16 February 2017

The Impact of Hydroelectric Development in the Amazon

16 February 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Using photography as a tool for environmental activism, Aaron Vincent Elkaim investigates the consequences of increased hydroelectric development in the Brazilian Amazon.

© Aaron Vincent Elkaim, from the series The River Runs Through Us

"In Canada I have been exploring the impact of industrial development on indigenous communities and I wanted to document the same issue in different places around the world", explains photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim.

In 2011 the construction of the Belo Monte Dam Complex began. The third largest dam in the world, it will be finished in 2019 but the reservoir was flooded at the end of 2015, submerging hectares of rainforest, permanently transforming complex river ecosystems and displacing thousands of people. "People were relocated in kind of ghetto community houses with electricity and sanitation. In that respect their life is better, but in respect to their way of life, it’s much worse - they don’t know their neighbours, there is a lot of crime and unemployment, and they also have electricity bills", Elkaim comments.

For local communities who haven’t been displaced, the dam means another change as they saw the river's flow weaken and the skrinking of the fish population, which they rely heavily on for subsistence. "The long-term impact will take at least six years to assess but, with the river flow at its minimum there is no high-water season anymore, much less fish, and some species are now endangered", Elkaim adds.

© Aaron Vincent Elkaim, from the series The River Runs Through Us

The situation is very complex as it’s based on ambiguous terms such as "renewable energy". Cities around the region have changed tremendously with the economic boom and collapse brought with the construction and its end; mining projects benefiting from the dam’s energy are taken over with no consideration for the accumulated impact; money has been used as a coaxial argument; and some traditions began to dilute in acculturation. Pros and cons became harder to identify as economy came into the picture.

"Actually, one of the biggest impacts on indigenous communities happened between 2010-12, before construction of the dam. Norte Energy started the Emergency Plan, which consisted of distributing US$10,000 per month to each community, along with boats and motors. All this money really screwed them over as they then changed their diet and stopped farming their land", Elkaim explains.

© Aaron Vincent Elkaim, from the series The River Runs Through Us

Despite the radical transformation of the land and the lifestyle, there is a movement from displaced people to go back to the reservoir, and from indigenous communities to reconnect to their ancestral culture. The traditional fishing is not as good but they are trying new things such as farming, growing cocoa and corn and raising chickens to hopefully create a sustainable economy that fits their natural way of life.

"What drives the work is my belief that mother nature is profoundly important to humankind and that our way of life as a global population is destroying it. It’s become the universal story of our time. It’s not about these people, it’s about all of us. My goal is to engage people in their own perspective", Elkaim concludes.


Aaron Vincent Elkaim is an independent Canadian documentary photographer and founding member of the Boreal Collective. His work focuses on historical narratives that examine cultural transitions within the modern economic and geopolitical landscape. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.


Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes