The bidding process for the controversial Belo Monte Dam project went ahead today and was marked by protests and confusion as a second injunction issued late yesterday suspended the dam auction overnight, throwing the bidding process into a state of chaos just minutes before it was set to begin.
Throughout Brazil, indigenous, environmental and social movements organized protests in more than nine cities in eight states. Internationally, phone calls begun pouring into Brazilian Embassies, condemning the government’s interference in the judicial system and attempts to push through the project at all costs.
Thousands of people including indigenous people, the Brazilian Movement of Dam-Affected People, the Landless Workers Movement, and environmentalists are engaging in coordinated simultaneous protest actions in Brasilia and in the capital cities Fortaleza, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre, Porto Velho, Belo Horizonte, Belém, Campina Grande, and the city of Altamira, which would be partially flooded by the Belo Monte reservoir.
Meanwhile, boats full of indigenous people, including Kayapo, began arriving on the proposed dam site located on Pimental Island on the Xingu River’s Big Bend to establish a permanent village to block dam construction.
Protesting the dam project in Brasilia, Greenpeace and indigenous peoples blockaded the entrance of ANEEL, the Brazilian national electrical energy agency. In Belém, 700 local people occupied the offices of Electronorte. And near the town of Altamira, the Landless Workers Movement and the Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB) blockaded the TransAmazon Highway.
The Belo Monte controversy captured worldwide headlines last week after “Avatar” director James Cameron and actors Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore visited the Xingu region and joined protests by indigenous and locally affected populations in Brasília against the dam project. The controversy has dominated news headlines in Brazil.
“The Lula government is clearly pressuring the courts to approve Belo Monte against the rights and interests of indigenous people and the local populations of the Xingu, and it’s our lives at stake. Even so, the people affected by this dam are united and determined to stop the project, we will not give up this fight,” said Sheyla Yakarepi Juruna of the Juruna people, who met with judges on Monday urging the President of the Appellate Court for Region 1, Jirair Meguerian, to uphold the injunction.
On Friday, April 16th, a regional appellate court overturned a decision by Federal Judge Antonio Carlos de Almeida Campelo to suspend the preliminary license for the dam and cancel the auction, scheduled for Tuesday, April 20th. In his ruling, de Almeida considered the project to present a “danger of irreparable harm.” A second injunction to suspend the decision on April 19th was also overturned by the Appellate Court just moments before the auction was set to begin and Brazil’s electric utility ANEEL has reinstated today’s auction.
The generating capacity of Belo Monte would be the world’s third highest behind Three Gorges and Itaipu dams. Two consortia vied for the rights to build the project: Norte Energia, which includes the state-owned CHESF and eight private companies; and Belo Monte Energia, which includes the state-owned Eletrosul, in addition to five private companies including mining giant Vale.
Major investors such as Alcoa, GDF Suez, Odebrecht, and Camargo Corrêa chose not to participate in the bidding process due to concerns over a lack of economic viability, project delay, and interest in other mega-investments.
To build Belo Monte, the winning consortium would need to dig two huge canals that would involve moving more earth than was dug for the Panama Canal to divert water from the river to an artificial reservoir. By doing so the Big Bend or Volta Grande – home to the Paquiçamba indigenous territory of the Juruna people and the Arara people – would be dried out, gravely affecting the livelihoods of indigenous and riverine families who depend on the water for subsistence. All told some 45,000 people are directly affected by the either flooding or diversion of the river.
International groups continue to join ranks with their counterparts in Brazilian civil society in pressuring the Brazilian government to suspend Belo Monte, as organizations and individuals around the world called local Brazilian embassies to protest the government’s plan to build the project despite widespread violations of indigenous rights.
“The violation of indigenous rights is a matter of national and international concern. Brazil doesn’t need the Belo Monte Dam. By investing in energy efficiency Brazil could avoid the need for as many as 14 Belo Monte dams and save billions of dollars in the process. Belo Monte Dam just doesn’t make sense,” said Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director of International Rivers.
Financially, the US$ 12 – $17 billion Belo Monte Dam is a risky project, generating only 10-30 percent of its 11,233 Megawatts (MW) installed capacity during the dry season, and an annual average of only 4,462 MW.
To make the project viable in a context of huge financial uncertainties and pressure from private investors to lower the auction’s price ceiling, the government has had to draw from public pension funds and issue US$ 4 billion of credit from the public Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES).
Just to meet the project’s 11,233 MW generating capacity, additional costly dams would need to be built further upstream, threatening a vast area of tropical rainforests and affecting many of the 24 indigenous groups along the Xingu River.