Alstom and the Belo Monte Dam: Let the Leaks Begin

Leaking of information that corporations and politicians do not want to be made public – as opposed to that which is “leaked” for public relations or party political reasons – is a major power lever for activists. As has been seen with regards to such environmental and social luminaries as ExxonMobil, Philip Morris and DuPont, the presence of leaked documents in the right hands can, at worst, cause embarrassment and, at best, create turbulence and instability at the top. Reputation is everything when you thrive on the exploitation of others, and it is a minute-by-minute job to keep the media and the public perception of your activities where you want them.

With the news that a federal court in Pará State, Brazil are to put a temporary halt on the devastating Belo Monte dam comes a little breathing space for the indigenous people and the rich, complex ecosystem they depend upon for their continued survival; just time for a couple of gasps. As Survival International make clear:

The dam would be the third largest in the world and it would flood a large area of land, dry up certain parts of the Xingu river, cause huge devastation to the rainforest and reduce fish stocks upon which Indians in the area, including Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã Indians, depend for their survival.

The livelihoods of thousands of tribal people who depend on the forest and river for food and water would be destroyed.

The influx of immigrants to the area during the construction of the dam threatens to introduce violence to the area and bring diseases to these Indians, putting their lives at risk.

FUNAI has stated that there may be some uncontacted Indians near the site of the dam. These uncontacted Indians would be most at risk as they have very little resistance to outside diseases, which could be fatal for them.

With the news of the temporary halt also comes news of one of the major providers of equipment and technical expertise for the dam. Alstom are a multinational transport and power engineering conglomerate worth approximately €20 billion. The French-based company are proud to be involved in the damming of a major source of life:

Alstom has signed a contract worth approximately €500 million with Norte Energia of Brazil to provide power equipment for the Belo Monte Dam, the world’s third-largest hydroelectric power plant with a planned capacity of 11,230 MW. The Belo Monte project will dam the Xingu river in Brazil’s northern Pará state.

Alstom will lead a consortium that includes German Voith and Austrian Andritz for fourteen 611 MW Francis turbine-generator sets and the six smaller Bulb units. Alstom will supply seven Francis units, hydro-mechanical equipment and associated Gas Insulated Substations (GIS) for the fourteen large-scale units.

It is expected that Belo Monte will take eight years to be built. When operating at full capacity, Belo Monte will meet the electricity needs of 35 million people.

Hydropower accounts for 85% of Brazil’s power production. Alstom, present in Brazil for 55 years, has played a significant role in the development of this hydro capacity including providing products and services for hydropower projects including Itaipu –the world’s second largest hydropower plant-, Tucuruí and most recently Jirau and Santo Antônio, as well as thermal projects such as TermoBahia and ThyssenKrup CSA.

Overall, Alstom has supplied more than 100 hydro turbines and generators to the Brazilian market over the past ten years and its equipment accounts for 35% of Brazil’s installed hydro capacity.

Notice there is no mention of the environmental / humanitarian impact of the project, merely highlighting of the people – almost all in cities – who will use the power, or “benefit” from it, because short term gain is what matters in a world where the profits of the rich matter more than the lives of the poor.

But there is a twist here. French companies are notoriously sensitive of their public image, largely due to the long history of social power movements in France, and also the close ties between industry and government that can cause ructions right up the political chain in the event of corruption and other abuses of privilege. If it is found that Alstom have used French state influence or their own lobbying power to gain the Belo Monte contract then this will not look good for the company leading the engineering consortium. In their own Code of Ethics, they state:

Political contributions are often subject to national laws and vary from country to country. Even when legally permitted, such contributions can be a source of abuse or otherwise perceived as a questionable practice. Alstom’s policy is not to make contributions, financial or in kind, to political parties or organisations, or to individual politicians.

The dam project is being run by a wholly (Brazilian) government-owned agency, Eletronort, and thus it cannot receive any financial benefits or benefits in kind from Alstom or any other members of the consortium without breaching Alstom’s own policy.

If Alstom are found to have turned a blind eye to the widely-reported potential damage caused by the dam, thus breaching their own CSR principles then they will be morally bankrupt and deserve exposure as such. In addition, Alstom publicly state that they support the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration states, within its clauses:

Article 12.

* No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 17.

* (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
* (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

If the dam is built, both of these clauses shall be breached with regards to the indigenous people affected.

If documents should come to light that show Alstom agreed to the contract, indeed tendered and campaigned for the contract, while knowingly in breach of the Declaration then this will rightly have a negative impact on the company, the industry and the whole project itself which might be put entirely in jeopardy.

You know what to do.