Thirty-four girls and women – including a 16-year-old teenager – were trafficked from the southeastern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, to a construction camp outside of the town of Altamira in the Amazon. There, they were forced to prostitute themselves for cash to become sex slaves to the men building Belo Monte, which is being promoted by its developers as Brazil’s “greenest” dam.
The women and girls, the majority between 18 and 20 years old, sold their bodies to the workers at what is known in Brazil as a boate: a bar that acts as both strip club and brothel. The 16 year-old-girl escaped from the boate and denounced its owners to the police. Federal Police then stormed the club to free the 34 women and girls that had been enslaved there as prostitutes.
Testimony from the 16-year-old and other women told of being forced to sleep in windowless rooms in 100-degree heat, locked from the outside. The pimps dictated when the women could come and go. The women paid off debts to the pimps with sexual acts.
This is not an isolated incident, just one dam, or a bad apple. It’s a widespread symptom of dam building. It’s happened at the construction of large dams throughout the history of Brazil and elsewhere. It happened at the Tucuruí Dam on the Tocantin River in the 1980s, it happened at the Santo Antônio Dam on the Madeira riRver in 2009. It is likely to happen at any of the over 60 more large and small dams that Brazil is planning to build in the Amazon.
Since the Belo Monte Dam began construction in 2011, the number of victims of violence and sexual violence against children and adolescents in the area has tripled. New cases have increased from 15 to 40 per day. Authorities have already closed twelve boates in the area. They point to the explosion in migrants to the area of Altamira, a city that has grown from 90,000 to 200,000 in just one year.
Brazil’s Parliamentary Commissions on Human Trafficking and Violence Against Children and Adolescents have summoned the developers of Belo Monte to explain whether they knew about this and potentially other boates. Police continue to investigate, and the possibility exists that Belo Monte construction will be stopped.
Still, delays in construction, fines against the dam builders, and stronger mitigation plans are not enough. Construction will likely resume. More migrants will arrive. More boates could be built, and more women trafficked, enslaved and sold.
Violence against women in large infrastructure projects is systemic. It matters not how “green” or “clean” developers portray these dams to be. Where you build a massive new project that attracts hundreds of thousands of male laborers to an area with failing social services, massive gender inequality, engrained corruption, and a legal system politically pressured to move large development projects forward at any cost, you breed the conditions for violence against women to exist.
The Brazilian government must respond systemically. Capacity building in women’s and human rights must produce profound and permanent results at Brazil’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, Brazil’s dam building companies, and the Brazilian National Development Bank – the major financier of Brazil’s new infrastructure. Women’s and human rights must become a cornerstone of strategic environmental and cumulative impact assessments that guide what does and doesn’t get built. And it must happen now.
Infrastructure growth is not a guarantee for greater gender equality. On the contrary; it can also provoke the worst types of objectification and exploitation of women. Belo Monte is only one case among many. Governments, dam industry – are you listening?