Temples of Modern Pharaohs: An Environmental History of Dams and Dictatorship in Brazil, 1960s-1990s
Johnson, Matthew P.
McNeill, John R.
This dissertation is an environmental history of Brazil’s large dams, the country’s principal source of electricity. Hydropower undergirded economic growth, but reservoirs left huge social and environmental footprints. The country’s biggest and most infamous dams were those built by the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which coincided with the rise of both liberation theology and popular environmentalism. This project examines these contentious dams using five case studies from different regions. My dissertation makes three arguments. First, economic and political pressures encouraged the military regime to build big dams with huge social and environmental impacts, and discouraged it from investing in efforts to mitigate them. During the military dictatorship, critics referred to its big projects as pharaonic, and I use the term “modern pharaohs” to refer to a powerful group of decision-makers who used big dams in part to earn political clout. Second, the few mitigation efforts the government did implement were designed to protect power plants and showcase environmental concern without altering project designs and timelines. For instance, in an effort to appeal to the growing environmentalism within the multinational banks helping to finance its dams, the military regime carried out dramatic animal rescue missions of dubious practical impact. Third, the dictatorship’s ostentatious environmental protection programs failed to forestall a series of social and ecological disasters. The government did little to help displaced communities, who turned to advocates associated with the Catholic Church for support. The dictatorship also failed to ameliorate a series of damaging ecological changes that new reservoirs unleashed. These calamities sullied the reputation of hydropower, and in the 1990s, a national movement against dams coalesced that has been successful in curbing big reservoir construction in the Amazon Rainforest, home to the best remaining dam sites. This dissertation is the first environmental history of the military dictatorship’s nationwide dam-building boom, and its arguments have important implications for debates about transitioning to renewable energy and the environmental impacts of authoritarian regimes.
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