LATIN AMERICA

Battle for the sacred river

Brazilian court blocks government-backed plans to develop world's third-largest dam Ruling upholds rights of Amazonian Indians on the Xingu river

Río de Janeiro -
Amazonian Indians protest against the plans for the Belo Monte dam.
Amazonian Indians protest against the plans for the Belo Monte dam.ATOSSA SOLTANI (EFE)

The confrontation in Brazil between indigenous and ecologist groups and the government of Dilma Rousseff over the construction of the hydroelectric plant at Belo Monte, in the valley of the Xingu river, is entering a new phase. In a landmark ruling, the Fifth Section of the first Region Federal Court, in Brasilia, has decided to revoke the working license for the mega-dam project, planned to be the third-largest in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.

The decision, announced a few days ago, is a serious setback for the Brazilian government's development agenda and its cornerstone, the Economic Acceleration Plan (PAC). The plan has now come up against an element that for some decades has been an object of controversy in Brazilian politics: the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of their ancestral lands, which is written into the Constitution.

The court, assenting to the suit promoted by the Federal Prosecutor's Office, has ruled that the company entrusted with building and running the plant, Norte Energia, cannot go ahead with the project, situated on a tributary of the Amazon.

However, sources present in the town of Altamira, where work is underway, say it is business as usual. "We see the machines and workers going on at their usual rate," says Antônia Melo, coordinator of the platform Xingú Vivo, composed of several NGOs and groups affected by the project. "Once again Norte Energia is playing an unclear game, because the ruling came five days ago."

The decision is a serious setback for the government's development agenda

Sources in Norte Energia stated last week that the company had not yet received formal notification of the ruling. Around 11 percent of the projected work has been carried out during the first year, and the company plans to have the hydroelectric plant in operation by February 2015. If the now-decreed work stoppage lasts longer than expected, it could affect the timetable.

For the moment, the company's lawyers have set the end of this year as a deadline for clearing up the litigation that threatened to further deteriorate the image of this project, which has already attracted protests from a large number of celebrities.

The court ruling establishes a fine of 500,000 reales (something over 200,000 euros) per day, in the case that the company refuses to obey the order. It is also a serious blow to the government of Dilma Rousseff, which openly supports the construction of Belo Monte with the argument that the development plans for Brazil demand a radical reduction of the energy deficit. At present, Brazil's per capita consumption of electricity is considerably lower than that of any EU country. The government's plans are to promote hydroelectric development, enabling Brazilian electric power consumption to rise by 60 percent in the next decade. These plans are centered on the Amazon basin, with its voluminous rivers. The flagship project is Belo Monte, which is planned to generate 11,000 megawatts, equivalent to 11 nuclear reactors.

The decision to stop the works at Belo Monte is grounded on the fact that the Brazilian Congress failed to carry out the necessary consultations with the indigenous communities before passing, in a plenary session in 2005, the legislative decree that authorized the government to go ahead with the works.

The rights of Indians and the protection of their lands is written into the Constitution

According to the ruling, the consultations were made after the decree; and not by representatives of the Congress, but by other state agencies that were not empowered to do so, such as the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA)

"The Brazilian Constitution does not authorize a study after the fact of a decree, but only before it. We cannot accept the dictatorship that we see in Brazil. You carry out works and ask afterward. The indigenous communities need to be heard and respected," commented Judge Antônio de Souza Prudente on presenting the decision.

The court's ruling also rests upon article 231 of the Constitution, which establishes special protection for indigenous peoples, their lands, history and customs. "The Indians are human beings who have the same rights as any Brazilian citizen," added the judge.

The ruling is an unprecedented victory for environmental and indigenous organizations, which for years have led a desperate fight against the construction of Belo Monte, in a zone containing three delimited indigenous territories.

Belo Monte will generate the equivalent energy output of 11 nuclear reactors

The Juruna and Arara ethnic groups would be most affected by the dam, though it is very difficult to define exactly the groups and numbers of Indians who live in the region.

The Brazilian government itself admits the existence of isolated communities of Indians whose contact with the outside world has so far been only of a token nature.

Meanwhile, Norte Energia has made its own calculations. The mega-dam building consortium claims around 2,200 Indians live in the dam's zone of influence and that their leaders have been suitably consulted.

Brazil is not the only nation in the region to have seen rising criticism of hydroelectric projects. In Chile, the government supports a controversial plan for dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, in the south of the country, which has generated huge protests in Chile and elsewhere, because it is a virgin region.

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