delay. Time was invested to teach Spanish to the leadership staff. Also the project provided and provides jobs for the local population.

A dam is a construction that contains river or lake natural flow. The dam objectives are: flooding control, to generate electricity, to provide water to people, agriculture, industries, aquaculture and navigation. Since ancient times almost all cultures have constructed dams. Also in the Americas, indigenous cultures constructed dams. For example, recently a Mayan dam was discovered in the ancient city of Tikal[10], Guatemala. There is a huge potential for constructing dams in in South America. Hundreds of large rivers cross the region: Amazon, Orinoco, La Plata, Magdalena, Paraná, etc. The use of these has become a new hot stop for construction for hydroelectric plants.

Latin America is heavily investing in the construction of infrastructure due the liquidity (BADES, IDB) and financing of the international lending market (China's new diplomacy in Latin America) (Velloso, 2014). The region faces electricity shortages because of rapid economic development (new industries and higher household consumption). Additionally, there are regional plans for the construction of several public works construction (roads, bridges, tunnels, etc.) in order to connect, with the CELAC plans, the South American and Caribbean nations (Frayssinet 2013; Velloso, 2014). In this research two dams will be explained and analysed, which are recent constructions in order to deliver more energy to their regions. Urrá 1 and 2, on the Sinú river, in the department of Córdoba, Colombia; and, second, Belo Monte, on the Xingú river, dam in Pará State in Brazil. Urrá and, specially, Belo Monte, are big dams.

The dam conflict literature is vast. Homer-Dixon (1994), describes the dynamic over huge dams. He mentions the disruptive features, causing massive relocation for the upstream or downstream communities. Relocation causes then problems because newcomers affect local population. The author mentions that most affected in these situations are often minority groups, those groups fight for their rights and then there is more repression from the state (p. 20). Also, the scholar mentions that: “Water developments can also induce conflict over water and irrigable land among a country's downstream users” (p. 20). Finally, Homer-Dixon (1994) argues that rules that govern natural resources change when a dam or mega project is constructed and change is based on “the relative values of resources” (p. 8). Libiszewski (1991, p. 4) mentions that the serious river manipulation exemplifies the disequilibrium that human interference cause. Also, Fearnside (2006) mentions the construction of “hydroelectric dams represent major investments and major sources of environmental and social impacts” (p. 16). Or, construction of hydroelectric dams “lead to displacement of large local populations, adverse impacts on downstream water users and ecosystems, changes in control of local resources, and economic dislocations” (Gleick, 1993, p. 93). Also, continues Gleick, naming the usual actors in a dam construction dispute. Also the author describes the different parties in this type of conflicts: dam constructors (government, license firms, and contractors) and the local population (NGOs, citizens, indigenous and opposition groups) (1993, p. 93). These impacts could be trigger factors to disputes among ethnic or economic groups, between urban and rural populations, and across borders. As a final remark, Bob & Bronkhorst (2010) mention relationships between dams and “water degradation and conflicts are also linked to the migration of biodiversity (including people)” (p. 19). These authors argue that intensive conflicts over water can be produced by human intervention in the natural water flow, either irrigation systems or dams. Then, after a literature review, there is no contestation over dam impacts or actors that usually intervene in this type of dispute.

Regarding the subject of dam construction, there is always the question of regional development and local people participation (related with the previous consent principle). The dam idea as progress factor is almost universal. Therefore, according to Iracheta-Cenecorta & Gómez-Marcial (2014, p. 24): decisions (of a dam construction) depends on how governments consider development; bureaucrats consider the dam as economic boomers because the economic benefits it will bring into their regions. Or, Dietz, Stern, & Rycroft (1989) conclude development or not, as “differences between people in how much they value economic growth or in how averse they are to environmental hazards will cause conflict. The uncertainty that characterizes environmental issues serves to magnify these value conflicts” (p. 51). Iracheta-Cenecorta & Gómez-Marcial conclude in an economic-development concept is not anymore valid as an excuse to build dams, because they argue that it is necessary to ask local people what are their necessities. In the end local habitants are the most interested in developing their own territory and finding ways to do it. Or Amungwa (2011, p. 58) says management of resources involve creation of new models of conflict management that take in consideration local and indigenous socio-cultural and political frameworks and peculiarities. As final remark, Dietz, Stern, & Rycroft (1989) mention local participation in the dam construction “ensures that local/indigenous values are taking into consideration in designing strategies for judicious management of natural resources” (p. 51).

For this research, Urrá and Belo Monte cases local participation and development definition are fundamental factors to understand and analyse the conflict dynamics.


[1] Conflict, using Wallensteen definition, is “a social situation in which a minimum of two actors (parties) strive to acquire at the same moment in time an available set of scare resources” (Bob & Bronkhorst, 2010, p. 10).

[2] For example the Pacific Institute that has a Water and Conflict Chronology and Atlas. More information in

[3] The Zapatista Rebellion, Chiapas, Mexico. The massacre in at El Dorado dos Carajas, Pará, Brazil. And, the Guinea Fowl War, Northern Region, Ghana.

[4] As final aspect of Timura’s (2001) research findings, he argues that the Christian missionaries helped people to express their discontent. Many times Religion fills the vacuum from the State.

[5] The Hague Court can solve disputes between countries. Also there are regional mediation mechanisms. Even the WTO can solve water issues when they are commercial.

[6] Homer-Dixon (1994) believes that environmentally-induced conflicts are more likely to be domestic than international.

[7] “Resilience is the capacity to resist disturbance and adapt to and shape environmental change” (Galaz, 2005, p. 567)

[8] T. R. Malthus (1766-1834) English scholar. He argued that the population growth will deplete the aliment sources and stocks. As a consequence this will bring a consequent catastrophe.

[9] In the year 2014 the number arises up to 2$ Billion.

[10] More information at

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Conflicts and mega projects in Latin America. Belo Monte and Urrá dams analysis
University of Erfurt  (Willy Brandt School of Public Policy)
socio-environmental conflict
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1189 KB
conflicts, environmental, dam, impact
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Rubén I. González Tinoco (Author), 2015, Conflicts and mega projects in Latin America. Belo Monte and Urrá dams analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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