On, Off, On… Friends and Foes Regroup over Brazil’s Belo Monte Power Plant

James Cameron with Indian leader Sheila JurunaWednesday, April 14, a federal judge in Altamira, Pará, issued an injunction halting the auction scheduled for April 20 to award construction contracts for the Belo Monte dam and power plant. The judge also revoked the environmental license that was issued by the Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama).

The next day, the institute’s licensing director, Pedro Alberto Bignelli, declared that the construction will not have a direct impact on indigenous peoples in the region, contrary to what the judge, Antonio Carlos Almeida Campelo, said in his ruling.

Bignelli and Campelo are disputing whether or not Belo Monte infringes article 176 of the Brazilian constitution, which states that each time water resources in indigenous lands are used, specific legislation is required.

The judge, Campelo, says article 176 is pertinent. Bignelli says it is irrelevant as there is no “direct impact on indigenous peoples,” only indirect impacts that are exactly what the license deals with by establishing the need for 40 environmentally-friendly preparatory tasks before the actual construction begins.

The government legal office (Advocacia Geral da União – AGU) filed a countersuit seeking to annul the injunction that suspended the auction and license.

On Friday, Brazil’s National Agency of Electrical Energy (Aneel) issued a statement announcing that the auction for the construction of Belo Monte’s hydroelectric would be held as scheduled. Thanks to a decision by the Federal Regional Court (TRF), which overturned the injunction blocking the auction.

At the same time, a former president of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), Mércio Gomes, has gone public attacking Belo Monte. According to Gomes, the project for the dam is a mess and will “profoundly” affect around a thousand Indians in the Arara, Juruna and Xikrin ethnic groups, not to mention riverside inhabitants.

Gomes explained that during the dry season the dam will reduce the flow of the river to the point where it will make boat traffic impossible. Lower river levels will also result in the proliferation of algae that will mean fewer fish and more diseases, such as malaria.

“The ecology of the whole region will be deeply affected,” declared Gomes, who is now a professor of anthropology at a federal university in Rio de Janeiro.

Cameron Presence

Canadian filmmaker James Cameron never made a secret of the fact that the inspiration for Pandora, the fictitious, paradisiacal location of Avatar, was a tropical rainforest (although the movie was made in New Zealand).

To make amends, last month Cameron was in the Brazilian tropical rainforest, visiting the city of Manaus during the International Forum on Sustainability. At that time, the governor of the state of Amazonas, Eduardo Braga, revealed that he and Cameron discussed filming a sequel to Avatar (to be called Avatar 2 – surprise!) in the Brazilian Amazon.

According to Braga, Cameron had mentioned filming in the jungle in Venezuela. “Why not here in our jungle?” thought the governor. So, he started asking about the possibility. “We are talking, negotiating. I have even spoken to Al Gore about this. Who knows, suddenly we may be filming Avatar 2 right here,” declared Braga.

Last week, Cameron was back in Brazil, this time in the jungle on the Xingu River near the site of the proposed hydroelectric power plant and dam known as Belo Monte. This time, in the company of Indians who stand to see their land and culture washed away behind the dam,

James Cameron was wearing a brightly colored indigenous headpiece and war paint on his face and he declared that the construction of  Belo Monte (construction contracts are scheduled to be awarded on April 20) looked pretty much like what happened in his movie: a battle between natural innocence and civilized greed.

Belo Monte will be the third largest hydroelectric power plant in the world and will be located right smack in the jungle. Unfortunately right smack on top of indigenous groups as well. It is a very controversial project.

Opponents point out that it may dry up over 100 kilometers of the Xingu River. And there is the possibility that, due to seasonal variations, the power plant may actually generate at maximum capacity (11,233 MW) for only a few months each year, during the rainy season. But during the dry season may generate as little as 700 MW.

Brazil faces an energy dilemma. Electricity demand has just passed what it was before the international financial crisis. GDP growth this year and for the next few years is forecast to come in somewhere above 4% (maybe even more). Which means rising demand.

There are plans for the construction of thirteen new dams in the pipeline, waiting for environmental licenses and other bureaucratic procedures (procedures president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has angrily complained about).

In the past, Brazil has made up for temporary energy shortfalls with old, dirty, expensive thermoelectric power plants. It does not want to continue doing that – certainly not on a permanent basis. Brazil needs more energy soon – without a lot of delays.

Which brings up another problem at Belo Monte: if it is to be built, construction has to begin during the rainy season. The rainy season is fast coming to an end so if the work does not start soon it will have to wait until at least the end of this year.
And then, of course, there are a lot of people who just do not want to see it built at all. They came out in force on Monday, April 12, in Brasília and marched to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

As promised, James Cameron was there, along with some of the human stars in his Avatar: Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore. There were also Brazilians from the artistic world, indigenous groups and civic organizations.

They all signed a petition  that claimed: “The construction of Belo Monte would mean death to the river, the people and the forest.”

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the other hand, once again criticized opposition to Belo Monte. Lula said the construction project complied with environmental regulations and that  international NGOs were wrong to oppose the power plant.

“I see that a whole bunch of NGOs from all over the world are renting boats so they can go up to Belém and stop the construction of the dam. Well, I want to make it clear that no one is more concerned with taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we are,” said the president.

“You know, these are people from countries that have already destroyed all their forests and now they come down here and meddle in our affairs because they think they know what is best for us.”

Lula went on to point out that the present project for the Belo Monte dam reduced the size of the reservoir by two-thirds. “Obviously the project has been modified. The lake is only a third of what it was and that is exactly so we can guarantee that all the environmental protection rules have been obeyed.”



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