Regional Judge Overturns Ban on Construction of Controversial Belo Monte Dam

International Rivers and Amazon Watch
Saturday, March 5, 2011

Decision allows for forest clearance and start-up of dam construction to begin, despite violations of human rights and environmental legislation

Brasília, Brazil – In yet another turn of events in the increasingly heated legal and political battle over the controversial Belo Monte dam complex, on Thursday the president of a federal regional court in Brasilia, Olindo Menezes, overturned a decision by federal judge Ronaldo Destêrro that prohibited initial construction to commence on the mega-project – slated to be the world's third largest dam - along the Xingu river in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

The earlier decision by Destêrro, issued on February 25th, was provoked by a civil lawsuit filed by the Federal Public Prosecutor's office.  The lawsuit argued that the federal environmental agency, IBAMA had acted illegally in issuing a "partial installation license" –non-existent under Brazilian law- to allow construction to begin on access roads, industrial parks and worker encampments at two sites of the Belo Monte dam complex.  The lawsuit noted that the majority of social and environmental pre-requirements for dam construction to begin, such as health, education and sanitation infrastructure in urban areas and demarcation and protection of indigenous lands, had not been complied with by the Norte Energia (NESA) dam-building consortium, headed by parastatal energy company, Eletrobras.

In his decision, regional judge Menezes used a legal artifice ("suspensão de segurança") that dates to the military dictatorship of the 1970s, allowing for previous decisions to be overturned without considering the merits of the case, based on arguments of supposed threats to national security.  According to Menezes, there is no need for full compliance with conditionalities of a first phase environmental license for "initial installations" of Belo Monte to begin. 

The Public Prosecutor's Office stated that the decision by Menezes was reckless and, if upheld, will lead to irreparable damage to the environment and population of the Xingu region. According to public prosecutor Felicio Pontes, "in all phases of the licensing process, the federal government has disrespected the Brazilian constitution and environmental laws. IBAMA has ceased to be a technical agency and today cedes to political pressures, becoming the main party responsible for deforestation in the Amazon.” According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the beginning of dam construction at Belo Monte may provoke chaos in terms of social infrastructure in the region of Altamira.

In response to the decision by the regional judge, the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (MXVPS),  a coalition of indigenous people, social movements and other civil society groups opposed to the Belo Monte dam, stated "How can this government call itself democratic and popular while resorting to subterfuges created by the military dictatorship?” According to MXVPS coordinator Antônia Melo, "Judge Menezes should know that the real threat to national security is the destruction of Brazil's largest national heritage, which is the Amazon - it's peoples, communities, rivers, flora and fauna that will be destroyed by Belo Monte".

 "Political interventions in the judicial system, aimed at pushing Belo Monte forward at any cost, are an assault on the rule of law and a serious threat to democratic institutions in Brazil, as well as a death sentence for the Xingu and its peoples", said Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director at International Rivers.

 The Public Prosecutors Office  has already announced that it will appeal the decision by Menezes.  Nine other lawsuits regarding the Belo Monte dam complex are also pending.

The risky $17 billion Belo Monte Dam is slated to divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile stretch. Its reservoirs will flood more than 120,000 acres of rainforest and local settlements, displace between 20,000 and 40,000 people and generate vast quantities of methane—a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

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