- Construction on the Belo Monte mega-dam, on the Xingu River in Pará state in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, began in 2011. Since then, the giant infrastructure project has met with a near constant flood of contentious protests from indigenous and traditional communities, and from the international environmental community.
- Norte Energia, the consortium that built and operates the troubled project, has been fined or seen its operating license withdrawn by the Brazilian government for a variety of socio-environmental violations, including fish kills and the failure to provide compensation promised at the start of the project to local people and the nearby city of Altamira.
- Local communities, with legal assistance from international civil society organizations, filed a motion to the UN Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asking for the Belo Monte dam project to be officially labeled a Violation of Human Rights. In November, the Commission’s preliminary conclusions found repeated violations.
- Indigenous communities “suffer from frequent incidents of violence and lack of attention from public services, in addition to increased difficulties and obstacles surrounding claims to their lands,” said Commissioner Antonia Urrejola Noguera, the IACHR Rapporteur for Brazil. Norte Energia has denied the charges.
In 2011, the Belo Monte mega-dam broke ground amid fervent protests from local traditional riverine communities, multiple indigenous groups and environmental organizations. The dam, located in Brazils’s Pará state on the Xingu River and now partially operational, when reaching full generating capacity, will become the third largest hydroelectric producer in the world.
Estimates of the number of people displaced by its construction range from 20,000 to 50,000, with charges placed against the Brazilian government and the Norte Energia construction consortium of ethnocide against indigenous people. Xingu River fisheries were also seriously damaged, while parties harmed by the dam’s construction continue to litigate against Norte Energia’s failure to provide promised reparations. Companies in the Norte Energia consortium include: Eletronorte, Neoergia, Cemig, Light, J Malucelli Energia, Vale, and Sinobras.
Dissent regarding the project’s ongoing development continues today. Local communities, together with legal assistance from international civil society organizations, including the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), the Brazilian Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), and Justicia Global, filed final proceedings to a motion originally submitted in 2011 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asking for the Belo Monte project to be officially labeled as a Violation of Human Rights.
In November, the Commission’s preliminary conclusions found repeated violations. Indigenous communities “suffer from frequent incidents of violence and lack of attention from public services, in addition to increased difficulties and obstacles surrounding claims to their lands,” said Commissioner Antonia Urrejola Noguera, the IACHR Rapporteur for Brazil.
IACHR will publish an official report with regards to the motion. Consequences could include formal condemnation of the project from the UN, with international pressure and scrutiny forced on the Brazilian government as a result.
In an article published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation this year, an international team of scientists confirms that the section of the Xingu River dammed by Belo Monte “is notable for an extensive series of rapids known as the Volta Grande that hosts exceptional levels of endemic aquatic diversity.”
However, the IACHR motion alleges that the Xingu River Management Plan put forward by Norte Energía severely threatens the unique Volta Grande aquatic ecosystem, as well as harming the local communities that depend on Volta Grande fisheries for their livelihoods.
“The dam brings death to the flora, the fauna, countless indigenous and traditional cultures that live in the Xingu basin,” Antônia da Silva Melo said in a statement. “Our people face increased violence, unemployment and misery because the government and a group of investors want to exploit our land and rivers for profit.”
Melo is the founder of the “Movimiento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre” an alliance comprised of local impacted communities opposing Belo Monte. She received the prestigious Alexander Soros Foundation award in 2017 for her organizing efforts in opposition of the Belo Monte project.
At the center of the controversy is what Norte Energia calls the “Consenus Hydrogram,” which controls water flows to the portion of the Volta Grande located downstream from the dam’s diversion. The consortium is pushing to enter a test phase of the hydrogram that, if successful, would open the door for the full development of Belo Monte, allowing for peak power generation.
However, critics say that the levels proposed by the hydrogram are based on flawed science and will result in Volta Grande water levels insufficient to maintain aquatic life.
“The problem is that the so-called hydrogram only took into consideration the historic data of the river, without considering recent changes due to deforestation and climate change,” explained Marcella Ribeiro, the lead AIDA attorney. “Currently, Norte Energía is insisting on entering the phase test of the hydrogram. But now, even though the level of the water [at Volta Grande] is still [higher than] the maximum level foreseen in the hydrogram, there has been the mass death of fish and chelonians, the contamination of water, and the probable extinction of some endemic fish species.”
The hydrogram test, if it goes forward, will be monitored by IBAMA, the Brazilian government’s environmental regulatory agency, which has suspended Norte Energia’s operating license multiple times since 2014 due to infractions ranging from promised sanitation in the city of Altamira, to failing to comply with the firm’s pledged resettlement compensation. Monitoring is also supported by FUNAI, Brazil’s Indian affairs agency.
A major complaint by local people is that they have not been included in Belo Monte decision making. “We believe that the revision of these scientific criteria should be done mainly with the participation of indigenous and riverine people who know the consequences of the reduction of the [river] flow and the interruption of the ecological cycles on which the continuity of their way of life depends,” said Biviany Rojas, an attorney for ISA, a socio-environmental NGO.
In a statement emailed to Mongabay, Norte Energia praised itself, highlighting the positive development effects it has had within the Belo Monte relocation communities in the nearby city of Altamira (a claim contested by those living in those communities). The consortium also noted the contributions the hydroelectric project has made to Brazil’s electrical grid.
Norte Energia stated further that “the water model adopted in Belo Monte allows the generation of energy without large damming areas and with low impact to the environment.” This statement is hard to square with the fact that the Belo Monte reservoir, when filled to capacity will cover 500 square kilometers (193 square miles), a once largely forested area the size of Chicago.
The IBAMA press office told Mongabay that “The hydrogram is subject to monitoring and review if it is determined that the flow rate adopted is insufficient to ensure the environmental quality of the area affected by the reduced flow.” And that, “IBAMA systematically monitors all the conditions of the licensing process of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant and takes appropriate action when problems are found.”
Whether those who feel wronged by the Belo Monte hydroelectric project will ever see justice served to their satisfaction is increasingly uncertain. Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to eliminate the country’s environmental ministry and fast track infrastructure licensing. Also, an official involved in Bolsonaro’s campaign committed the administration, which takes office in January, to a policy that will look closely at new mega-dam projects.
Still, Xingu River advocates are trying to remain optimistic. “Our hope rests, in this case, in the possibility of establishing dialogues with the new government, hoping that they will honor Brazil’s human rights obligations and the IACHR decisions,” Ribeiro said. “The best possible outcome is the recognition of the violations, the compensation of the damages caused in the way of living of the indigenous and riverine people affected by the dam, the implementation of programs to recover Xingu ecosystems, and the establishment of this case as a precedent in the Americas to not be repeated.”
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