Judge Suspends Second Madeira Dam

Aviva Imhof
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Update: On December 4, the Regional Federal Court overturned the injunction stopping work on the Jirau dam, stating that the decision "interferes with the planning of the generation and distribution of electricial energy, which is necessary for the progress of the country." This decision is being appealed by NGOs. 

Teotônio Rapids, Madeira River
Teotônio Rapids, Madeira River
Wilson Dias, Agência Brasil

Brazil's environmental protection agency, Ibama, granted a "preliminary" construction license in mid-November for the Jirau Dam on the Amazon's principal tributary, the Madeira River. Ten days later the license was suspended by a Federal Court judge, who stated that Brazilian law does not allow the granting of a preliminary license. The judge said that construction couldn't start on the project until a final license was issued by Ibama.

The preliminary license gave a consortium led by French energy giant Suez permission to begin construction on the 3,300 MW project, although Ibama wasn't planning to issue the final license for two months. Jirau is the second of two dams being built on the Madeira. Construction on the first, the Santo Antonio Dam, started earlier this year.

Ibama granted the preliminary license despite the fact that the consortium announced after winning the project auction that it was planning to move the dam nine kilometers from the area specified in the original bidding rules.

Although it appears that no additional environmental impact assessments were carried out to determine the impacts of this move, Ibama authorized construction with few contingencies, only requiring some additional environmental analysis prior to construction of the coffer dam. A petition for an injunction was filed by the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, which requested revocation of the preliminary license granted by Ibama.

Ibama's creation of the phony license is the latest in a series of decisions by the Brazilian government that demonstrates its determination to move forward with large dams in the Amazon Basin at any price. A number of other lawsuits are also working their way through the Brazilian courts challenging the approval of the new dam site, any of which could put further obstacles in front of the project developers.

The Madeira River dams have been the subject of intense controversy in Brazil because they would block the transport of sediment and the passage of fish, and threaten the river's unique biodiversity. The project would affect the land and livelihoods of thousands of river-bank dwellers and indigenous people. 

More information: 

Read an article in Portuguese about the Federal Judge's decision.
Read a Dow Jones article about Ibama's granting of the license.
Read a Reuters article about Ibama's granting of the license.