In Earth Day setback, Brazil OKs dam that will flood swath of Amazon

On the eve of Earth Day, Brazil awarded a $10 billion contract for what will be the world's third-largest dam. Brazil says it will meet urgent energy needs, while critics say it will displace thousands of people and profoundly endanger wildlife.

Eraldo Peres/AP
Indians protest the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project outside the National Electrical Energy Association in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday. The planned project to dam the Xingu River, which feeds the Amazon, would be the third-largest such hydroelectric project in the world.

Environmentalists preparing to celebrate Earth Day received a hefty setback this week when the Brazilian government gave the green light for plans to build the world’s third biggest dam that will flood a large swath of the Amazon rainforest.

The decision to grant a construction license for the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant came after a series of tense legal battles fought between environmental and indigenous rights groups and lawyers representing the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The government finally won out Tuesday and awarded the $10 billion contract to a consortium of nine companies led by Chesf, a state-run electricity firm. The group could start work this year and begin transmitting power in February 2015.

With a proposed operating capacity of 11,200 megawatts, Belo Monte will be the third biggest dam project in the world behind China’s Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu dam Brazil currently runs with neighbor Paraguay.

However, it has caused huge controversy ever since the first feasibility studies were carried out in the 1970s. The 516 square kilometers due to be flooded are on the Xingu River and the amount of earth and rocks to be shifted will surpass that moved in the building of the Panama Canal.

Displacing local tribes

Indians from 14 different tribes live nearby. While the government says only 19,000 people will be affected, a review published last year by specialists in their respective fields said it could be as many as 40,000.

“We don’t accept the Belo Monte dam, because we understand that it is only going to bring destruction to our region,” indigenous leaders wrote in an open letter. “The way the white man is going, everything is going to be destroyed very quickly.”

Damage to the environment is also a major issue. The Xingu river basin has about four times as many species of fish as the whole of Europe, but the work will kill millions of animals and threaten extinction for some species, said Hermes Medeiros, a local ecologist on the review board.

Deforestation is also a concern, and the dam will release large quantities of methane gas, which is more harmful than carbon dioxide, the review said. Some opponents also claim that the dam does not make economic sense, given that its generating capacity will be cut by two-thirds during the dry season.

Hollywood gets involved

Even Hollywood has gotten involved. Avatar director James Cameron met Indians at the site in March and asked President Lula to consider shelving the plan. Cameron’s involvement provoked shouts of American imperialism and awakened age old fears inside Brazil that outsiders want to seize control of the Amazon.

Lula said Brazil did not need advice from foreigners and declared, “No one is more worried about protecting Amazônia and the Indians than we are.”

An enthusiastic proponent of economic growth, Lula pointed out that hydropower is cleaner than many alternatives. His $500 billion infrastructure plan contains a blueprint to build another dozen dams in the Amazon basin.

Development specialists agreed that, with the Brazilian economy growing quickly, the country will have to find new ways of generating power.

“It’s obvious that the potential of the Amazon has to be exploited, it’s not a garden, it’s a place where people live, with responsibilities and compensations,” Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, an infrastructure specialist, told the O Globo newspaper.

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