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How Can Procedural Injustices of Hydropower Development in Brazil Be Addressed Through a Policy Mix?

by Hsiang-Ping Kuan Americas Jul 26th 20235 mins
How Can Procedural Injustices of Hydropower Development in Brazil Be Addressed Through a Policy Mix?

The construction of large hydroelectric dams such as Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam is often overshadowed by procedural injustice, with marginalised communities left out of the decision-making process. What are the injustices behind hydropower expansion in Brazil and what policies can help towards more procedurally just energy infrastructure development?

Hydropower is a renewable energy technology that makes up a substantial 66% of the electricity generation in Brazil. Large hydroelectric dams like Brazil’s’ Belo Monte Dam located on the Xingu River are required to produce this energy. However, the development of such dams has a significant socio-economic impact on the local communities, including the displacement of large groups of people. This has been brought about by procedural injustice which is at the heart of Belo Monte’s construction. This type of injustice happens when the decision-making process is not inclusive of the communities and not everyone is treated fairly.

Share of electricity production by source, Brazil Our world in data

Share of electricity production by source in Brazil, 1985-2022. Image: Our World in Data.

Injustices Behind Hydropower Development in Brazil

Belo Monte is located on the Xingu River in the Amazon within the state of Pará. The project was first announced in 1975 and took over 30 years to complete as the plan faced resistance from local communities and NGOs. It was finally completed by Norte Energia in 2015.

Due process, public participation, and representation are all principal elements of making procedurally just decisions.  Therefore, the lack of these elements when making energy development decisions lead to affected communities being unable to influence the final decision. Consequently, three injustices including ‘unfair negotiation, ‘involuntary settlement’ and ‘community marginalisation’ are often observed.

The first injustice is ‘unfair negotiation’. Often, energy projects are unfair, undemocratic or unrepresentative of all affected communities. This is evident in the decision-making process of the Belo Monte. Belo Monte was supposed to adhere to the International Labour Organisation Article 169, which requires developers of dams to hold open consultations with affected indigenous and tribal communities. However, during the construction of the dam, builders and authorities did not conduct fair consultations. Instead, the consultations held were to inform rather than to discuss decisions and impacts with the local communities. Another aspect of this “unfair negotiation” is that the wealthy have more bargaining power where they can use their wealth to influence a negotiation. 

In the case of Belo Monte, before construction began, groups of indigenous communities agreed to the project in exchange for better infrastructure and wealth.  Nevertheless, a follow-up study revealed that the compensated communities experienced high commodity prices and did not see long-term benefits. Perhaps, this is because dam developers and the indigenous communities were not on the same economic starting point when negotiating, thus leading to an unjust outcome.

The second injustice is “involuntary settlement”. This is often unavoidable with large infrastructure such as hydroelectric dams. The construction of Belo Monte displaced approximately 30,000 people from their indigenous communities. This forced resettlement is an injustice as the consultations held were not all-inclusive and fair. The displacement also led to a third injustice of “community marginalisation”. A marginalised community bears the burdens of energy infrastructure, such as hydroelectric dams. In this instance, communities living downstream from the Xingu River were not forced to move but their livelihoods were disrupted by the dam

What Should Justice Look Like?

Energy justice is about how society distributes the cost and benefits of the energy system, with the objective of being fair and just. There are three tenets to energy justice – distribution, recognition, and procedure.

Procedural justice is fundamental in the construction of hydroelectric dams. It means that decision-making processes should engage and recognise all stakeholders without discrimination. It calls for impartiality, full participation, and information disclosure by the government. This should have been the case in Brazil, as Brazil’s constitution of 1988 would require the National Congress to vote on Belo Monte because of its impact on the rights of the indigenous communities along the Xingu River. However, the approval for the dam was pushed through with no resistance in Brazil’s National Congress. This is due to the importance of hydropower in the energy mix of Brazil and shows the major injustice flaw at the very top of the decision-making process.

You might also like: What is Climate Justice and Why Is It Important?

What Policies Could Inform More Procedurally Just Decisions?

To make procedurally just decisions, the policies implemented need to address the lack of due process, inclusive participation, equal representation, and availability of information.

1. Better disclosure of high-quality information

Both governments and industries should provide full information disclosure on all future dam constructions affecting communities in the Amazon. When holding public hearings and consultations, attendees should be provided with all necessary information before giving consent to the construction or resettlement. When disclosing information to indigenous communities with incomplete compulsory education, information should contain elements of education and a clear explanation, such as mentioning the element of cultural identity and preservation against the attractive wealth from the compensation, when discussing resettlement compensation packages.

2. Inclusive decision-making process

Inclusive public participation is crucial for public consultations, referendums, and debates. Therefore, indigenous communities that will have to be displaced or have their livelihood disrupted, should all be included in the consultations. Public participation should also focus on delivering more equitable outcomes and policies rather than just overcoming community objections. To further deepen the involvement of the affected communities, it is also important to incorporate local knowledge. This means, that both the Brazilian government and industries should seek local knowledge on the riverine ecosystem, and cultural and social impacts when planning to construct a hydroelectric dam.

3. Free prior informed consent

Free prior informed consent (FPIC) entails that people should use their fundamental rights to negotiate projects and policies that will affect their lives before granting or denying their consent. “Free” implies that there should be no coercion, pressure, or manipulation. “Prior” implies the timing of the consent is required before the start of any project. “Informed” relates back to the policy recommendation of high-quality information. In other words, details of the project must be given which includes the possible social, economic, cultural, and environmental impacts.


The construction of large hydroelectric dams, such as Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam, has highlighted the prevalence of procedural injustice, which often excludes marginalised communities from the decision-making process. To promote more procedurally just energy infrastructure development, certain policies must be implemented.

This article has examined the injustices surrounding hydropower development in Brazil and specifically the construction of Belo Monte, including unfair negotiations, involuntary settlements, and community marginalisation. To rectify these injustices, it is essential to prioritise procedural justice through policies that ensure better disclosure of information, inclusive decision-making processes, and the practice of free prior informed consent. Only by striving for procedural justice, can a more equitable and sustainable energy infrastructure development that respects the rights and well-being of all communities involved, be achieved.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

Hsiang-Ping Kuan

Hsiang holds a master’s degree in Energy Policy from the University of Sussex. She is currently working in education and has academic experience in Taiwan and the UK. She is passionate about climate justice and the policies needed to achieve a just energy transition. Her interests also include renewable energy, sustainability, and policymaking.

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