Belo Monte hydroelectric dam
AIDA and the struggle against world’s third largest dam
"The river is the heart of our land and our people….We will not sit back and watch while those in Brasilia attempt to determine our future without our consultation, without hearing us, without respecting us and, for some, without ever having set foot on our lands…. Neither the Xingu River nor our lives are for sale".
(Excerpt from a letter by the Xingu Alive Forever Movement, February 4, 2010).
The Xingu River flows for 1,700 miles (2,736 km) through the heart of Brazil and is home to thousands of indigenous and riverine communities and an extraordinary biodiversity of flora and fauna. When construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam by Norte Energy SA is complete, more than 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of forest and agricultural land will be flooded and at least 20 thousand people will be displaced.
The proposed dam would divert almost all of the Xingu’s water flow. The countless impacts of such a massive intervention mean that traditional fishing grounds would be irreversibly destroyed; thousands of people would lose access to water, food, labor supply and river transportation; rainforests would be wholly submerged; dead vegetation would rot, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases; and thousands of people would lose their homes, livelihoods and culture.
Indigenous and riverine communities have been fighting against the dam since it was first proposed twenty years ago. Legal and political controversies surrounded the push to build the dam, including inadequate environmental impact assessment and a failure to implement safeguards to protect the environment and rights of individuals. Nevertheless, acting under intense political pressure, Brazil’s Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) approved a license permitting the dam’s construction on June 1, 2011.
As many feared, environmental degradation accompanied construction and the river flow decreased, affecting the ability of local communities to travel and trade. AIDA, together with civil society organizations from Brazil, petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to intervene in the case to protect affected communities.
On April 1, 2011, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favor of indigenous communities in the Xingu River basin. The commissions requested that the Brazilian government immediately suspend construction and all licensing for the Belo Monte dam, to protect the rights to life and health of the communities. Subsequently, on July 29, 2011, the Commission modified the aim of the measure to include that the state of Brazil adopt measures to protect the life, health and safety of members of indigenous communities affected by the project, including those in voluntary isolation. Unfortunately, both applications have been ignored by the Brazilian government.
On August 13, 2012, the Fifth Division of the Brazilian Federal Regional Tribunal (TRF1) confirmed the request of the Commission, ordering the immediate suspension of construction, under penalty of a fine to Norte Energia consortium. The tribunal argued that the authorization of the project by Brazil’s Congress in 2005 was illegal, because the indigenous peoples affected by construction were not properly consulted in accordance with the Brazilian Constitution and the Convention 169 of ILO, of which Brazil is a signatory. The judges added that the project lacked an independent assessment of the environmental impacts, required by law.
Unfortunately, the President of Brazil’s Supreme Court revoked the suspension on the 27th of that same month, and construction resumed immediately. However, the full body of the Supreme Court has yet to analyze the merits of the case, and it’s possible it could confirm the decision to suspended the project.
Given Brazil’s broader plans for hydroelectric development, AIDA produced two reports for the Human Rights Council of the United Nations that were presented during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, Switzerland. These reports concluded that in fact, the government did not consult or obtain free, prior and informed consent from affected communities, as required by international human rights law. The reports also warned of the potential displacement of forty thousand families and documented violations of the rights to life and health of local indigenous peoples. As a result of the UPR, United Nations member states recommended that Brazil to ensure act to ensure compliance with international law.
On November 26, 2012, the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) announced approval of an unprecedented loan of BRL 22.5 billion (approximately US$10.8 billion) for construction of the Belo Monte dam. Such funding was questioned for ignoring the social and environmental impacts caused by the project, the illegalities around its discharge, and the countless violations of the rights of people and communities affected by it. The Xingu Alive Forever Movement, which brings everybody affected by the dam, and 68 organizations asked BNDES (Spanish only) to not disburse the money for the above reasons. The bank ignored our request and made the first disbursement in early 2013.
The controversy surrounding Belo Monte follows a tragically familiar pattern for large dams in Latin America. Typically, developers build large dams with no meaningful public participation and without adequate and comprehensive environmental and social impacts assessments. Cost overruns, underperformance, and allegations of corruption plague many large dam projects, which in tropical areas can potentially produce more greenhouse gasses than coal burning power plants. Meanwhile, local communities bear the extremely negative impacts while energy-hungry heavy industries receive the benefits.
If Belo Monte proceeds, it will fly in the face of the image Brazil tries to promote as a regional leader on environmental and human rights issues. Contrary to this position, Belo Monte is moving forward without heeding the IACHR resolution, without comprehensive environmental and social impact assessments, without a clear compensation agreement for displaced persons, and with no recognition of the need to compensate people who are harmed but not forced to relocate.
Two AIDA reports are strengthening dam opponents’ efforts: Large Dams in the Americas: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? and Guide to Environmental Defense: Building a Strategy for the Litigation of Cases before the Inter-American System of Human Rights, available in English, Spanish and Portuguese. With your support, we will provide ongoing assistance to affected communities fighting the dam.
Join us in defending the indigenous communities along the Xingu River!
Watch the Damocracy documentary by Todd Southgate