By Mira Olson, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Agency) issued a provisional license on February 1st to move forward with plans to build the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam in the Xingú river, a tributary of the Amazon in the state of Pará.
The Belo Monte dam is expected to start production in 2015. It will be the second largest hydroelectric dam in Brazil and the third largest in the world in terms of generating capacity, producing up to 11,000KW of electricity and providing electricity for 23 million homes. Dam proponents argue that Belo Monte is necessary, as hydroelectric production is Brazil’s best solution for the current energy crisis.
The government’s rubber-stamp caused international uproar among indigenous and environmental activists who argue that the dam will have severe socio-environmental consequences.
The dam will create 500 square kilometers of flooding in agricultural land and forests, affecting the 24 indigenous tribes that inhabit the region. This will have a direct impact on the Paquiçamba reserve of the Juruna indigenous people, and in total an estimated 12,000 people will be forced to relocate and farmlands and fish stocks will be greatly reduced.
Environmental activists are concerned that Belo Monte will have similar socio-environmental repercussions to those of past projects. Amazon Watch reports that the Tucurui dam, built by the Brazilian electric company Eletronorte in the Eighties, displaced 40,000 people, pushing them even deeper into poverty. Additionally, the submerged rotting vegetation from the dam accounts for one-sixth of Brazil’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents also argue that the dam will be highly inefficient. During the driest three to five months of the year it will produce almost no electricity. In order to guarantee year-round flow of water into the Belo Monte turbines, the government has plans for at least four more dams upstream. These dams will flood the Kayapó reserves and will affect the Araweté, Assuriní and Arara peoples. One of the proposed dams, the Altamira, will flood over 6,000 square kilometers of forests.
Marcello Furtado, executive director for Greenpeace in Brazil, said in a statement that the energy produced by Belo Monte will be consumed 5,000 kilometers away, meaning that there will be energy wasted in transmission.
The license issued last week, which approves the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project, is the first of three environmental licenses required to build the dam. It imposes forty conditions to mitigate the socio-environmental impact of the project, which will cost roughly US$800 million to implement. Whichever construction consortium wins the project auction, scheduled for March 30th, will be obliged to meet these conditions.
Carlos Minc, the Brazilian Environmental Minister announced in a statement that the conditions imposed for the project prove that Belo Monte “is the most socio-environmentally advanced dam in the history of Brazil.” Critics point out that the forty conditions necessary for the assessment to be approved indicate that Belo Monte is actually one of Brazil’s most detrimental projects to the environment.
Plans for the dam have been stalled since the mid-Nineties because of the high levels of national and international opposition. Multiple sources suggest that the dam is now being pushed through as political leverage to ensure a Worker’s Party (PT) victory in the presidential elections in October of this year.