Environmentalists condemn licensing of Belo Monte mega-dam in Brazil

credito_divulgacion_programa_de_aceleracion_del_crecimiento_pacThe Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has shocked and horrified environmentalists by authorising the operating licence for the Belo Monte hydro-electric complex in the state of Pará.

“We can’t believe it,” said Antonia Melo, leader of the Movimiento Xingú Vivo para Siempre, who has already been displaced by the dam’s construction. “This is a crime. Granting the licence for this monster was an irresponsible decision on the part of the government and the IBAMA.”

Belo Monte is being constructed on the Xingú river, a major Amazon tributary. It will be the third largest hydroelectric complex in the world, comprising three dams: Pimental, Bella Vista, and Belo Monte. There will be two artificial canals, which together will be larger than the Panama Canal.

Belo Monte Dam Prioject

Construction of a canal for the Belo Monte dam complex, February, 2012. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace. 

There are 25 legal actions against the Belo Monte project, but construction is continuing and the complex is close to completion. At least 20,000 workers are being brought in to build it.

The Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) says the licence authorisation has been given “despite clear non-compliance with conditions necessary to guarantee the life, health, and integrity of affected communities”.

These are conditions that the IBAMA itself referred to as essential in its technical report of September 22. “The IBAMA’s decision makes no reference to conditions needed to protect affected indigenous peoples,” AIDA said.

“By authorising Belo Monte, the government of Brazil is sending a terrible message to the world. Ignoring its international commitments to protect human rights and mitigate the effects of climate change, the government is instead providing an example of how energy should not be produced in the 21st century.”

Amazon Watch says Belo Monte will be one of the largest, most devastating infrastructure projects ever built in the Amazon. “As costs rocket above all previous estimates and the full extent of its impacts across the region become more evident, it’s clear that Brazil doesn’t need Belo Monte, and that the project brings destruction – not development – to a precious region.”

There will, Amazon Watch says, be a grave impact on the land and livelihoods of thousands of people living next to the river and in urban areas.

The Belo Monte dam complex is designed to divert eighty percent of the Xingú river’s flow and will devastate more than 1,500 square kilometers of Brazilian rainforest.

According to official statistics, 19,000 people will be forcibly displaced for Belo Monte, mostly from the city of Altamira, but an independent review of the project states that the real number of directly affected people could be twice the official estimate.

AIDA says about 2,000 people from riverine families have already been displaced in Altamira and the surrounding area.

The number of indigenous peoples affected so far is unknown, AIDA says, as FUNAI – the governmental agency in charge of protecting indigenous rights – hasn’t produced the information it is supposed to. “But hundreds of indigenous peoples have been displaced so far, and many others are being impacted because they can no longer fish or hunt or continue with their other usual activities.

“People from the Arara community are in a dire situation as they have lost their traditional ways of living. They are eating food that is compromising their health, and are living in really bad circumstances.”

The Xingú river basin is a living symbol of Brazil’s cultural and biological diversity; it is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups.

The river basin is nominally protected throughout most of its course by indigenous reserves and conservation units, but it is already severely impacted by cattle ranching and soy monocultures.

“Belo Monte is the first in a planned network of mega-dam projects that will pose additional devastation to an already threatened region,” Amazon Watch said.

“The authorisation clearly violates Brazil’s international human rights commitments, especially with respect to the indigenous communities of the Xingú river basin,” said María José Veramendi, an attorney with AIDA.

“Those affected populations are protected by precautionary measures granted in 2011 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which the Brazilian government continues to ignore.”

The operating licence allows for the filling of two of the dam’s reservoirs on the Xingú River. It is valid for six years and is subject to compliance with certain conditions. Progress will be monitored through semi-annual reports. Such conditions should have been met before the dam’s licence was even considered, let alone granted, AIDA says.

Raphaela Lopes, an attorney with the non-profit organisation Justiça Global, which works to promote human rights in Brazil, says environmental licensing is supposed to mitigate the effects of a dam’s operation on the local community and the environment. It is meant to control the damage caused, and minimize the risks.

“By disrespecting the licensing procedures, and making them flexible, the government is allowing economic interests to prevail and is ignoring its duty to protect the public interest.”

AIDA, Justiça Global, and the Pará Society for the Defence of Human Rights have argued on both national and international levels that the conditions needed for permission to be given for Belo Monte to operate have not been met. The organisations say that affected and displaced populations must be guaranteed access to essential services such as clean water, sanitation, health services, and other basic human rights.

Co-director of AIDA, Astrid Puentes, said: “The authorisation of Belo Monte, a project involved in widespread corruption scandals, contradicts President Rousseff’s recent statement before the United Nations, in which she declared that Brazil would not tolerate corruption, and would instead aspire to be a country where leaders behave in strict accordance with their duties.

“We hope that the Brazilian government comes to its senses, and begins to align its actions with its words.”


Raoni, a Kayapó chief, at the Trocadero in Paris, holding a petition against the Belo Monte dam; June 2011. Photo by Gert-Peter Bruch.

If eighty percent of the flow of the Xingú is diverted down one huge artificial canal to the complex’s powerhouse, the 100-kilometre rocky stretch downstream known as the the Xingú “Big Bend” will be left high and dry.

A panel of forty independent experts who analysed the Belo Monte project’s environmental impact assessment in 2009 found that since the Big Bend would receive less water than at any time in its history, fish stocks would be decimated, with some species found only in the Big Bend likely to become extinct.

The experts said that the drying out of the Big Bend would make it impossible for indigenous communities to reach the city of Altamira to sell their produce or buy staples.

The lowering of the water table would destroy the agricultural production of the region, affecting indigenous and non-indigenous farmers, as well as water quality, they added.

In all probability, the experts concluded, rainforests in the region would not survive and the formation of small, stagnant pools of water among the rocks of the Big Bend would be an ideal environment for the proliferation of malaria and other water-borne diseases.

Communities upstream, including the Kayapó community, would suffer the loss of migratory fish species, which are a crucial part of their diet.

According to the organisation International Rivers, Belo Monte will affect biodiversity over an extensive area of the central Amazon. “The rich flooded forests of the Big Bend and middle Xingú would no longer receive seasonal floodwaters. Besides affecting endemic and migratory fish species, Belo Monte would seriously affect aquatic and land fauna, including endangered species such as the white-cheeked spider monkey and black-bearded saki monkey. Threatened turtle species downstream would lose their breeding ground.”

Once in operation, Belo Monte would emit greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane and would become a significant contributor to climate change, AIDA points out.

Environmentalists say Belo Monte will be one of the most inefficient dams in the history of Brazil, generating only ten percent of its 11,233-megawatt installed capacity during the dry season, and an average of only 39 percent throughout the rest of the year. “The government is aware that Belo Monte’s seasonal inefficiency can only be managed by creating more dam reservoirs upstream,” Amazon Watch stated.

On average, large dams experience cost overruns of 96 percent. They are usually built to meet the demands of mining and other heavy industries.

Dam failure releases flood of toxic mud

The green light for Belo Monte comes just after a disastrous dam burst in the city of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais.

The disaster, on November 5, involved two dams that impound mining waste. The dams are run by the Brazilian mining company, Samarco, which is a joint venture between the mining giants Vale of Brazil and BHP Billiton of Australia.

The Fundão dam collapsed and the Santarém dam downstream overran in one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in Brazil’s history.

A flood of mud and toxic chemicals wiped out a village, left 11 people dead and 12 missing, and affected the water supply of the entire region, destroying flora and fauna over a vast area. More than 600 people were displaced.

The contaminated mud spread over 800 kilometres reaching one of the largest Brazilian rivers, the Rio Doce, and the coast of the state of Espírito Santo.

The mud was found to contain such substances as mercury, arsenic, chromium, and manganese at levels exceeding drinking water limits.

Samarco’s operating licences had expired two years earlier.

Brazilian activists travel to Borneo

Delegates from Brazil attended the recent World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers, held in Sarawak on the island of Borneo. They joined other activists from around the world to mark the two-year anniversary of the blockades against the proposed Baram mega-dam in Sarawak.

In their end-of-conference declaration, delegates demanded an end to the building of such dams worldwide, the removal of those that already exist, and full recognition of the rights of indigenous people.

They said governments, multi-national companies, and others should stop presenting dams as climate neutral, and recognise that they emit large amounts of greenhouse gases.

The declaration included a call on the Brazilian government to cancel the construction of the Belo Monte complex and all the 150 hydroelectric plants planned in the Amazon.

The Brazilian delegates – Antônio Sau Munduruku, Daniela Soares Da Silva, and Arthur Massuda –talked about the effects of outsiders coming into their communities, and cited drug abuse, prostitution, violence, and health problems.

“Together with this we have pollution, the loss of forests and the loss of the river, and, when we are not in charge of our own land anymore, we lose our tradition and our identity,” Munduruku said. “Companies promise us health, education, and infrastructure, but these are not coins to be used for bargaining. They are basic rights.”

Munduruku lives in the area of the Tapajós river basin, where seven dams are planned. A national and international alliance is being built up to resist the projects.

Da Silva lives in the area of the Xingú river, where there has been thirty years of resistance by anti-dam activists. She says the fight against the Belo Monte dam was very strong and united from 1989 to 2000, but the anti-dam movement became fragmented in 2003 when the Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva started to promote the project.

It became very hard to fight, Daniela Soares Da Silva says, as the indigenous communities, fishermen, and other riverside communities were no longer united. “The company started to try and buy the loyalty of indigenous people with gifts like truckloads of food. Many fishermen were lured by the promises of the company, but now they realise that this was a mistake as they are fighting to be recognised as impactees.”


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Daniela Soares Da Silva at the main Baram blockade.

The government, Da Silva says, has been overruling every negative decision against the project with a judicial “security suspension” mechanism, which it can employ if it considers that Brazil’s economy or its security are being harmed. “A single judge can overrule a decision so the courts are now a political tool for the government’s development plans.”

Swathes of the Brazilian forest are being cut down in areas of precious biodiversity. Da Silva says the fight goes on and is not just about Belo Monte. “It’s a whole system; it’s a whole development project; it’s a whole way of thinking about nature, life, and social relations.”

In Sarawak, the Brazilian delegates spent several days with activists from Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, the United States, and Honduras. They visited the site of the Baram dam blockades, shared information about the effects of mega-dams on their communities, and discussed their struggles and ways forward.

Globally, at least 3,700 major dams are either planned or already under construction, primarily in countries with emerging economies. According to the World Commission on Dams, dams have displaced at least 40 million people worldwide and have negatively affected an estimated 472 million people living downstream. Sixty percent of the world’s rivers have been affected by dams and diversions.

Unprecedented floods are threatening the safety of dams and, in the US alone, have caused more than 100 dams to fail since 2010.


Indigenous anti-dam protester in Brazil. Photo by Diego Cavichiolli Carbone.

Belo Monte facts from Amazon Watch

International Rivers’ briefing


Headline photo credit: Programa de Aceleracion del Crecimiento.

Article updated on 27/11/2015.

More coverage to follow.