Fight Over Belo Monte Legality Reaches Boiling Point

Zachary Hurwitz and Brent Millikan
The illegality of the Belo Monte Dam is reaching a boiling point.
The illegality of the Belo Monte Dam is reaching a boiling point.

"If Norte Energia has not met the legal pre-requisites to building the Belo Monte Dam, it seems obvious to us that the project should be delayed.  We can't sacrifice the region's people and environment to satisfy the consortium's timeline, when it was they who caused the delay in the first place."  This statement from Brazil's Federal Public Prosecutor Ubiratan Cazetta sums up the risks of approving a full Installation License for the Belo Monte Dam after new evidence recently surfaced that the pre-requisites have not been met. 

Nonetheless, and despite warnings from Brazilian lawmakers, Brazilian scientists and academics, and the international community, the Dilma government may issue the license anyways.

Recent evidence illustrates that Norte Energia, the consortium under contract to build the Belo Monte Dam, has not completed the 66 social and environmental pre-requisites issued by IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, as part of the preliminary environmental license granted in 2010.  IBAMA tied approval of the dam's Installation License to completion of its 40 pre-requisites, while government indigenous agency FUNAI tied approval to an additional 26 conditions.  As the Folha de São Paulo reported after it obtained an official report from IBAMA, "only 5 of the 40 conditions were met by Norte Energia" by the end of April 2011.

According to the Federal Prosecutor's note, "water quality is uncertain in the region of Altamira, where the project would be built; actions to support indigenous people in the region were not fulfilled; and the promised health and education programs are far behind schedule."  

As a result, Brazil's Federal Prosecutor's office issued a warning to Norte Energia to provide irrefutable evidence that it had indeed completed a majority of the 66 conditions, as reported in a press release by the consortium on May 11th.  If it couldn't provide evidence, Norte Energia and its staff members would be liable for damages, according to the prosecutor's office.

Not that Belo Monte Dam would be viable if only the 66 pre-requisites were completed.  As we reported in our investor risk report Mega-Projeto, Mega-Riscos, Belo Monte makes no sense from either an environmental, economic, or social perspective.  

Nonetheless, reports speculate that IBAMA will grant the full Installation License by the end of May, buckling into a heavy PR campaign waged by Norte Energia and the Brazilian government to pressure most recent IBAMA President Curt Trennepohl into issuing the approval.  The Dilma administration held a "journalists workshop" this week to heap mounds of guilt on Trennepohl, who has been exposed to a public opinion which is increasingly, and loudly, opposed to the dam.  At the "workshop," Norte Energia hydrology experts and the Minister of Mines and Energy spoke of how terrible it would be for the consortium to miss out on the dry season window for construction between the months of June and November.  If construction didn't begin during this window, warned Norte Energia, Belo Monte Dam would be delayed another year.  

Banda Calypso is a popular band in the Amazon
Banda Calypso is a popular band in the Amazon

That's not all.  Norte Energia trucked in pop band Banda Calypso, a favorite of citizens living in Brazil's interior, for a free concert on the shores of the Xingu River, where the lead singer was told to make a statement to the crowd that the band was in favor of the dam.  Interestingly enough, the majority of a reported 15,000 people in attendance – including the prefecture of Altamira – jeered the pop band.  

Hence the very realistic, and legal, warning from Brazil's Public Prosecutor.  It's not the public's fault, nor Curt Trennepohl's fault, that Belo Monte could be delayed a year.  The fault rests squarely on Norte Energia, over 70% of whose shares are owned by the Brazilian government, who have been bluffing the people of the Xingu, betting that no one would notice that the 66 conditions have not been fulfilled.  The government is betting that by throwing wads of cash and pop bands at the public, they would forget why they were opposed to Belo Monte Dam in the first place.  

In fact, the opposite is true, and the chorus is overwhelming.  Just this week, 20 Brazilian scientific associations issued a letter manifesting their opposition to Belo Monte (the list is below).  Add that to public statements in support of the original recommendation of the IACHR to suspend the project because affected indigenous communities had never given their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. According to a recent article in O Globo, the Dilma administration's strong response against the IACHR recommendation was "objectionable," amounts to "a step backward" and is "an agressive affront to systems of international cooperation".  

If Trennepohl buckles and IBAMA grants an approval of a full Installation License, the Xingu River region will begin to face the impacts of a disorderly and corrupt development project gone wrong, such as those already faced by the people of the Madeira River during the construction of the Santo Antônio and Jirau dams.  Surely, no one with a heart – perhaps not even singer Joelma of Banda Calypso – wants this to happen.

Here's that list of 20 Brazilian scientific associations asking for suspension of the Belo Monte Dam:

Associação Brasileira de Antropologia – ABA
Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência – SBPC
Academia Brasileira de Ciências – ABC
Associação Nacional de Pós-Graduação e Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais – ANPOCS
Associação Brasileira de Agroecologia - ABA
Associação Brasileira de Educação a Distância - ABED
Associação Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais - ABEP
Associação Brasileira de Lingüística - ABRALIN
Associação dos Geógrafos Brasileiros - AGB
Associação Nacional de Pesquisa e Pós-Graduação em Psicologia – ANPEPP
Associação Nacional de Pós-Graduação e Pesquisa em Planejamento Urbano e Regional - ANPUR
Colégio Brasileiro de Ciências do Esporte – CBCE
Sociedade Botânica do Brasil – SBB
Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Ecológica – EcoEco
Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Política – SEP
Sociedade Brasileira de Engenharia Biomédica – SBEB
Sociedade Brasileira de Etnobiologia e Etnoecologia – SBEE
Sociedade Brasileira de Ictiologia – SBI
Sociedade Brasileira de Química – SBQ
Sociedade Brasileira de Sociologia - SBS