Earlier this month the Human Rights Commission at the Organization of American States (OAS) informed representatives of indigenous groups and human rights activists in Brazil that it had formally requested the immediate suspension of the licensing process for the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant and dam in the state of Pará on the Xingu River.
The OAS request was in response to a denouncement in November 2010 by a group of organizations (Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira – COIAB, Prelazia do Xingu, Conselho Indígena Missionário – CIMI, Sociedade Paraense de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos (SDDH), Justiça Global and the Associação Interamericana para a Defesa do Ambiente – AIDA”) alarmed at the fate of indigenous communities and riverside dwellers who, they claim, were not consulted appropriately by the authorities regarding the consequences of the Belo Monte project.
According to the OAS, its objective in issuing the request for suspension was to protect members of indigenous communities who live in the area where Belo Monte is supposed to be built. The OAS suggested that no construction be done until such time as all affected indigenous communities were notified, that environmental impact studies be made public and that “vigorous and broad” measures be adopted in order to protect human life, especially the Indians, ensuring that they were safe from disease and epidemics.
In January 2011, the Brazilian Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama) issued authorization for work to begin on a construction site and connecting roads (other licenses, for the actual construction of Belo Monte and its future operation, have not been issued).
If built, Belo Monte will be the largest totally Brazilian dam (Itaipu is binational) and the third largest in the world (behind Three Gorges in China and Itaipu). It will have installed top generating capacity of 11,200 megawatts and a reservoir of 516 square kilometers.
There are currently ten lawsuits against the construction of Belo Monte. According to Ubiratan Cazetta, a federal prosecutor in Pará, who is also a vice president of the National Association of Federal Prosecutors, “There is no doubt that Belo Monte will reach the Supreme Court eventually. There are questions regarding the legitimacy of the authorization by Congress in July 2005, permitting the executive branch to “make use of the hydroelectric potential at Belo Monte,” in light of the fact that ten indigenous peoples have lands there. B
Brazil’s constitution, in Article 231, states clearly that such authorization can only occur after public hearings with the indigenous communities affected, declared Cazetta.
Another Pará prosecutor, Felício Pontes Jr, points out that the vote in Congress zipped through in less than 15 days. “It was a rush job. There was no debate…because the government is afraid of an open discussion with the public.”
According to Pontes Jr., it seems there is “something rotten that cannot become known to the public,” in the case of the Belo Monte project. Pontes is emphatic in claiming that the public audiences that took place under the auspices of the Ibama, in the municipalities of Brasil Novo, Vitória do Xingu, Altamira and Belém (all of them in Pará), attended by some 6,000 people, in 2009 and 2010, were invalid. He says that pursuant to the constitution the public hearings must take place before any vote in Congress.
Cazetta, on the other hand, goes on to say he fears the rush to build at Belo Monte is just part of a government strategy to create a fait accompli, in which case the question of constitutionality would be a mere exercise in academic theory.
On Tuesday, April 5, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) issued an official response to the OAS request for suspension of Belo Monte. The note said the Brazilian government received the request with perplexity, and considered the suggestions in it “precipitated and unjustifiable.”
In a five-paragraph note, the Itamaraty goes over the history of the Belo Monte project. It emphasizes that in 2005 the Congress authorized tender offers for the construction based on technical studies of economic and environmental impacts. The note also points out that the Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama) were consulted.
The note concludes saying “…the Brazilian government is well aware of the socio-environmental challenges that projects like Belo Monte encompass. For that reason, with absolute rigor, the necessary norms are being followed to ensure that the construction takes into consideration all social and environmental aspects. Brazil is acting in an effective and diligent manner in response to the needs of the Belo Monte project.”
The Brazilian government argues the dam is crucial for development and will create jobs, as well as provide electricity to 23 million homes.
It has long been a source of controversy, with bidding halted three times before the state-owned Companhia Hidro Elétrica do São Francisco was awarded the contract last year.
The singer Sting and film director James Cameron have joined environmentalists in their campaign against the project.
They say the 6km dam will threaten the survival of a number of indigenous groups and could make some 50,000 people homeless, as 500 sq km of land would be flooded.