Plan to build Brazilian dam in disarray


PLANS TO build a controversial dam in the middle of the Amazon rainforest have been thrown into confusion after a Brazilian judge ordered the suspension of the project, citing environmental concerns.

In his ruling on Monday, Judge Antônio Carlos Almeida Campelo said the Brazilian government ignored its own environmental legislation when the country’s environmental protection agency issued an environmental licence for the dam in February. The agency is part of the ministry of the environment.

The federal judge’s ruling meant Brazil’s electricity regulator had to suspend an auction due yesterday to hire a contractor to build the €13 billion Belo Monte dam, which is opposed by local tribes and environmentalists.

Judge Campelo also said public hearings designed to assess the impact of the project on local communities were “mere window-dressing designed to comply with legislative norms”.

The request to halt the project had been submitted by a local prosecutor in the state of Pará, where the dam is to be located.

Brazil’s attorney general, Luís Inácio Adams, was trying to overturn the judge’s suspension order in a last-ditch effort to have the auction go ahead yesterday. Mr Adams said it was wrong to say there had not been a real discussion about the project, insisting that “the debate about Belo Monte has already lasted 30 years”.

Since it was proposed in the 1970s Belo Monte has faced technical, financial and environmental challenges. If built, it will be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam after the Three Gorges dam in China and the Itaipú dam, which straddles Brazil’s border with Paraguay.

The Belo Monte dam is designed to generate 11,000 megawatts of electricity. The Brazilian government says it is a vital part of its strategy to meet rapidly rising demand for electricity from the country’s expanding economy.

Speaking to a gathering of indigenous groups in the north, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defended the project, saying “hydroelectric power is cheaper and a thermoelectric plant is a disgraceful polluter”.

But many indigenous tribes along the Xingu river, where the dam would be located, say they will fight to the death to stop it being built in their territory. They say that, as well as flooding traditional lands, the construction project would attract thousands of outsiders into their remote corner of the rainforest in search of jobs.

The tribes have gained the support of Hollywood director James Cameron, who called their struggle “a real-life Avatar confrontation”, referring to his blockbuster film in which the native people of a forest planet come into conflict with a human mining operation.

According to the government, about 12,000 people will have to be relocated because of the artificial lake that will swamp 500sq km of forest once the Xingu is dammed.

But Mr Lula said those objecting to the dam did not “take into account that the project has already greatly changed”.

The original proposal was for a string of four dams flooding an area of 1,500sq km.