Brazilian court overturns suspension of mega-dam’s operating licence

credito_divulgacion_programa_de_aceleracion_del_crecimiento_pacA federal court in Brazil has revoked a lower court’s suspension of the operating licence for the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

The Federal Regional Court of the First Region, seated in Brasilia, overturned the decision made by the Federal Justice of Altamira, Judge Maria Carolina Valente do Carmo, earlier this month.

Judge do Carmo ruled that the licence should be suspended until the federal government and Norte Energia, the consortium in charge of the dam’s construction, complied with their obligation to restructure the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) of Altamira.

However, a judge at the first region court ruled yesterday (Wednesday) that Judge do Carmo’s decision disproportionately affected the public interest, “causing grave repercussions for the economy and public order”.

Another argument presented was that the suspension would prevent the implementation of various plans designed to benefit indigenous peoples.

Lawyer for the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), María José Veramendi Villa, said that, to the contrary, the new court decision was yet another attack on the rights of the affected indigenous communities.

“The decision manipulates the arguments of public interest, order, security and the economy, and then uses the plans – which should have been implemented when the original environmental licence was granted in 2010 – to justify why it is not possible to suspend the operating licence.

“The bottom line is that the operating licence never should have been granted in the first place without the fulfilment of those plans.”

FUNAI is the government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. Its regional operations in the dam area would need to be restructured to enable it to deal with compensation and social support for indigenous groups affected by Belo Monte.


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

Another judge had already ordered the government and Norte Energia to carry out the FUNAI restructuring work in 2014, so Judge do Carmo fined both of them 900,000 reais (about US$222,000) for non-compliance. These fines are also revoked by the latest ruling.

Reinstatement of the operating licence will allow Norte Energia to begin power generation at Belo Monte in the coming weeks, although the plant is not expected to be fully complete until at least 2019.

The licence allows for the filling of two of the dam’s reservoirs.

The operating licence was authorised by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) in November last year despite negative technical reports issued by FUNAI and the environmental  authority itself.

The decision horrified environmentalists. Antonia Melo, who leads the Movimiento Xingú Vivo para Siempre (Xingú Alive Forever Movement), said: “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 in the northern state of Pará. If it goes into operation, it will be the third largest hydroelectric complex in the world, comprising three structures: the main dam, Ilha do Pimental; the Bela Vista reinforcement dam; and the main turbine house, Belo Monte do Pontal. There will be two artificial canals, which together will be larger than the Panama Canal.

There  are currently more than sixty cases under review in the Brazilian courts relating to alleged irregularities in the construction of Belo Monte. The federal prosecutor’s  office alone has presented 24 public civil actions, but there are also complaints filed by the public defender of the state of Pará, the public defender of the union, and numerous civil society institutions.

The Xingú river basin is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups.

The dam complex is designed to divert 80 percent of the Xingú river’s flow and will devastate more than 1,500 square kilometers of Brazilian rainforest. The environmental and human rights organisation International Rivers says the complex will affect biodiversity over an extensive area.

Belo Monte Dam Prioject

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

On December 21 last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) launched a case against Brazil over Belo Monte.

Veramendi says affected indigenous communities have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the project, and there has not been an adequate assessment of its environmental impact.

There have, Veramendi says, been “violations of the rights to life, health, integrity and justice of indigenous peoples, riverine communities, and residents of the city of Altamira”.

AIDA’s co-director, Astrid Puentes, says the project has involved widespread corruption.

According to official statistics, 19,000 people will be forcibly displaced for Belo Monte, but an independent review of the project states that the number of directly affected people could be twice the official estimate. AIDA says about 2,000 people have already been displaced in Altamira and the surrounding area.

If the IACHR decides there is a case to answer, it will be tasked with establishing whether or not the Belo Monte project has caused the alleged human rights violations.

Amazon Watch says Belo Monte will be one of the 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.”

AIDA says that, 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.”

Belo Monte is a “gateway dam,” meaning that its construction will inevitably  unleash the construction of a series of dams on the river, AIDA says.

Environmentalists say Belo Monte will be one of the most inefficient dams in the history of Brazil, generating only 10 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 Brazilian delegates to the recent World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER) held in Sarawak on the island of Borneo talked about the effects of outside workers coming into their communities, and cited drug abuse, prostitution, violence, and health problems.

At least 20,000 workers are being brought in to build the mega-dam. Three workers were killed and three others were injured when a cement silo at the construction site collapsed in June last year.

The IBAMA’s green light for Belo Monte came just after a disastrous dam burst in the Brazilian city of Mariana. The catastrophe, on November 5 last year, involved two dams that impound mining waste. The Fundão dam collapsed and the Santarém dam downstream overran.

A flood of mud and toxic chemicals wiped out a village, killed at least 17 people, affected the water supply of the entire region, and destroyed flora and fauna over a vast area.


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

Headline photo credit: Programa de Aceleracion del Crecimiento.