By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – A federal appeals court has ordered construction to stop on the controversial Belo Monte dam, citing insufficient consultation with local indigenous communities. Brazil’s Regional Federal Court ruled last Tuesday that the consultation process outlined in Brazil’s constitution and U.N. Treaty 169 on indigenous rights was not properly followed.
They ordered work to stop on the Xingu River project until further consultations had taken place, with a fine of R$500,000 per day for non-compliance.
“Human rights and environmental protection cannot be subordinated to narrow business interests,” stated Federal Judge Souza Prudente, who authored the ruling.
Its opponents, who include such high-profile celebrities as film director James Cameron and musician Sting, say that the project will displace as many as 20,000 indigenous people, damage the environment and increase deforestation, as migrant workers attracted by the project will resort to logging and ranching.
The dam is a hotly debated topic in Brazil, where the government is struggling to reconcile the energy needs of a growing middle class and increased industrial production with preserving the Amazon and protecting indigenous tribes and their way of life.
During the Rio+20 UN Conference in June, indigenous leaders launched a two-day occupation of the dam site, and two weeks later, indigenous communities in the village of Muratu detained three Norte Energia engineers on tribal lands, demanding suspension of the project.
Belo Monte, once completed, would have a capacity of 11,000 megawatts, making it the third largest dam of its kind, after China’s Three Gorges, and the Itaipu dam, of which Brazil and Paraguay have joint stewardship.
The press office for Norte Energia, the consortium building the dam, said Monday that works were continuing normally, as they had not yet received official notification of the court order. On Friday, the President of the company, Duilio Figueiredo, warned that stopping work would delay the opening, and put 20,000 construction workers out of a job.
“This situation must be resolved very quickly in order to take advantage of a hydrological window,” he told Reuters, referring to the beginning of the rainy season.
In a statement, Norte Energia maintained that Belo Monte would not affect indigenous communities, and that they had “strictly complied with all legal requirements” before work began in June 2011. The company says that 38 meetings were held in 24 villages between December 2007 and October 2009.
Maíra Irigaray, Brazil Program Director of Amazon Watch, said that Norte Energia’s claims were “absurd”. “[The statement from Norte Energia] claims that they have provided all the necessary explanations to the natives, while their employees were detained in the village of Muratu for a week precisely for a lack of clarity,” she said in an interview. “They themselves are talking about mitigating impact, so how can they claim that there is no impact?”
She acknowledged that the Supreme Court would likely overturn the decision if and when Norte Energia decides to appeal. But Ms. Irigaray said that this did not lessen the importance of the court order. “With this decision there is even more pressure,” she said. “[The court’s decision] is one more sign that this dam is not a ‘fait accompli,’ and that there is room for hope, and resistance.”