A Duke Anthropologist Takes on the Politics of the Itaipu Dam

Christine Folch examines water and energy politics that center on the Itaipu Dam at the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

Christine Folch, assistant professor of cultural anthropology and environmental science and policy at Duke University, stands near the Itaipu Dam. The dam is located on the Paraná River border of Brazil and Paraguay. Photo courtesy of Christine Folch.

-By Duke Global staff

For the past ten years, Folch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology and environmental science and policy at Duke University, has devoted her research efforts to understanding and describing the politics of the Itaipu Dam. The dam sits on the boundary of Brazil and Paraguay, providing hydroelectric energy to both countries.

The Itaipu Treaty, signed in 1973, defined how power from the dam would be distributed between Brazil and Paraguay. In 2023, this agreement will be renegotiated.

Earlier this year, Folch published her first book on the subject, “Hydropolitics: The Itaipu Dam, Sovereignty, and the Engineering of Modern South America.” And this summer, she presented her work to Paraguay’s Congress.

Q: How did you first begin working on issues related to the Itaipu Dam?

I went to Paraguay thinking that I’d study the effects of globalization, but everyone around me kept talking about water and energy—and they kept telling me that should study that.

I’m an anthropologist—we’re supposed to listen to people, and it turns out that Paraguayans were right: their water and energy situation is really important. 

Q: How does the Itaipu Dam represent broader environmental ethics concerns?

The traditional problems with dams apply – communities displaced, flooded land and loss of habitat. But Itaipu is also a binational dam, equally co-owned between Brazil and Paraguay, and so the dam also represents questions of just relationships and partnerships between asymmetrical countries (Brazil is much wealthier and larger than Paraguay). 

Q: As a cultural anthropologist, what are you looking at as you conduct your research?

I’m really interested in how people make decisions—the options they imagine and the values they bring to the table. And so, I look at how infrastructure is the result of decision-making processes that elevate certain priorities and take others off the table. But I also flip that around because infrastructure shapes the options people have.

So I look at the political and economic path dependencies – how current interactions are influenced by past decisions – that arise from hydroelectric energy in a binational context. 

Let me tell you why this should matter to us here in the United States: in the U.S., we get two-thirds of our electricity from burning fossil fuels. And this majority dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation is standard across the world. The one exception is South America where nearly two-thirds of the electricity comes from renewables. Renewable energy isn’t an alternative source. Industry depends on it. In Brazil, 80 percent of its electricity comes from renewables, and 17 percent of that comes from Itaipu alone. And in Paraguay, 100 percent comes from renewables. If we want to get a glimpse into the politics, economics and international relations of a post-fossil fuel world, we should look at South America. 

Q: You’ve worked on issues related to the dam for more than 10 years – what’s changed during this time period?

Globally, we’ve become more aware of the need to move as soon as possible from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral forms of electricity. 

Paraguay has seen steady economic growth and now moved into a time of contraction because its economy is dominated by basically two commodities: soy and beef. People feel the need to diversify the economy, but don’t know how. And Brazil has seen a massive shift in its government perspective on large-scale renewables and on energy integration in the hemisphere.

Q: Why did you decide to post an explainer video for the Itaipu Dam on Twitter? What response did you see?

The thing about energy infrastructure is that experts often talk in technical terms of megawatt hours and high-tension lines. But I think it’s really important to translate complicated concepts into language normal people can understand, because that’s how ordinary citizens become truly informed citizens. 

There were really important debates happening this past summer in Paraguay about the dam and very few people were doing that translating work. So I did. I presented the findings of our Duke research to Paraguay’s Congress. The audience in the room was full of experts, but because we were being broadcast to the whole country, I wanted to present the findings in more accessible language.

And it must have worked because people shared the video.

There’s a lesson here for academics in the U.S., too. There’s absolutely a place for really technical language. In fact, expertise is necessary. But there’s also a place for figuring out how to translate core concepts into normal human language. When people feel that they finally get what’s confused them, they light up, they get very enthusiastic and they become advocates. 

Q: What’s your ideal outcome for the Itaipu Dam treaty re-signing in 2023?

That year will be an inflection point for Itaipu. In 2023, the construction debt of Itaipu will be paid off, resulting in a much-lowered energy price. But it’s also a treaty-specified “renegotiation” date where the countries can talk about the energy pricing and energy distribution arrangements. For that reason, there are calls for introspection—at least in Paraguay.

I’m convinced that Itaipu has the power to transform Paraguay, but for this to happen, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the approach to the dam: rather than focusing on the short-term energy income, the focus should be on using the electricity for development. 

Paraguay currently has an incredibly rare resource: it has a massive electricity surplus. Paraguay’s half of Itaipu is enough to power more than three Paraguays. Right now, that electricity is sold to Brazil for a below-market price. But, it’s in Paraguay’s best interest to actually use that electricity now while there’s a surplus to jump-start a green industrialization by fostering sustainable ventures that have ethical labor practices and are eco-conscious. Paraguay’s demand for electricity is growing annually and, somewhere around 2035, its demand will reach its installed capacity. It has to be now. 

So, the ideal outcome to my mind is Paraguay embarking on a green industrialization plan and for Brazil and Paraguay together to make this happen.