Brazilian court suspends Belo Monte Dam construction
Aug 16, 2012
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Activists occupy Belo Monte dam construction site. Source: Flickr/International Rivers

Since the project was approved in 2005 by the Brazilian Congress, indigenous and conservation activists have unflinchingly opposed the Belo Monte dam project. Resistance has unfolded on a global stage with the engagement and watchful eye of the international community, and Belo Monte has come to represent the growing friction between industrial and indigenous forces at play in Brazil and around the world. While the government insists Belo Monte is a necessary infrastructure project for a rising BRIC economy, activists warn of the devastating effects of displacing up to 40,000 people and disrupting a unique and delicate ecosystem.

Two days ago a regional federal tribunal marked a rare victory for activists when it ordered that construction on the dam be suspended until proper consultation with the local indigenous population is undertaken. In violation of Article 231 of the Brazilian constitution, approval for Belo Monte was given by Congress three years before publication of the environmental impact assessment (EIA), and no consultations with indigenous peoples were ever carried out. As ruling Judge Souza Prudente said in a press conference following the decision: “only in a dictatorial regime does a government approve a project before holding consultations.”

The dam is expected to flood 400 sq. km of Amazonian rainforest, and estimates of displaced persons range from government-cited 16,000 to NGO-cited 40,000. The EIA has been roundly criticized by a panel of independent Brazilian experts for inconsistencies in reporting project cost, deforestation, generation capacities, greenhouse gas emissions, and the effects of diverting the Xingu river. Reports state that diversions will reduce river flow by 80% in the Volta Grande, the only home in the world to 18 indigenous ethnic groups and many unique species. Various NGOs have accused the government and energy consortium Norte Energía of not providing adequate scientific information to the local population, in addition to excluding them from any meaningful decision-making processes.

In the words of the ruling: “installation will cause direct interference in the minimal ecological existence of the indigenous communities, with negative and irreversible impacts on their health, quality of life, and cultural patrimony, on the lands that they have traditionally occupied for time immemorial. This requires the authorization of the National Congress after holding prior consultations with these communities, as deemed by law, under the penalty of suspension of the authorization, which has been granted illegally.”

The ruling has brought the project to a sudden halt. So far the Belo Monte dam has been envisaged in grand proportions, with a US$11 billion contract, maximum generational capacity of 11,000 megawatts of electricity, US$1.2 billion to assist the displaced, and 22,000 workers building the third largest dam in the world 24 hours a day – Belo Monte is smaller only than Three Gorges in China and Itaipu on the Brazil/Paraguay border. Now, however, Norte Energía will face fines of up to US$250,000 per day if they fail to comply with the court suspension order. For construction to continue, Brazil’s National Congress must hold a series of consultations with the local population. Once public participation has been deemed “satisfactory” Congress may legislate a new approval for the dam.

It is a forceful victory for dam opponents who have had little cause for celebration, but the recent Belo Monte dam decision still faces the crooked labyrinth of the Brazilian judicial system. Previous court rulings in opposition to the dam have been overturned in days, or even minutes, by higher authorities. Because of its constitutional nature this case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, where judges are appointed by a dam-friendly executive branch and the President of the Tribunal can unilaterally greenlight construction before the Tribunal formally rules on the case. Just last week the same regional tribunal ordered construction suspended on a Teles Pires river dam, similarly due to lack of prior consultation with indigenous populations. Yet two nights ago the president of the court illegally overturned the decision of his fellow judges, highlighting glaring cracks in Brazil’s judicial system.

Still, activists seem to be treating the recent tribunal ruling with cautious optimism.

“It’s a historic decision for the country and for the native communities,” said Antonia Melo, coordinator of the Xingu Vivo indigenous movement. “It’s a great victory which shows that Belo Monte is not a done deal. We are very happy and satisfied.”

It may not be a done deal, but the world will continue to watch as Belo Monte presses on through litigation.

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