Lula Promises not to Shove Belo Monte Down Our Throats

President Lula Meets with Social Movements to Discuss Belo Monte Dam
President Lula Meets with Social Movements to Discuss Belo Monte Dam
  Ricardo Stuckert, Presidência da República
In a potentially historic meeting, social movements and indigenous people fighting Belo Monte Dam met with President Lula last week. Those present reported that Lula promised to initiate a dialogue on the proposed project, and that the president guaranteed in his own inimitable way that that "Belo Monte will not be shoved down anyone's throat." But, how likely is Lula to slow down or halt the electric sector's juggernaut that is primed to push the project forward at any cost?

The meeting in Brasília was an initiative the Bishop of the Xingu, Dom Erwin Krautler, who is also national president of Cimi, the Catholic Church's indigenous support group. Taking part were representatives of affected indigenous peoples, river bank dwellers, and small farmers who would suffer the impacts of what would be the world's third largest hydroelectric dam, with 11,231 MW of installed capacity. Advisors of the movement who were present included Célio Bermann of the University of São Paulo and two public attorneys from Pará state.

According to those who were there, the meeting began with presentations by high-level electric sector officials, including Eletrobrás' head of engineering, Valter Cardeal, the Mines and Energy Ministry's Planning Secretary, Altino Ventura Filho, Brazil's head of energy planning, Maurício Tolmasquim, and Paulo Fernando Rezende, the Eletrobrás enginner in charge of Belo Monte studies who suffered the wrath of the Kayapó at last year's Altamira gathering. The officials waxed poetically on the benefits of Belo Monte ("a gift from God; clean, renewable, cheap energy") and of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon in general. The officials did not spare criticism of International Rivers' book, "Tenotã-Mó," a series of studies questioning the viability of the project.

Also present was the president of Funai, Brazil's indigenous protection service, and Ibama's environmental licensing director. Conspicuous by their absence were the Mines and Energy Minister, Edison Lobão, who was reportedly busy telling potential investors in Washington that the Madeira dams "had zero environmental impacts"; environment minister Carlos Minc, and Lula's chief-of-staff and unannounced presidential candidate, Dilma Roussef.

After nearly two hours, the president entered the room, and heard Célio Bermann's presentation regarding the project's projected poor performance during the dry season, when it would generate less than 2,000 MW during several months.

Lula surprised everyone by saying "we will not force the project down anyone's throat," and making statements which indicated his apparent willingness to review the project's feasibility. Participants report he stated "we have to come to an agreement about whether there are other cheaper, more competitive alternatives... the electric sector has enormous debts with affected communities - monetary and credibility debts...the electric sector promises everything and does nothing...the people have reason to not trust their promises... I know the companheiros from MAB. There are still people who did not receive land after the São Francisco River dams were built (in the 1970's)...Lots of people come to build the dams and then end up in a miserable state...Balbina is a monument to insanity. We would not build Balbina, or Itaipu."

And, perhaps most telling. "It's just not possible to build a dam with 11,000 MW (capacity) and then have only 4,000 MW year-round. The energy is going to be very expensive...If the project can be improved, let's build it. If it is inviable, we won't build it".

After forty-five minutes, Lula closed the meeting by asking the social movements to send him a specific critique of the project, and by ordering Eletrobrás to prepare a presentation for him on their plans for Belo Monte.

The social movements emerged reservedly hopeful that the already delayed Belo Monte auction (currently set for late October) to private companies may be pushed back even further, and that a more democratic and open debate on the project may begin to take place over the coming months. About 25-30 independent experts have committed to evaluate the project studies, and at the very least Belo Monte should receive greater scrutiny as a result of the meeting with Lula. But, whether the results of the president's involvement will merely be a "green windowdressing" for the project, or whether Belo Monte will grind to a halt remains to be seen.