€12bn dam in Amazon jungle gets go-ahead

Wed, Feb 3, 2010, 00:00

A CONTROVERSIAL project to build a massive hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon jungle has received the go-ahead from Brazil’s environmental protection agency, despite objections from environmentalists and indigenous people who live in the area.

To be built in the jungle state of Pará, the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River will be the third largest in the world with a capacity of 11,000 megawatts, as Brazil seeks to meet rising demand for electricity from its expanding economy.

Environmentalists argue that the dam will upset the region’s delicate ecosystem, while local indigenous groups fear its construction will draw thousands of outsiders seeking work to one of Brazil’s remotest regions.

Erwin Krautler, the Catholic bishop of Xingu and head of the church’s Indian missionary council, says going ahead with the dam would have “unforeseeable consequences” among the region’s indigenous people. “These people will cry, they will shout, they will rise up,” he warned.

In 2008, local Native Americans attacked an engineer from Brazil’s state electricity company after he gave a lecture to them on the proposed dam, ripping off his shirt before cutting him with machetes.

Brazil’s environment minister Carlos Minc, announcing approval of the €12 billion dam, admitted there was deep hostility to such projects, telling reporters: “Every hydroelectric plant is a war. The government wants them all [approved] and environmentalists want none.”

But he said Belo Monte would help Brazil in its quest to reduce carbon emissions. Latin America’s largest economy gets almost four-fifths of its electricity from hydroelectric plants.

The minister also said the original plan for a string of four dams flooding an area of 1,500sq km had been scaled back on environmental grounds: “This would have made life in the region unviable. Now it will be one dam flooding 500sq km.”

He insisted no indigenous peoples living on reservations would be among the estimated 12,000 people who will have to move because of the artificial lake the dam will create.

Belo Monte has been a cherished dream of Brazilian governments since it was first proposed in the 1970s during the country’s military dictatorship, when the generals made development of the world’s largest rainforest a national priority.

In 2008, the current centre-left government announced a multi-billion-euro package of investment in the region’s infrastructure, including dams, roads and gas pipelines. Labelled the Sustainable Amazon Plan, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said the projects would be subject to rigorous environmental standards.

But environmentalists argue that such large works would inevitably attract economic development and population migration to a region already under sustained threat from loggers and cattle ranchers.

In 2007, Mr Lula, frustrated at the delays faced by projects such as Belo Monte, restructured the environmental protection agency in order to try and speed up the rate at which it issues environmental licences. The move provoked criticism from environmental campaigners and led to a strike by agency workers.

In 2008, Mr Minc’s predecessor Marina Silva resigned as minister after she was denied responsibility for managing the Sustainable Amazon Plan, which was instead given to a minister who was a critic of the slow rate at which her ministry approved major public works in the Amazon.

Ms Silva is now planning to run for the Green Party in October’s presidential elections.