Dilma Faces Questions of Democracy as Half a Million Ask for Belo Monte Cancellation

Zachary Hurwitz
Dam-Affected People Protest Against Belo Monte Dam in Brasilia
Dam-Affected People Protest Against Belo Monte Dam in Brasilia

Over 600,000 people signed a global petition that was handed to Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff and major members of her cabinet this morning in Brasilia, asking for the immediate cancellation of the Belo Monte Dam. The petition is a sign that, after a month in power, Brazil's new president Dilma Rousseff must respond to allegations of authoritarian approval of dam projects, spurring comparisons with the era of top-down dam-building during Brazil's military dictatorship.

Proposals for greater democracy in hydroelectric planning and alternatives to Brazil's energy matrix were presented along with the signatures by the Alliance in Defense of the Rivers of the Amazon, led by indigenous and dam-affected people who traveled to Brasilia to face her directly.  The delegation was supported by the Movement of Dam Affected People and the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, and had the backing of a protest that marched from the Brazilian Congress straight to the Palacio do Planalto (the Presidential Palace). 

In their proposal, the Alliance called for President Dilma to democratize energy planning by making it fully transparent and participatory, and by opening a dialogue between government planners at the Ministry of Mines and Energy and civil society organizations, social movement representatives, and the academic community.  

Indeed, in recent days, information has surfaced that illustrates serious structural problems in the ways in which the government plans and approves hydroelectric dams. Contradicting Brazil's own Constitution – which decrees a three-step licensing process that every development project must follow – the government forced IBAMA to grant a so-called "partial license" to begin construction of the Belo Monte Dam in anticipation of the fast-approaching rainy season on the Xingu river. The illegal partial license sparked a lawsuit from the Federal Public Prosecutor – the dam's 11th lawsuit – and came only weeks after former President of IBAMA Abelardo Bayma Azevedo resigned, unwilling to pull the trigger on the partial license out of fear of inevitable legal action.

Dam-Affected People Meet with Dilma's Office to Propose Democratization of Energy Planning
Dam-Affected People Meet with Dilma's Office to Propose Democratization of Energy Planning

In an illustration of just how undemocratic the hydro industry is in Brazil, Belo Monte consortium Norte Energia, S.A. (NESA) backed out of a bridge loan to begin construction because they sought to avoid meeting the project's 40 social and environmental conditions, a prerequisite to obtaining the full installation license. In a noteworthy exercise of restraint, Brazilian National Development Bank BNDES tied the disbursement of the bridge loan to the complete fulfillment of the project's conditions, as required by law. In its terms of reference, BNDES stated that any "intervention" in the construction site by NESA without it first obtaining a complete installation license would trigger the cancellation of the bridge loan.

Similarly, Brazil's Federal Council of Attorneys issued a statement calling for the paralysis of the Belo Monte Dam until the project's 40 social and environmental conditions have been met by NESA.

However, the problems in hydroelectric planning in Brazil go well beyond whether or not the prerequisites of an installation license have been fulfilled. In an interview with Brazil's Minister of Development, economist Miriam Leitão criticized the structural lack of democracy and transparency with which the Belo Monte Dam was approved; not only at IBAMA, but also at BNDES. The bank still refuses to make public their methods of evaluating the financial risks of the project, nor the minutes of decisions over how funds reserved for the public debt were to be used to bankroll the dam. At the heart of the matter is a lack of transparency and participation in decision-making across Brazilian institutions.

The undemocratic processes by which hydroelectric dams are planned and approved for the Brazilian Amazon need to change urgently – starting with the Belo Monte Dam. According to the Alliance in Defense of the Rivers of the Amazon, anything less than the "definitive cancellation of the Belo Monte Complex, considering its social, environmental, and economic inviability," would present the Brazilian government with the risk of "an explosive social situation stemming from the imminent start of construction."