Judge Suspends Studies for Amazon Dam: Legality of World's Third Largest Dam Project Questioned

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Brazilian federal court judge issued a restraining order on Wednesday, April 16 suspending technical and economic feasibility and environmental studies for Belo Monte Dam, on the Xingu River, one of the Amazon's principal tributaries. In his decision, Judge Antonio Carlos Almeida Campelo ruled that the government's awarding of the contract for the studies to Brazil's three largest civil construction companies – Camargo Correa, Odebrecht, and Andrade Gutierrez - without competitive bidding was illegal. The suit was brought by the federal attorney's office.

Eletrobrás, the state electric holding company, awarded the contract for the studies as part of the Brazilian government's push to build the $6.6 billion Belo Monte Dam, the largest infrastructure project in Brazil's Growth Acceleration Plan, or PAC. According to Glenn Switkes, International Rivers' Latin America Program Director, “The Brazilian construction giants are among the largest donors to national and local political campaigns. By awarding the studies to this 'unholy trinity', President Lula intended to throw the weight of their political and economic power behind Belo Monte Dam, even though the technical and economic viability of the project is extremely doubtful”. The federal attorney's office argued that since the companies would be likely bidders for the right to build Belo Monte, they would have an unfair advantage in carrying out the prior studies with public funding. The companies signed a confidentially agreement restricting public access to information obtained during the study process.

Belo Monte, which at 11,181 MW would be the world´s third largest in installed generating capacity, has been controversial from the outset. The dam project was redesigned in 1999, and according to its proponents would have fewer impacts on indigenous populations and the rainforest than the 1980s plans for six huge dams on the Xingu, which would have flooded tens of thousands of square kilometers of the rainforest.

But indigenous people and environmentalists who have opposed Belo Monte disagree, saying the project would still have enormous impacts, including diverting the river and drying out a 140 km stretch of the Xingu, directly affecting at least 500 indigenous people living along what is called its “Big Bend”. More than 10,000 indigenous people live in the Xingu basin, and even groups like the Kayapó who live several hundred kilometers upstream fear that damming the Xingu will destroy migratory fish stocks which are crucial for their well-being. Under Eletrobrás' current plan, 16,000 people from the city of Altamira and its surrounding countryside would also be displaced to make way for the dam.

Indigenous people of the Xingu are organizing a huge protest against Belo Monte and other plans to dam the Xingu, which will take place May 19-23 in Altamira. 1,000 indigenous representatives are expected to participate, in addition to national and international environmental and indigenous support groups and social movements.

Belo Monte, along with large hydroelectric dams planned for the Madeira, Tapajós, Tocantins, and other major tributaries of the Amazon, would provide most of Brazil´s electrical generating capacity over the coming decades, according to recently released government plans. In all, more than 60 large dams would be built in the Amazon, causing irreversible impacts to the rainforest, its wildlife, and local populations. Most of the energy that Belo Monte would generate would be used to drive the expansion of aluminum and other electro-intensive metals processing plants in the eastern Amazon. Opponents of the government's energy plan say that improved energy efficiency measures and alternative energy sources should receive priority rather than damming of the rivers of Amazonia.

Judge Campelo's ruling requires the companies to hand over all documents and computer files that are part of the studies within five days or face a stiff fine and possible criminal charges. The government is likely to appeal, and a full hearing is expected to take place analyzing the merits of the suit.

International Rivers www.internationalrivers.org


Media contacts: 

Glenn Switkes +55.35.3332.6809 | glenn@internationalrivers.org
Tim Kingston 1.510 848 1155x314, (cell) 1.510 290 7170 | tim@internationalrivers.org