Brazil: Don't Shove Belo Monte Down Our Throats!

Zachary Hurwitz
Zachary Hurwitz

Guest blog by Zachary Hurwitz.

Zach is a former International Rivers intern in Brazil with a Masters degree in Geography from the University of Texas, Austin. He has worked on energy issues in the Amazon Basin since 2006. 

In July 2009, Lula da Silva promised his personal friend and Bishop of the Xingú Dom Erwin Krautler, as well as Professor Celio Bermann of the University of São Paulo and representatives of affected indigenous and riverine communities that "we will not force Belo Monte down anyone's throat." But on February 1st, the Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA did just that, releasing the first of three environmental licenses required to build the Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu River.

IBAMA's Provisional License approves the project's environmental assessment (EIA), written by Brazil's state-run electric company Eletrobras, while imposing 40 corrective mitigating conditions that will cost R$1.5 billion (US$794 million) to implement. In order to mitigate the dam's social and environmental impacts and obtain an Installation License to break ground on what will be the world's third largest dam, the construction consortium that wins the project's auction on March 30th must meet these 40 conditions.

Carlos Minc, who is expected to leave his post as Brazil's Environment Minister this month to run for public office in Rio de Janeiro later in the year, stated that the imposition of 40 conditions proves that Belo Monte is the "most socio-environmentally advanced dam in the history of Brazil." Meanwhile, critics like Raul Telles do Valle of Brazil's Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) have been quick to point out the obvious: if an environmental assessment needs 40 conditions to be approved, then it's most likely one of the worst environmental assessments written in the country's history. 

The Xingu River
The Xingu River
Sue Cunningham

Indeed, it appears the project's incomplete environmental assessment was rammed through IBAMA simply to obtain the agency's rubber stamp of approval. In November 2009 two prominent IBAMA technicians were removed from the EIA for voicing their opposition to the poor quality and rushed timeline of the EIA, which they later stated was driven by political pressure from the top. In another case, six IBAMA technicians signed a letter voicing concern that Belo Monte's impacts to the Xingu river basin and riverine and indigenous communities had not been adequately studied, nor had these communities sufficiently participated in public hearings.

In September 2009, 40 highly respected international technical specialists and academic experts produced a report that highlighted significant errors in the EIA and the current design of Belo Monte. However, the 40 conditions that IBAMA has imposed on the provisional license hardly do justice to the lacuna in the EIA. Instead, the agency has buckled once again – as it did in approving the environmental licenses of the highly controversial Santo Antônio and Jirau mega-dams of the Madeira River Complex in Brazil's Rondônia state – to a political agenda and timetable that appear to have been determined well before the environmental assessments were ever written.

Clearly, Belo Monte's timetable, and that of 70 other large dam projects planned for the Amazon, has been in the works since José Sarney (1985-1990) took office as the first democratically elected president since 1964. The history of patronage, corruption, and fraud that has played out since Sarney distributed strategic posts in Brazil's "hydroelectocracy" to his supporters has set the stage for Belo Monte's politically expedited provisional license. Sarney's bloc of supporters in the country's electric and corporate sectors – including Dilma Roussef, Lula's Chief of Staff and hand-picked successor for this year's election – owe their political lives to him and want Belo Monte built at any cost.

Make no mistake: the provisional license was approved this week – lacking a complete and rigorous environmental assessment, while denying the people of the Xingú their right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) – because of an election timeline. In part it boosts Dilma Rousseff's campaign for President: a Dilma win would most likely assure a continuation of the marriage between Sarneyists and the PT agenda on social spending that has characterized the Lula administration since 2005. On the other hand, a José Serra win (of the right-wing PSDB) on October 3rd would swing the country's economic policies back to the right, a risk to the PT's social agenda.

Meanwhile, Amazon defender and Green Party candidate Marina Silva, running 8% in polls, has criticized Belo Monte for lacking a coherent socio-environmental plan to support the people of the Xingú. Yet both front runners – Serra and Rousseff – have a strong interest in building Belo Monte and many more mega-dams in the Amazon to keep hydroelectricity profits flowing into industry and government coffers. These establishment candidates and their devotees – like Environmental Minister Carlos Minc – will undoubtedly continue to pay lip service to "sustainable development," while offering wholly inadequate mitigation schemes; 40 conditions for a Provisional License will not prevent impending disasters like Belo Monte.

The strength and unity of the Xingú River's inhabitants, as well as the Brazilian and international environmental movement, have delayed Belo Monte since the José Sarney administration took power 25 years ago. As we watch the provisional license being shoved down the throats of the people of the Xingú, and as light continues to be shed on Lula's ties to the Sarney political machine, it's more important than ever to stop Belo Monte. The people of the Xingú, the Amazon, and the world depend on it. We cannot wait for more politicians to take office only to buckle under pressure. The time to stop Belo Monte for good is now.

Kayapó dance

Kayapó dance
Photo by Glenn Switkes