Belo Monte Damned

February 4, 2010

As the BBC reports, the Brazilian government has approved a massive hydroelectric project in the Amazon rainforest. The Belo Monte dam complex will divert and exploit the river Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon, constituting the third largest project of its kind in the world. Constant objections and protests from indigenous people who live on the river and environmentalists around the world (including, notoriously, Sting), have resulted in delays to Belo Monte, and some environmental stipulations on the project executors, but it will now be going ahead.

Instead of the 5,000 km initially thought to have been affected, the government now claims that “a fraction” of that will be flooded or damaged, yet indigenous campaigners refute this. Although Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc says that “Not one Indian on indigenous land will be displaced,” representatives of the Kayapo people accuse his government of dishonesty – with many living on land not designated as “indigenous” remaining vulnerable to eviction.

Moreover, there have been signs that the environmental assessments which approved the project were not of the highest standard. According to the NGO Amazon Watch, the Brazilian environment agency, IBAMA, had “stalled on issuing the environmental license for almost 3 months due to concerns about the huge impact zone of the project and the number of migrants that would move to Altamira in search of work.”

In November, two senior IBAMA officials resigned in protest against the scheme, claiming that they had been subjected to “political pressure” to approve its license, while the NGO Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre has recently been circulating a letter signed by six IBAMA analysts, “voicing concern that Belo Monte’s impacts to the Xingu river basin and riverine and indigenous communities had not been adequately studied.”

This dissent has prompted Federal Attorneys to launch suites against the government and, as Amazon Watch maintains “further legal challenges to the project are likely.”

The feelings and judgements of those within IBAMA have been supplemented by independent analysts. Electrical engineer Francisco Hernandez, for example, brought together 40 specialists to audit the Belo Monte project. Damningly, they found it to be “a project of doubtful engineering viability, an extremely complex project which would depend on the construction not only of one dam, but rather a series of large dams and dykes that would interrupt the flow of water courses over an enormous area, requiring excavation of earth and rocks on the scale of that carried out for digging the Panama Canal.”

Partly because of the ecological, social and technical uncertainties surrounding the project, funding looks like a problem for the Brazilian government. As Roland Widmer, Coordinator of the Eco-Finance Program of Amigos da Terra – Amazonia Brasileira put it to Amazom Watch, “Considering the enormous financial, legal and reputational risks, it would be imprudent to invest in this project.” And with legal challenges in prospect, the fight will continue to protect (or despoil) the Xingu.

This fight has been a long one for the Kayapo, having resisted for more than twenty years. Last year, indigenous campaigners organized a week-long protest against Belo Monte – and have attracted (for good or ill) the support of both Sting and the Bishop of Xingu, Dom Erwin Krautler, who has been warning that approval of the dam could lead to an indigenous uprising. Their anger is understandable. Some 100km of fishing grounds are at stake, as well as homes and the far harder to define (and value) spiritual connection that the Kayapo hold to the river.

Resistance to the project has been stoked by what the Kayapo see as efforts to rubber stamp approval for Belo Monte above their heads. The government initially sought to use the National Indian Federation as a means of providing friendly “participation” in assessments of the project, but the plan rapidly became unstuck as NIF officials became embroiled in bribery allegations. Anger grew at the marginalization of local peoples, resulting in at least one government official being attacked by Kayapo protesters.

As Chief Tabata told NPR in 2008, “We have to hurt them. They weren’t respecting the Indians. … That’s our fight. I want the people, the white people to understand why the Indians are so angry.” Clearly many of the Xingu’s indigenous inhabitants do not favour the dam project.

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