Fury as Amazon rainforest dam approved by Brazil

Hannah Strange, The Times
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sunset on the Xingu
Sunset on the Xingu
Monti Aguirre/IR
Brazil has approved the controversial construction of a giant hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon, defying a 20-year protest by indigenous and environmental campaigners who say that the project will devastate the surrounding rainforest and threaten the survival of local tribes.

The Belo Monte project on the Xingu river, an Amazon tributary, was started in the 1990s but abandoned amid widespread protests at home and abroad. The rock star Sting led a campaign against the plan with tribal leaders, and revisited Brazil in November last year to urge the Government to consider the impact of deforestation on greenhouse gas levels and global warming.

The $17 billion (£11 billion) dam in the northern state of Pará will be the world’s third-largest and could provide electricity to 23 million homes, a supply that the Government says is vital to the country’s economic growth. Critics argue that the flooding of 500 sq km of rainforest will damage fish stocks and wildlife and force the displacement of indigenous peoples.

Carlos Minc, the Environment Minister, said on Monday that the land flooded would be a fraction of the 5,000 sq km originally planned. “The environmental impact exists but it has been weighed up, calculated and reduced,” he said. “Not one Indian on indigenous land will be displaced.”

However, groups on land not demarcated as tribal territory — a distinction often labelled a get-out clause by indigenous campaigners — still stand to lose their homes. Mr Minc said that they would be compensated. Indigenous groups complain that they were not properly consulted over the project, which Megaron Tuxucumarrae, a chief of the Kayapo tribe, said would destroy the environment that his people had taken care of for millennia. “We are opposed to dams on the Xingu, and will fight to protect our river,” he said.

The state-run company Eletrobrás is said to be eyeing the project, but a contract has not yet been awarded. The winning company will have to spend $803million on measures to minimise its impact and resettle an estimated 12,000 people.

Critics said that the Government had underestimated the potential impact in its attempt to meet political ends in an election year. Even within the Government, the project has been so contentious that in November two senior officials from Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency, resigned, citing political pressure.

With general elections looming in October, the Government is under pressure to deal with energy infrastructure problems that resulted in large swathes of the country, including São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, being plunged into darkness in November.

Engineering experts have questioned the efficiency of the 11-gigawatt dam, which would be outstripped in size only by China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

Francisco Hernández, an electrical engineer and joint co-ordinator of a group of 40 specialists who analysed the project, said that the dam would generate little electricity during the three to four-month dry season. Describing it as a scheme of “doubtful engineering viability”, he said Belo Monte was an extremely complex project “that would interrupt the flow of water courses over an enormous area, requiring excavation of earth and rocks on the scale of that carried out for digging the Panama Canal”.

Up to 70 dams, roads, gas pipelines and power grids worth more than $30billion are to be built to tap the region’s raw materials and transport agricultural products.

The announcement drew a furious reaction from environmental groups around the world. Aviva Imhof, the campaigns director of International Rivers, described it as a “foolish investment”, and said that by investing in energy efficiency, Brazil could cut demand by 40 per cent over the nextdecade and save $19billion. “The amount of energy saved would be equivalent to 14 Belo Monte dams,” she said.

Fiona Watson, research director of the UK-based Survival International, said the dam would be a catastrophe for indigenous people. “The Brazilian Government has driven through the dam with a cavalier disregard to indigenous peoples’ rights,” she said. “Development in Brazil comes at an unacceptable price — the destruction of whole tribes.”