Public Hearings on Belo Monte Dam - Democracy or Hypocrisy?

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Federal Police Surround Dam Opponents, Belo Monte Public Hearings

Marcelo Salazar, ISA

Reports are coming in from journalists, activists, and public attorneys who participated in the public hearings on Belo Monte, organized by the Brazilian environmental authority Ibama during the past week. The hearings, held in Altamira and two other towns in the epicenter of the Belo Monte juggernaut, and in the state capital Belém were marked by strong protests by social movements, by legal objections by Federal Attorneys, and by a massive military and police presence.

The initial hearing took place in Brasil Novo, a town on the Transamazon Highway. According to those who were present, questions from the audience did not receive adequate responses. According to Marcelo Salazar, of the Instituto Socioambiental, "the (government's) presentations were very attractive with photos, videos, and a lot of colors showing the project's diverse benefits. The presentations and responses to questions were very superficial considering the sheer size of the project and its predicted socio-environmental impacts".

Following that, a hearing in Vitória do Xingu attracted some 1,500 people to the town's gymnasium, which was surrounded by 300 police in riot gear. Due to difficulties in transportation to the hearing, few indigenous people and rural residents were present. Clarisse Gouveia Morais, who lives in the region that would be devastated by the construction of two huge artificial canals which will carry most of the stream flow of the Xingu summed up the feelings of many: "No amount of money will pay for my life's work, for my suffering and sweat. I don't want to leave here to start all over again somewhere else. I don't have much but it supports my two children. So, I don't want this dam of death".

The Vitória hearing brought an initial protest by Rodrigo Timóteo da Costa e Silva, the Federal Attorney in Altamira, who said that the three-minute time limit for speakers "is insufficient and anti-democratic, and does not allow for people to address their doubts (about the project)".

Indigenous People at Belo Monte Public Hearing, Altamira

Marcelo Salazar, ISA

The extent of opposition to the dam was most evident in the hearing in Altamira, the region's largest city, some 40 km upstream from the proposed dam site. With the outside of the city's gymnasium covered by banners opposing the dam, protests against Belo Monte began early in the morning. 6,000 people took part in the hearing, booing government officials who defended the dam as essential for the region's "development" and burning in effigy the president of Eletrobrás.

Representatives of the Arara, Assurini, Kuruaya, Juruna, Parakanã, and Xikrin indigenous groups filed a formal petition to be consulted regarding the project, as required under Brazil's Constitution (article 231). Tired of waiting for a chance to speak as politicians were afforded priority, many left after a short while.

There were striking questions but few substantive responses: "If Belo Monte were built, where would the river bank dwellers and small farmers who would be torn from their lands be resettled? How far away would the resettlement areas be, and what would be the size of the properties offered? What would be the impacts of the migration of 98,000 people to the region in search of work?"

Antônia Melo, of the coordination of the Xingu Forever Alive Movement and the Movement of Urban and Rural Women Workers called the public hearings a type of theatre of the electric sector and Ibama. "They try to convince the public that it's no use for them to question the project, but the social movements are well aware that the projects are inviable in socio-environmental and economic terms and would bring tragic, irreversible impacts for the Xingu River and the people of the region".

The final public hearing in this series took place in the state capital, Belém, and tensions were heightened by the transference of the hearing from a 1,000 capacity hall to one less than half that size. Following a march outside by indigenous people dancing in warpaint and representatives of the Landless Movement (MST), protesters attempted to enter the hall, but were confronted by police who insisted on taking their banners, and then refused to let them enter the already packed hall. The protesters chanted "This is a farse. The Lula government wants a public hearing without the public". Lawyers and human rights advocates tried to mediate between the police and the demonstrators, but most present followed the advice of the state attorney, Raimundo Moraes, who called the hearing "authoritarian", and led groups walking out from the hearing, leaving only some businessmen and government officials, and a group of residents wearing t-shirts saying "I want Belo Monte" in the hall. Moraes said "I have never seen a public hearing with such a large police presence, stopping even officials from entering the parking lot. Even the rules set for this hearing are illegal."

The public hearings left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who have been here before. Matheus Waterloo, of the Forum of the Eastern Amazon, a civil society coalition, said "This is a joke. They are stopping forest peoples from speaking at the hearing to say they don't want the dam. The government has already made its decision." The Brazilian government has made it a priority that Belo Monte be offered to private investors by the end of this year.

Somewhat lost in the polemic over the public hearings is the fact that the project EIA is being submitted to a thorough review by a group of independent specialists, who are finding that it fails to provide a clear sense of Belo Monte's probable impacts. The specialists will be submitting expert opinions to Ibama and to federal attorneys, who are likely to bring further legal actions in an attempt to halt the project.