Environmental License for Belo Monte Dam Condemned

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World's Third Largest Dam Project Would Devastate Vast Area of Amazon Rainforest

Environmentalists, indigenous people, and social movements in Brazil condemned today's preliminary environmental license issued by the Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA for the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam. Belo Monte, which would be the world's third largest hydroelectric project, would divert the flow of the Xingu River and devastate an extensive area of the Brazilian rainforest, threatening the survival of indigenous peoples.

Belo Monte is the largest project of the Lula government's Plan to Accelerate Growth (PAC). The government says it plans to offer Belo Monte to private investors at an auction in April, and that construction would begin in late 2010. The project is one of more than 100 large dams being planned in the Amazon, many of which would threaten indigenous lands and protected areas.

IBAMA had stalled on issuing the environmental license for almost 3 months due to concerns about the huge impact zone of the project and the number of migrants that would move to Altamira in search of work. Two senior IBAMA officials resigned last November after complaining that they had been subjected to political pressure to approve the license.

The Catholic Bishop of the Xingu Prelacy, Dom Erwin Kräutler, who met with President Lula to discuss the project in July 2009, says "The government is trying to steamroll this project, which would have unforeseen and irreversible consequences, despite the fact that the President promised us he would review the project and said he would 'not shove it down anyone's throat'. One-third of the city of Altamira would be underwater and nobody knows yet where those 20,000 people would go, in addition to the riverbank populations and those who would be impacted by the drying of the Xingu's tributaries."

Indigenous people have been fighting against the project for more than 20 years. Megaron Tuxucumarrãe, a Kayapó chief, says "We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia. We are opposed to dams on the Xingu, and will fight to protect our river."

Independent investigations have found that project studies underestimate the extent of Belo Monte's potential impacts.

Francisco Hernandez, an electrical engineer and co-coordinator of a group of 40 specialists who analyzed the project says, "Belo Monte is a project of doubtful engineering viability, an extremely complex project which would depend on the construction not only of one dam, but rather a series of large dams and dykes that would interrupt the flow of water courses over an enormous area, requiring excavation of earth and rocks on the scale of that carried out for digging the Panama Canal." Belo Monte would generate little energy during the three to four-month low water period, "which does not justify an investment estimated at between US$12.3 and $17.5 billion".

"No one knows the true cost of Belo Monte," said Aviva Imhof, International Rivers Campaigns Director. "The project would displace tens of thousands of people, and destroy the livelihood of thousands more. Even as Brazil argues that the international community should support rainforest protection, its government insists on promoting mega-infrastructure projects in Amazonia that are socially and environmentally indefensible."

Federal Attorneys have filed suit to force the government to hold additional public hearings to discuss the project's impacts, and further legal challenges to the project are likely.

While the Brazilian National Development Bank will finance a significant portion of the project's massive cost, project developers will need to seek a substantial amount of private financing. "Considering the enormous financial, legal and reputational risks, it would be imprudent to invest in this project," says Roland Widmer, Coordinator of the Eco-Finance Program of Amigos da Terra – Amazonia Brasileira.

Local groups in Pará will be holding protests this week against the decision. Antonia Melo, of the Xingu Forever Alive Movement says "Those promoting Belo Monte are predators trying to take away our life's blood, which is the Xingu River. We will continue to fight this project with all our might."

International Rivers is an environmental and human rights organization with staff in four continents. For over two decades, International Rivers has been at the heart of the global struggle to protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.

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