By Patricia Maresch, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s Foreign Ministry rejected a request from the Organization of American States (OAS) to halt work on its massive hydro-electric Belo Monte dam in the Amazon rainforest. Itamaraty Palace (Palácio do Itamaraty) – the head office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brazil, called the request “premature and unjustified.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS said the construction of the Belo Monte dam should be suspended until the concerns of indigenous people in the area were addressed.
The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam development may be Brazil’s most controversial environmental concern. The US$17 billion (R$27 billion) project would be the world’s third largest dam, and will divert the Xingú river, a tributary of the Amazon in the state of Pará.
The plan is causing fears that the dam will displace between 20,000 and 40,000 people and hundreds of acres of Amazon forest and local settlements will be flooded.
Turbines of the dam are expected to generate around 11,000 megawatts of electricity annually, but could result in drying up rivers in the Amazon, causing the extinction of native species of fish and other wildlife. Other concerns are that the turbines will also generate vast quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2.
A partial installation license was issued for the dam project in late January despite the dam building consortium’s failure to meet dozens of environmental and social pre-conditions.
A statement from the Foreign Ministry in reaction to the OAS-Commission read: “The Brazilian government is aware of the environmental challenges that projects such as Belo Monte could entail. For this reason, they are being observed with absolute accuracy, taking into account all social and environmental aspects involved.”
The statement adding that: “The Brazilian government has worked effectively and diligently to meet existing demands.” The government said it has organized some thirty public meetings about the project.
“The matter of Belo Monte will probably end up in Supreme Court,”, says one of Pará’s state prosecutors, who is handling ten lawsuits against the construction of the dam. “There was no debate,” prosecutor Pontes Jr. says in an interview with a Brazilian press agency: “In less than fifteen days it was a done deal.”
The lawsuits question the legality of the authorization given by Congress in July 2005 to build the dam while affecting indigenous communities. Pontes Jr. criticized the functioning of the government saying that it was “afraid” to have an open discussion with the Brazilian public: “There is something rotten and they don’t want to say that to the people of Brazil.”
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke about the controversies surrounding the mega-dam during a speech at the World Sustainability Forum in Manaús last March. While commending Brazil’s efforts to reduce deforestation and achieve economic prosperity, Clinton called on Brazil to show leadership in finding alternative energy solutions.
President Dilma Rouseff left responding to the OAS request to her Foreign Ministry. During her period as chief of staff and energy minister under her predecessor Lula, Rousseff expressed an unwavering commitment to Belo Monte. When she became Brazil’s new president four months ago, Rousseff stated the desire to be more sensitive to human rights issues.