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Belo Monte Dam: The Pressure is Rising

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By Aviva Imhof, International Rivers | Brazil, Apr 15 2010

It's been a fabulous couple of weeks for the campaign to stop the massive Belo Monte Dam on the Amazon's Xingu River. Momentum is building - in public opinion, in the courts and in the legislature - so much so that a Federal Court yesterday suspended the project's development

It all started last week when construction giants Odebrecht and Camarga Correa - no strangers to controversial dam projects - announced that they were not interested in building the project because it was not economically viable at the price set by the Brazilian government.  This has left the government scrambling to find other potential bidders for the project, resulting in delays in the date for finalizing expressions of interest in the project. 

The lack of economic viability is no surprise to the coalition of groups fighting the dam, who have long argued that the dam is an expensive way to deliver energy to Brazil. While the project's installed capacity will be more than 11,000 MW, during the 3-4 month low water season it will generate as little as 1,000 MW of power, leaving most of the project's turbines at a standstill. Such a small generating capacity for several months of the year doesn't justify the high investment cost of more than US$10 billion.

The exit of these two powerful construction companies caused President Lula to show his true colors. He sputtered that "There's one thing you can be sure of: we'll do Belo Monte" whether or not the private sector is interested in investing, despite having promised last year not to "shove Belo Monte down anyone's throats."

But President Lula may have more on his hands than he bargained for. On Monday, James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver lent their star power to the campaign, joining a protest of more than 700 dam-affected and indigenous people in Brasilia to demand the cancellation of the project. James Cameron said he was being "drawn into a situation where a real-life Avatar confrontation is in progress. What's happening in Avatar is happening in Brazil and places like India and China, where traditional villages are displaced by big infrastructure projects." 

The protest got massive media attention, beaming news of the controversial project across the globe, and leading President Lula to lash out at international critics of the project, stating that "those who already destroyed their own environment don't need to be coming here making guesses about ours." Ironically, its the promoters of Belo Monte who are making guesses about their environment: there are still many unanswered questions about the project and its impacts.

As if the prayers of Monday's protestors were heard, yesterday a Federal Court ordered the suspension of Belo Monte's provisional environmental license and the cancellation of the auction, scheduled for next Tuesday. The decision is in response to a civil action filed by Brazil's Federal Attorneys, who claim that the project violates a section of the constitution concerning the exploitation of water resources on indigenous lands. This is a huge setback for the government, who will presumably appeal the decision to a higher court. 

But the Federal Attorneys still have at least one more action up their sleeve, which was also filed last week. They are questioning irregularities in the approval of the environmental license for the project, including blatant disregard for the arguments and concerns presented during the public hearings and failure to consider any scientific data about what sort of water releases would be required to maintain life along the Big Bend of the Xingu. The environmental licensing process at IBAMA was beset by irregularities, and two senior officials resigned due to the political pressure they were receiving to approve the environmental license for the project. 

To top it all off, concerns are growing in the national congress about the project. Last week, at a hearing in the Environmental Commission of the House of Representatives, the House and Senate agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the Belo Monte, Estreito and Madeira dam projects. Senator Marina Silva, former Environmental Minister and Green Party Presidential Candidate, is organizing a Senate hearing on the involvement of the Brazilian national development bank, BNDES, in bankrolling Amazonian dam projects, and Senator Pedro Simon called for transparency and oversight in the auction process, expressing concern about the government's plans to use state pension funds to finance the project. 

As sure as the Xingu is flowing, momentum is building on the campaign. Lula better watch his back, because the struggle certainly ain't over yet!

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aviva@internationalrivers.org

International Rivers Website

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