Aaron Vincent Elkaim was The Alexia 2016 professional grant recipient for Where The River Runs Through, a project which documents and strives to understand the consequences of Brazil’s major hydroelectric expansion on the ecosystems, communities, and industries within the Amazon Rainforest. The award allowed him to spend more than two immersive months continuing his work on this vital ecosystem.
Earlier this year, Aaron took over our Instagram sharing not only images from the project, but also his thoughts on the situation. We rely on our photographers to be our eyes in the world. His words derived from first hand experience are stronger than anything we create in retelling, thus we are sharing them directly on our blog.
The controversial Belo Monte mega dam has been in planning for over three decades. After being halted by indigenous protests and international outcry in the late 80’s it was redesigned and pushed through with construction beginning in 2012 amidst renewed protest. Today the dam is mostly complete blocking the unique environment of a part of the Xingu known as the Big Bend. Numerous indigenous tribes and riverine communities in the region have been impacted and one third of the city of Altamira has been permanently flooded by the nearby Belo Monte Dam displacing over 20,000 people.
The dam is the fourth largest in the world, by installed capacity. While the dam is central to my project “Where the River Runs Through” it is the life of the people who have made the river their home that truly intrigues me. Their wealth is provided by nature and no material compensations can every replace the way of life and connection to nature they are losing.
The story of Belo Monte, is more than a story of a hydroelectric dam, it’s the story of Power. Brazil, like much of the world, is a country where power resides in the hands of a corrupt few. There are serious allegations of corruption around the dam. According to a senior construction executive who testified that the Belo Monte dam was used to generate 150m reais ($41.4m) in donations to the ruling coalition.
Belo Monte is expected to be complete by 2019. Due to its redesign and removal of previously planned supporting dams it will be highly inefficient running at around 39% capacity annually. Many critics fear that supporting dams that were in the original plans will later be built to increase year round production.
If the Altamira dam was built according to original design, it would flood an additional 6,140 square kilometers and impact 25,000 more indigenous peoples. An independent study done by the The National Amazon Research Institute estimates the construction and operation of Belo Monte has contributed to greenhouse gas emissions of an amount that would require 41 years of optimal energy production (including the now aborted Altamira Dam) in order to reach environmental sustainability over fossil fuel energy. This realization shatters the lie that large scale hydroelectric energy is a tool in fighting climate change.
Standing in the face of this monster, which so many human hands have built, pushed through by corrupt elected officials and power brokers with their sheer determination, I have realized that my goal cannot be to stop this dam or even the next. The fight for our planet, its rivers, forests, seas, oceans, and lakes is a fight that must happen first within us. Until we can change our priorities, we will always be able to validate destruction.
I have no faith in the power brokers, but I choose to have faith in humanity and in our ability to change. So I work to open a window for empathy and the realization that the earth is not only our mother but is also our only home, and that to continue to rape it in the name of a bastardized vision of progress we sever the potential of ourselves and our grandchildren to see true beauty, live true life, experience true freedom and understand our connection to the eternal. It may take sacrifice, but we can change ourselves and when we do, we can fight to change and save the world together.
Currently, Aaron is working on the next chapter in this project. He is exploring the legacy of Hydro development on the indigenous communities in his home province of Manitoba, Canada where Lake Winnipeg has been turned into worlds the third largest reservoir.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim will be joining us at a special reception at The University of Miami April 8 at 6.30 p.m. Works from his project, and from Mary F. Calvert’s Women’s Initiative Project will be on display. Mary will also be in attendance. Learn more about the reception here. You can see Aaron’s full Instagram takeover here at: instagram.com/alexiafoundation/