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The Duke Engage Itaipu program students began our eight week journey on June 22. With a group of four students from Duke and four from UNIOESTE we began our introductions. Each Duke student had a different academic background including environmental science, civil engineering, economics, and mechanical engineering. While realizing the diversity of perspective within our group, we became ecstatic. It helped frame the renegotiations of the Itaipu Treaty as how it should be understood— a multidimensional, binational agreement with far reaching implications for both countries. 

On the other hand, UNIOESTE students from Brazil brought a higher level of expertise to the group. Each of the four students studied mechanical engineering and was farther along in their education than any of the Duke undergraduates. When brought together, these two groups created an ideal team for working towards our project goal. The goal being to assess the 1973 Treaty of Itaipu and create recommendations for the 2023 renegotiations.

As an American student without prior knowledge of Brazil, I was enthusiastic to begin working. But I also felt nervous to see how I could benefit the project with so little information. Thankfully the first week served to close this gap between people like me and those who knew Itaipu throughout their whole lives. Therefore, we focused on familiarizing ourselves with the background of Itaipu.

We are very fortunate that one of the most prominent scholars in this area is Duke’s very own Dr. Christine Folch. Dr. Folch’s book, “Hydropolitics”, provided an excellent introduction for our project. She describes the history of the dam’s creation, the political shifts that affected dam policies, and the dam’s electricity generation. Similarly, our guest speaker of the week, Jonas Pesente, spoke in detail about the structure of the dam.

Week Two came quickly with a more narrow focus. This week centered around the financial terms of the dam. As one can imagine, building the second largest dam in the world is very expensive. This debt financed project caused  disputes over who should pay for the dam. What were considered financial decisions by title actually were deeply connected to the politics of both countries. We discussed the concept of sovereignty and how financial dependence can threaten this notion.

While continuing to read Dr. Folch’s book, I began to understand Itaipu’s true importance. She quoted anthropologist Leslie White in saying that energy is the single limiting factor to development. This quote stuck with me. We were not just researching energy as a concept. Above all, it is a means to create more developed countries with higher standards of living and more opportunity. After that realization, I felt confident in the research we were doing, and passionate to make the most out of this journey. Despite the project location being my childhood bedroom instead of the beautiful Iguazu Falls.