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Brazil: Belo Monte Dam returns to the spotlight

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

Dilma Rousseff‘s government has just begun and it's already facing a virtual mobilization against it – and the issue is the environment. On January 7, the minister of Mines and Energy, Edison Lobão, declared the construction license for Belo Monte Dam would be “moved forward”, in order to start construction in February. Ibama's (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Renewable Resources) position is that the ministry still has to provide proof of the project's environmental viability. Days later, on January 12, Abelardo Bayma, president of Ibama, resigned from the position he had occupied since April 2010, claiming personal reasons. However, the blog Político, hosted by Época magazine, published a post about what could be his true motive [pt]:

Em reuniões com a diretoria da Eletronorte há dez dias, Abelardo se negou a emitir a licença definitiva para a construção da usina. Ele argumentou que o IBAMA não poderia emitir o documento porque o projeto ainda está cheio de pendências ambientais.

In meetings with Eletronorte 10 days ago, Abelardo refused to grant the dam's final construction license. He argued that Ibama could not grant the document since the project is full of environmental disputes.

Blogger and journalist Leonardo Sakamoto considers the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which is set for the Xingu river, state of Pará, “perhaps the most controversial project within the Program to Accelerate Growth (PAC, which stands for Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, in Portuguese)” – one of the government's main programs. He comments on the post [pt] published on Político and criticizes the project:

De qualquer forma, o ponto é o seguinte: Belo Monte será um grande gerador de impactos sociais e ambientais. Por exemplo, o Ministério Público Federal avalia em cerca de 40 mil o total de atingidos – incluindo populações tradicionais e indígenas.

Anyway, the Federal Public Ministry estimates the number of people affected to be about 40,000 – including traditional and indigenous populations.

Mobilizationa and online petition

As soon as this new controversy arose about the dam's license, the online petition website Avaaz launched a petition, urgently calling out for signatures. On January 17, five days after the petition was created, Avaaz proudly announced the goal of 150,000 signatures had been reached. On that day, the petition surpassed 275,000 signatures, which can be partly attributed to the mobilization on Twitter. Users tweeted the same message several times in the last few days:

Assine a petição contra Belo Monte: impeça este desastre ambiental na Amazônia! http://avaaz.org/parebelomonte

Avaaz also generated an English version of the Twitter message:

Sign the petition to stop the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon! @Avaaz http://bit.ly/StopBeloMonte

Among those users, Andréa (@AndrelBarbour), expressed her interest in knowing more about the dam:

Aproveitando pra ler mais sobre a questão de Belo Monte.. É importante q a gente saiba direitinho o q ta acontecendo, diz respeito a tds nós!

Taking my time to read more about the issue of Belo Monte.. It's important that we really get to know what's going on, it concerns all of us!

Header of Avaaz petition to stop the hydroelectric dam of Belo Monte

On the other side is the blogger Alexandre Porto, who wrote the post “Eu não assino petições contra a Belo Monte” [pt] (which translates as “I do not sign petitions to stop Belo Monte“) on his blog. Despite the environmental impact, he believes the project provides positive aspects. He adds that the mobilization to stop the dam is an example of what he calls “sanctuary environmentalism”, which is more concerned with protection than with the socio-economic situation. On his post, he refutes each paragraph of Avaaz's petition:

Já os pouco mais de 500 índios, que moram a jusante da barragem principal, onde o volume de água diminuirá no período de chuva, poderão ser realocados em nova aldeia, vizinha aos canais ou ao próprio reservatório principal.

For the little more than 500 indigenous people, who live just beside the main dam, where the volume of water will decrease over the rainy season, they can be reallocated to a new village, next to the waterways or to the main reservoir itself.

[Belo Monte] [...] envolve danos sócio-ambientais é óbvio, mas em alguma medida qualquer fonte energética pede seu preço. Produzir uma média segura de 4.000 MW durante o ano, com picos de 11.000 MW, é complexo para qualquer matriz, mesmo as aparentemente mais brandas.

[Belo Monte] [...] obviously imposes social and environmental damages, but in a way any source of energy has its price to pay. Producing the safe average of 4,000 MW a year, with a maximum of 11,000 MW, is complex for any source of power, even for those that are apparently less harmful.

Infographics showing the dams and reservoirs, projected for a region known as Volta Grande, along the Xingu river. The image was posted on Alexandre Porto's blog; the original source is the newspaper O Liberal, of February 3, 2010.

Repercussions of the Belo Monte Dam

Highlighting the project's impact on indigenous and traditional populations along the Xingu river, Elisa Thiago wrote about Belo Monte Dam for Global Voices in Portuguese, in October 2010. Elisa highlights that these populations’ resistance in fact originated a long time ago:

Behind the government’s official talk of “normality”, people have been organizing themselves into social and environmental resistance movements [pt] against the construction of the dam since the 1970s. They are made up of Indians and river dwellers whose present way of life and means of survival will suffer a disastrous impact if the dam is built.

Belo Monte attracted attention repeatedly throughout 2010. On April 20, 2010, Greenpeace Brazil performed an incisive act opposing the project, when activists dumped 3 tons of manure in front of the National Agency of Electric Energy (Aneel – Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica), in Brasilia, with the message “Belo Monte de… problemas” (in English, “Beautiful Mountain of… problems”).

On September 2010, the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (MXVPS – which translates to “Xingu Forever Alive Movement” ) launched [pt] a petition opposing to the dam, which has so far gathered more than 5,000 signatures. It also launched a video [pt], which has been widespread on the blogosphere ever since. The video presents a simulation of how the dam and the water reservoir on the Xingu river would affect the region's natural dynamics.

Telma Monteiro, on her blog TelmadMonteiro, made public [pt] in late December 2010 the result of a study [pt] which she was involved in for the organizations Amigos da Terra – Amazônia Brasileira and International Rivers. The research analyzed possible risks for investors, and what the results indicate is evident in the report's title:

O relatório “Mega-projeto, Mega-riscos” vem em bom momento, como um alerta inequívoco de que Belo Monte é ainda um mega-projeto que pode se transformar em mega-obra com mega-riscos para a sociedade.

The report “Mega-projeto, Mega-riscos” ["Megaproject, Megarisks"] is well-timed, as an unambiguous warning that Belo Monte is still a megaproject that may become a megafacility with megarisks for society.

The report presents data indicating the loss of billions of reais [Brazilian currency] invested in building the hydroelectric facility, even by selling the energy produced over a period of 10 years. It also indicates a reduced rate of energy production, since the expected production of 4,420 MW corresponds to 39% of the 11,233 MW in installed capacity. To get an idea of the scale of Belo Monte, if built it will become the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam in installed capacity, behind the Chinese Three Gorges dam, and Itaipu Dam, shared by Brazil and Paraguay.

For the record, Abelardo Bayma is not the first one to leave amidst pressure for the energy facility. The deadlock over Belo Monte's socio-environmental viability is considered the reason for former Environmental Minister (and candidate in the 2010 presidential elections) Marina Silva stepping out of office in 2008, and for the departure of Roberto Messias [pt], Ibama's former president, in April 2010. Just like Mr. Bayma, Mr. Messias had linked the granting of the construction license to the fulfillment of environmental viability requirements.

Planned in 1975, the hydroelectric project on the Xingu river was reconsidered during former president Lula‘s administration and has been supported by president Dilma since she was a member of the former administration. While the Brazilian government is concerned about self-sufficient energy production, Brazilian citizens use the blogosphere and Twitter to question the socio-environmental impacts of the energy source chosen – Belo Monte has proven itself cause for a powerful tug-of-war.

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

This article was proofread by Kitty Garden.

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