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ABSTRACT This paper will discuss and analyse the processes of urbanisation that occurred as a consequence of the construction of the hydroelectric power plant of Belo Monte (Para, Brazil; 2011-2019). It will focus primarily on the mechanisms that led to an exacerbated urbanisation in the main city of the region, Altamira. The city has been part of an intense process of urbanisation and morphological change to its urban fabric due to the big amount of workers migrating to the area. The implementation of Belo Monte and the fragmentary and speculative nature of the urbanisation processes taking place in Altamira further reinforce the need to understand urbanisation as a multi-scalar and dynamic process. The paper puts the case study into light by discussing it in relation to the concept of ‘implosion-explosion’ developed by Lefebvre. It also expands on the idea of ‘land-colonisation’ by capital, studied by Rolnik, in the context of Altamira’s urbanisation process. Finally, the paper will bring together the unresolvable conflict between the “national interest” and the complexities associated with the creation of a collective vision for the urban.


Lalo de Almeida

Territorial transformation; Spatial dynamics; Infrastructure; Work; Belo Monte dam; Implosion-Explosion; Land-Colonisation

Image 1: Belo Monte during construction.


INTRODUCTION Infrastructure projects are an essential aspect of urban and rural development. They are often part of public expenditure as a way to develop the territory but also to support production and trade and therefore stimulate economic growth and job creation (Maisonnave et al., 2013). Infrastructure, especially large scale projects, present themselves as challenging projects for their technical aspects and for their interlink of actors that are required for their legitimization (Atkins, 2019). This multitude of interests has often spatial implications to processes of urbanisation both in the area where the infrastructural project takes place and at the national level.

nection with the concept of ‘implosion-explosion’, where the implosion of people and resources into an area is counterbalanced by the explosion of fragments in the landscape rendering the rural (and arguably) the whole of the territory subservient to the ‘urban’ (Schmid, 2014). The expression of ‘land colonisation’ is used with a double meaning in the analytical framework of the case study. On the one hand, it is used to describe the process of occupation of the Amazon region by infrastructural projects and the strategy defined by the federal government since the dictatorship (1964-1985) to increase accessibility through a progressive infrastructural upgrade of the region. (Souza, 2016) This strategy produces a progressive transformation of the territory, initially into an ‘operational landscape’ that supports the everyday activities and socioeconomic dynamics of urban life. (Brenner, 2015)

This paper will reflect on the spatial implications of infrastructure projects concerning the urbanisation process surrounding and as a consequence of its construction. Firstly, a conceptual framework of the discussion will be presented, which is using the concept of ‘land colonisation’ presented by Rolnik (2017) and an extension of the concept of ‘implosion-explosion’ as an urbanisation process elaborated by Lefebvre in “The Urban Revolution” (Lefebvre, 2003) and expanded in the article “Networks, Borders, Differences: Towards a Theory of the Urban” by Schmid (Brenner, 2014). The paper will then present the case study of the hydroelectric power station of Belo Monte which is being built in Brazil since 2011, as a strong case into ‘explosion’ of urban infrastructure into the territory concomitant to new forms of agglomerations due to its construction. Finally, a discussion will be made on the spatial dynamics taking place due to the construction of Belo Monte.

On the other hand, Rolnik in “War of Places: The Colonisation of Land and Housing in the Financial Era” [Original Portuguese Title] expands on the land-colonisation by capital with insightful research in the context of urbanisation of dense agglomerations such as Sao Paulo and Rio (Rolnik, 2017). However, I argue, that the same concept can be extrapolated beyond the contained area of those regions to encompass ‘processes of urbanisation’ in general as observed in areas adjacent to the case study of Belo Monte. The conceptual framework is instrumental to give insight into the complex spatial issues that arise from the establishment of such a large infrastructural project in this multi-scalar process of urbanisation.

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK “Society has been completely urbanized. [...] An urban society is a society that results from a process of complete urbanisation. This urbanisation is virtual today, but will become real in the future.” (Lefebvre, 2003). Through this opening statement in “The Urban Revolution,” Lefebvre outlines urbanisation as a process instead of a fixed definition of the city as a self-enclosed entity. He expands on arguing that the term “urban society” is used to define any city, therefore, neglecting the social relationships of production embedded in the processes of urbanisation. This understanding of urbanisation as a process is essential to relate it to the kind of urbanisation taking place around infrastructural projects. Large infrastructural projects can also be seen in con-


THE HYDROELECTRIC POWER PLANT OF BELO MONTE: IN-BETWEEN THE ‘NATIONAL INTEREST’ AND AN URBANISATION CATALYST Arguably one of the tasks of governments is to create a framework in which to guarantee jobs and therefore generate growth. Within economic growth theory, there’s a strong argument for the growth-enhancing effects for the private sector through investment in public infrastructure (Barro 1990; Barro & Sala-i-Martin 1995) in (Kenyon, 1997). Especially when it comes to large infrastructure projects, the speculation regarding job creation far outreach the de facto number of jobs (Feng et al., 2017).


The case for public investment rests on the belief that resources allocated to investment translate into an equivalent value of public capital stock that, by lowering the cost of production or distribution, benefits the private sector and affects overall growth (Maisonnave et al., 2013). In the case of Brazil, this ‘developmentalist’ logic has been applied and expanded into the Amazon since the military dictatorship (1964-1985) (Souza, 2016) transforming it as a de facto ‘operational landscape’ subservient to processes of urbanisation (Brenner, 2015).

Image 2: ‘Land-colonisation’ in the Amazon: existing, planned and in construction hydroelectric power stations in the Amazon region.

Brazil has had since the advent of the military dictatorship a geopolitical strategy of land-colonisation in the Amazon region. This has been articulated as a series of progressive occupation and land urbanisation as a result of the construction of infrastructural projects that work as activators of regional prosperity in the defence of the ‘national interest’ (de Miranda Neto, 2017). The first move in this process has been the placement of federal highways that promote the occupation of the land and facilitate its use for commercial purposes. But one of the main strategies for this occupation is the strategic placement of a series of hydroelectric dams that already constitute the primary source of energy in Brazil (Souza, 2016). [Image 2]


km 74 3.0 4 2.76 km


Sofie Bendtsen

Belo Monte is being built to become the third-largest hydroelectric plant in the world (after Three Gorges Dam-CH and Itaipu-BR). The construction is the consequence of a complex case of political, environmental and social struggle that led to the initiation of its construction process in 2011 (Dalindo da Fonseca, 2011). It became a symbol for the politics of ‘land-colonization’ in the Amazon as well as a catalyst for urbanisation in the area. The project’s budget of 16 billion dollars and transmission lines of 2.5 billion dollars further support the argument of its large influence in the econ-

Image 3: Belo Monte and its transmission lines serving the metropolitan regions of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.


omy (Plaia, 2017). [Image 3]

the state acted as the primary actor in the relocation of both the urban and rural populations (Hwang; Cao; Xi,2011).

Despite the dam’s long planning process (since the 70s), its construction became possible through the federal government plan (PAC1 “Plan for Growth Acceleration 1”) to increase GDP spending in order to accelerate growth (Rodrigues, 2018). Another aspect of the plan is to align the private interests to the public ones through tax incentives and facilitation of private initiatives in processes of urban development (Souza, 2016). The former resulted in the construction of Belo Monte while the latter contributed to the intensification of land speculation in the region (Neto, 2016).

As a result of the pressures from private actors, Altamira saw the emergence of several new urban areas in the form of enclosed housing compounds. Those enclosed entities disrupt the continuation of the city, creating fragmented ‘pockets’ of social and morphological segregation. While they offer housing for the middle-income families that relocated to the area due to more specialized jobs, they prevent the creation of a cohesive urban structure that accommodates the lower-income sectors of society (de Miranda Neto, 2017). In fact, lower-income workers have moved from the construction site lodgements to the city, establishing themselves precariously (Fleury, 2013). [Image 5]

Notwithstanding its neglectable demographic and economic importance in relation to the state of Pará, Altamira is still the most important city in the region. [Image 4] The construction of Belo Monte has accentuated its importance by attracting a large population to the city, due to migration from other locations and relocation from areas being flooded (Feng et al., 2017). The speculation for work culminated in internal migration to the area of around 50.000 people between 2010 and 2012 at the same time as the project was providing around 16.000 jobs during its initial construction phase (Fleury, 2013). The rapid change in population is not only resulting in land-cover change but uneven processes of urbanisation (Feng et al., 2017).

Another situation observed in the city to accommodate the lower-income population is the choreographed expansion of the urban area in the new strategic plan of the city with the creation of housing on the periphery of this newly enlarged urban area. This process further exacerbates the fragmentation of the city and it also creates vast amounts of ‘voids’ that increase the price of the surrounding land while creating new opportunities for further development and profit (de Miranda Neto, 2017). [Image 6] Studies show that the implementation of Belo Monte has accelerated the urbanisation of Altamira as the main city in the surrounding region (Atkins, 2019). This acceleration coupled with the coordinated response from the public and private sectors further enlarged the potential for capitalisation by multiple actors operating in the development of the city (Catalão, 2019). Consequently, Altamira is expanding without a spatial response to its complex challenges following the large influx of people to the city. [Image 7]

Google Earth

As a consequence of the PAC1, mentioned previously, there’s a strategic intention to align the public and private sectors in the development of the territory. This choreographed alignment can be observed in the urbanisation of Altamira where occurred the concomitant creation of new housing compounds and the expansion of the urban area. The relocation procedure, for example, observed in Belo Monte was different from that observed in the Three Gorges Dam in China where

Image 4: Belo Monte (to the right) and Altamira 50km apart and connected by the Transamazonian motorway.



GEDTAM 2014 in de Miranda Neto, 2017

A figura 3 faz a representação da malha urbana atual, destacando as áreas dos novos loteamentos, incluindo aqueles para o segmento de baixa renda do Programa Image 5: Casa Peripheral urbanVida development in Altamira without any connection to the existing urban fabric. Minha Minha e os construídos para fins de reassentamento populacional.

Google Earth

Expansão urbana recente em Altamira (PA) José Queiroz de Miranda Neto; José Antônio Herrera

3. Malha urbana Altamira – 2014 logics of its expansion. Image 6: Altamira and its urbanFigura fabric. While the first imagede shows the framentary The second exposes the expansion of the urban in the strategic Fonte:area GEDTAM (2014b) plan to the city to include low-income develoments to the periphery of the city while giving space (voids) for future property speculation.

Ateliê Geográfico - Goiânia-GO, v. 11, n. 3, dez./2017, p. 34-52




To be able to understand the spatial dynamics taking place around large infrastructural projects it is necessary to re-conceptualise the idea of ‘the city’. Even though ‘the city’, persists as an ideological framing in mainstream policy discourse and everyday life (Wachsmuth 2014), the contemporary urban phenomenon cannot be understood as a singular condition derived from the serial replication of a specific socio-spatial condition or settlement type across the territory, consequently the category of the ‘city’ has today become thoroughly problematic as an analytical tool (Brenner & Schmid, 2017).

The conceptual framework paired with the Belo Monte case study suggests that large-infrastructure projects accelerate processes of multi-scalar urbanisation following the theory of ‘implosion-explosion’. Locally, it was observed, that the increased agglomeration of people in the city of Altamira generated a series of financially speculative projects by the private sector in alignment with the public sector replicating market strategies already taking place in larger urban areas of the country. With the clear signs of alignment between market forces and the government its questionable if there’s evidence of any future economic strategy for the area that will bring a cohesive development of its fabric. The new urban areas, lined up by the current strategic plan for the city, are detached from the existing urban fabric whereas they have been developing their own internal and fragmented logics of urbanisation.

The case study presents a complex case of a socio-spatial condition in which the infrastructure can be considered, as observed by the narrative of the project, as an exploded fragment of the urbanisation demands of the southeast of the country where most of the population live [Image diagram power lines]. Concomitant to this ‘explosion’ of fragments, a local process of ‘implosion’ has been happening in the region, and mainly in the city of Altamira, both with the speculation of job creation and the property speculation resulted by the population and income increases in the area (Neto, 2016).

While this paper framed certain aspects of the processes of urbanisation taking place around Belo Monte, it falls short of portraying the overlapping social, ethnographic, economic and geopolitical complexity of the region, instead of by focusing primarily in its urbanisation process. It, therefore, brings light to structures leading to these processes of urbanisation where the real war of places occur. They bring together the unresolvable conflict between the “national interest” and the complexities associated with the creation of a collective vision for the urban.

The construction of Belo Monte and the demographic inflation of Altamira in the subsequent years have brought a spatial materialization of the conflict between the national idea of urbanisation and the local interest. This unresolvable conflict has been pushing the development of Altamira into the formation of a fragmented city driven by a strong interest to capitalise on the land through speculation.

Anapu em foco.

The processes observed in Belo Monte - Altamira further reinforce that the process of land-colonisation is not taking place just in dense urban areas but in all the areas of influence in processes of urbanisation. As Brenner and Schmid noted, “[...] the city as a bounded, universally replicable settlement type now appears as no more than a quaint remnant of a widely superseded formation of capitalist spatial development (2014).”

Image 7: Workers in the construction site.


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Infrastructure as Catalyst in the Urbanisation Process: The Case of Belo Monte (BR)  

The implementation of Belo Monte and the fragmentary and speculative nature of the urbanisation processes taking place in Altamira further r...

Infrastructure as Catalyst in the Urbanisation Process: The Case of Belo Monte (BR)  

The implementation of Belo Monte and the fragmentary and speculative nature of the urbanisation processes taking place in Altamira further r...