Brazil's environmental protection agency approves building license for controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Amazon rain forest; developers still needs operating license, but construction can begin on US$11B, 11,000-MW project

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter

Jun 3, 2011 – Associated Press

SAO PAULO , June 3, 2011 () – The massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon rain forest won approval from Brazil's environmental protection agency on Wednesday, clearing the way for construction of a project fiercely opposed by environmentalists, indigenous activists and celebrities including film director James Cameron and rock star Sting.

The dam would be the world's third largest, behind China's Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu, which straddles the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

The consortium building Belo Monte still must obtain an operating license before producing energy, but Wednesday's decision allows for full-scale construction of an $11-billion project designed to produce 11,000 megawatts of electricity, more than 6 percent of Brazil's energy needs.

The government says the project is essential to help Brazil maintain torrid economic growth that can help lift millions out of poverty. It says it is designed to minimize environmental damage.

Environmentalists fear the project will lead to more dams in the Amazon, creating development that will mean faster deforestation of the Amazon region, a rain forest that scientists say is one of nature's best defenses against global warming, a massive absorber of carbon dioxide.

"Belo Monte is emblematic and a sign of things to come," said Brent Millikan, the Brasilia-based Amazon program director for the environmental group International Rivers. "It's a dangerous precedent and a precedent that will be applied to other places in the Amazon."

Critics say the dam will harm fish stocks vital to 14 tribes that inhabit the Xingu National Park downriver, turn up to 90 miles (150 kilometers) of the river into stagnant puddles and displace as many as 40,000 people. The dam will flood 200 square miles (516 square kilometers) of rain forest.

The office of President Dilma Rousseff said Wednesday that it was launching a sustainable development project for the area of Para state where the dam will be built. The program will promote economic development that profits from the forest and river without destroying it. Details on the program were not immediately available.

The Norte Energia consortium that will build the dam said on its website it expects the project to begin operating in 2015. Initial work in preparing the land where the dam will be built, including constructing a road leading to the site, was approved earlier this year. The consortium did not indicate when construction of the dam itself would start.

Ibama, the environmental protection agency, said in a statement that the building license process included "a robust technical analysis and resulted in the incorporation of social and environmental gains."

Among the concessions Ibama listed were the guarantee of flows in sensitive areas of the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon that will be dammed for the project. That, Ibama said, will lessen the dam's harm to fishermen and farmers.

The agency also said the size of the reservoir that will feed the dam had been cut by 43 percent from earlier plans.

Planning for Belo Monte began in 1975, but was delayed by Brazil's economic woes in the 1980s and 1990s. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who came into office in 2003, championed the project as a cornerstone for Brazil's renewed economic development.

But the project has repeatedly been delayed in recent years as environmental groups and indigenous leaders brought legal cases against it. Federal courts in Para state have often ruled to halt construction, but the decisions have been overturned by higher courts.

In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged Brazil's government to halt work on the project, saying its developers needed to consult further with indigenous groups and other people in a culturally adequate way, give them access to environmental impact reports and adopt measures meant to protect their livelihoods.

The commission's warning, however, was not legally binding and was rejected by Brazil's Foreign Ministry, which said that Brazil had acted in an "effective and diligent" manner to respond to demands by environmentalists and local communities.


Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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