Brazil Green Lights Amazon Dam Disregarding Environmental Laws and Local Opposition

International Rivers & Amazon Watch

New Dilma Government approves fast-track forest clearance and commencement of controversial Belo Monte construction site

Brasília, Brazil (January 27, 2011)—The Brazilian government has issued a "partial” installation license allowing the Belo Monte Dam Complex to break ground on the margins of the Amazon’s Xingu River despite egregious disregard for human rights and environmental legislation, the unwavering protests of civil society and condemnations by its Federal Public Prosecutor's Office (MPF). The license was approved by Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA despite overwhelming evidence that the dam-building consortium Norte Energia (NESA) has failed to comply with dozens of social and environmental conditions required for an installation license.

The "partial” installation license, non-existent under Brazilian environmental legislation, will allow for NESA to open access roads and initiate forest clearing at dam construction sites in an area of 2,118 acres. "The partial installation license granted by IBAMA is intended to transform Belo Monte, a notoriously illegal and catastrophic dam project and a huge waste of taxpayers' money, into a fait accompli,” said Christian Poirier, Brazil Program Coordinator at Amazon Watch. 

The risky $17 billion Belo Monte Dam Complex will divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile stretch. Its reservoirs will flood more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and local settlements, displace more than 40,000 people and generate vast quantities of methane—a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

The decision follows the recent resignation of IBAMA’s president Abelardo Bayma, who allegedly departed amidst intense political pressures from the Ministry of Mines and Energy and President Dilma Rousseff. 

The consortium also benefited from a subsidized $640 million start-up loan from the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) for equipment purchases before a partial installation license was issued, countering legal procedures. The bank has come under increasing scrutiny from the Public Prosecutor's office and NGOs due to alarming evidence that approval is based on political grounds, often downplaying problems of economic viability and compliance with social and environmental safeguards.

According to Public Prosecutor Ubiratan Cazetta, “ IBAMA is putting the region at a high social and environmental risk by granting a license allowing installation of the construction site while not requiring compliance with legally-mandated safeguards. No effective preparations have been made to absorb the thousands of migrants who will be attracted to the region in search of employment in dam construction. We're very concerned about what could happen here.”

Fierce opposition by local inhabitants to Belo Monte has not wavered. “For us, Belo Monte’s installation license is a sign of the government’s deepening authoritarianism, as it continues to steamroll over environmental legislation and human rights,” said Antônia Melo, a leader and spokeswoman for the Xingu Alive Forever Movement (MXVPS). “The government seeks to build this dam at any cost in order to benefit corporate interests at our expense. However, we will not stop fighting to preserve the Xingu, our national patrimony.”

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