IBAMA President Resigns Over Belo Monte Licensing

Zachary Hurwitz
Ex-President of IBAMA, Abelardo Bayma Azevedo, at a briefing
Ex-President of IBAMA, Abelardo Bayma Azevedo, at a briefing

The President of Brazil's environmental agency IBAMA, Abelardo Bayma Azevedo, submitted a letter of resignation yesterday after facing heavy pressure to grant a full installation license for the Belo Monte Complex, another victim in a long-running political war over environmental licensing between Brazil's Ministry of Mines and Energy and its Ministry of the Environment. The victims keep piling up, and it's bad for the Amazon.

Brazil’s Big Bad Wolf Attacks Again

Azevedo is the latest victim of a feud between the ministries heavily influenced by Minister of Mines and Energy Edison Lobão ("big wolf" in Portuguese) and newly elected President Dilma Rousseff. Lobão recently replaced Márcio Zimmerman as Dilma’s Minister of Mines and Energy, returning in 2011 after a first term under Lula during 2008-2010. Lobão has also served three consecutive terms as Senator of the State of Maranhão, and one as Governor of Maranhão between 1991-1994.  

To no one's surprise, Lobão has had a particularly voracious appetite for environmentalists and Amazon defenders.  

According to yesterday’s report in O Globo, "in meetings with Eletronorte directors, Abelardo refused to grant the definitive license [for Belo Monte]. He argued that IBAMA could not grant the license because the project was still full of pending environmental problems." According to one source, Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira “promised” Lobão that Bayma Azevedo would grant the installation license during the month of February 2011, despite such environmental problems.  

IBAMA, meanwhile, fulfilling the exigencies of standard Brazilian legislation, has refused to grant an installation license as long as Belo Monte consortium Norte Energia, S.A. has failed to meet 40 conditions required by the environmental agency. Eletrobrás, of which Eletronorte is a subsidiary, holds a 49.98% stake in Norte Energia, and since 2010 has sought a "partial" installation license to begin construction before the "hydrological window" closes on the Xingu River.

Marina Silva also resigned as Minister of Environment in 2008 over the weakening of Brazil's environmental licensing
Marina Silva also resigned as Minister of Environment in 2008 over the weakening of Brazil's environmental licensing

Bayma Azevedo is the latest high-level figure to resign in what is becoming a long list of politicians whose attempts to protect the Amazon have been thwarted by special interest groups that have a voice inside the Ministry of Mines and Energy. 2010's Green Party presidential candidate Marina Silva, herself Senator of the State of Acre (1994-current), resigned from her post as Lula's Minister of the Environment in May 2008 over the progressive weakening of Brazil's environmental licensing framework, supported by the conditions of a Development Policy Loan to Brazil from the World Bank.  

It was during Lobão's first term as Minister of Mines and Energy in 2007 and Dilma's term as Lula's Chief of Staff that the concept of "partial" installation license was first "invented" for the Jirau Dam on the Madeira River.  At the time, highly visible public disagreements between Dilma and Silva over the licensing of the Santo Antônio and Jirau hydroelectric dams on the Madeira River, and over the weakening and political coordination of the federal government's long-delayed "Sustainable Amazon Plan,"  led to Silva's resignation. While the ex-minister from Acre defended a stronger licensing framework and investments in alternative markets for the Amazon, she ultimately yielded to political pressure from Rousseff over the licensing of the Madeira dams. In contrast, Rousseff has supported efforts to "streamline" environmental licensing of large infrastructure, including mega-dams. The resulting framework has given short shrift to environmental and human rights legislation, while catering to the interests of Brazil's state-subsidized multinational dam-building and mining corporations.

Lobão and newly anointed President Dilma, meanwhile, have long been close colleagues, and share an insider's perspective of the strategies and the political influences at the heart of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, as Dilma led the Ministry between 2003-2005. Now, their blueprint for weak environmental licensing is being applied once more in an attempt to approve construction of the Belo Monte dams. The technique will almost certainly be used to license the twelve Tapajós and Teles Pires dams, which together would flood an area of 3,971 square kilometers, or almost twice the area of Tokyo, the world’s largest city. The twelve dams would illegally directly flood the Mundurucu, Apiaká de Pimental, Akaybãe, Remédio, Sai Cinza, São Martinho, and Boca do Igarapé Pacu indigenous territories, among others.  

However, Lobão and Dilma are racing to take advantage of the "economic window" provided by high world commodity prices in order to invest in mega-dams in the Amazon. In the licensing of dams, expected returns on commodity investments and the corrupt promises of patronage politics are at stake; hence the frequent attacks on IBAMA officials and the Ministry of the Environment, and the heavy reliance on public coffers to subsidize BNDES loans for mega-dams such as Belo Monte.

Defenders of the Amazon, hide your children. Here comes Brazil’s big bad wolf.