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Belo Monte mega-dam halted again by high Brazilian court, appeal likely but difficult

Brazil’s Supreme Court overruled the Federal Appeals Court’s decision on August 28, 2012. Construction resumed the same day.

Belo Monte location. Courtesy of Google Earth.

A high federal court in Brazil has ruled that work on the Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon be immediately suspended. Finding that the government failed to properly consult indigenous people on the dam, the ruling is the latest in innumerable twists and turns regarding the massive dam, which was first conceived in the 1970s, and has been widely criticized for its impact on tribal groups in the region and the Amazon environment. In addition the Regional Federal Tribunal (TRF1) found that Brazil’s Environmental Impact Assessment was flawed since it was conducted after work on the dam had already begun.

“The Brazilian Congress must take into account the decisions taken by the indigenous communities. Legislators can only give the go-ahead if the indigenous communities agree with the project,” Judge Souza Prudente told O Globo newspaper, as reported by the BBC.

Construction on the $11 billion dam has been in full swing since earlier this year, prompting a 21-day occupation of the construction site by impacted tribes.

Diverting 80 percent of the flow of the Xingu River, indigenous groups fear the dam will forever change their lives and livelihoods, which depend on the Xingu. The Brazilian government has estimated that 16,000 people will be forced to move, while critics say the number will likely be double that. In addition, the dam will submerge around 40,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest and could decimate some fish populations, possibly even pushing some unique species to extinction.

 A section of the Xingu River as viewed by Google Earth.
A section of the Xingu River as viewed by Google Earth.

The high court further ruled that Norte Energia, the project consortium building the dam, will face a fine of around $250,000 for every day it continues construction.

Still, observers say this isn’t likely the end of the Belo Monte dam. The hydroelectric project, which if finished would be the world’s third largest, has been suspended several times in the past only to have those suspensions overturned by different judges. Still, experts say it will be more difficult this time around for construction to go ahead.

“The decision on Monday was delivered by the Tribunal Federal Regional that is a higher court than the ones that halted the project before. In addition, this decision is based on constitutional and international law, which didn’t happened in the past,” Astrid Puentes with the Interamerican Association of Environmental Defense (AIDA Americas) told “With this decision there is even more pressure and more judges that have learned about the case and expressed that Belo Monte is being built in violation of applicable laws.”

Norte Energia has 30 days to appeal, which they are expected to do.

Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) requested that Brazil suspend the dam construction also due to what they deemed a lack of consultation with local communities. The request, however, was subsequently ignored by Brazil. But Maíra Irigaray, a lawyer with Amazon Watch, says this decision would prove much more difficult for the government to ignore, because “it’s coming from inside, and it’s a decision made by a group of superior court judges.”

“There would be no excuses for them to [ignore the ruling],” she adds.

So, what’s next for the fight over the Belo Monte dam? Puentes says it will likely head to the Brazil’s Supreme Court.

“What might happen is that the government and Norte Energia (and the consortium), will use all their legal power to fight this at the Supreme Court. In any case, it’s more evident that judges have systematically concluded that Belo Monte was not consulted with communities and it lacks comprehensive environmental impact assessments. Thus the government will have to make serious adjustments if they want to continue with the implementation of [the dam].”

The Brazilian government argues that it needs this dam for power generation. The dam will have an installed capacity of 11,233 megawatts, though critics say it will produce significantly less (up to 90 percent less) than that during much of the year. More dams are planned for the Xingu Basin as well as across the Amazon rainforest.

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