Tag Archives: Belo Monte Dam

Dams in Brazil

Itaipu Dam border Brazil and Paraguay. Image from wikipedia

Some 20,000 labourers are working around the clock at Belo Monte on the Xingu river, the biggest hydropower plant under construction anywhere. When complete, its installed capacity, or theoretical maximum output, of 11,233MW will make it the world’s third-largest, behind China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.  Everything about Belo Monte is outsized, from the budget (28.9 billion reais, or $14.4 billion), to the earthworks—a Panama Canal-worth of soil and rock is being excavated—to the controversy surrounding it. In 2008 a public hearing in Altamira, the nearest town, saw a government engineer cut with a machete. In 2010 court orders threatened to stop the auction for the project. The private-sector bidders pulled out a week before. When officials from Norte Energia, the winning consortium of state-controlled firms and pension funds, left the auction room, they were greeted by protesters—and three tonnes of pig muck.

Since then construction has twice been halted briefly by legal challenges. Greens and Amerindians often stage protests. Xingu Vivo (“Living Xingu”), an anti-Belo Monte campaign group, displays notes from supporters all over the world in its Altamira office… But visit the site and Belo Monte now looks both unstoppable and much less damaging to the environment than some of its foes claim…

Brazil already generates 80% of its electricity from hydro plants—far more than other countries. But two-thirds of its hydro potential is untapped. The snag is that most of it lies in untouched rivers in the Amazon basin. Of 48 planned dams, 30 are in the rainforest. They include the almost completed Jirau and Santo Antônio on the Madeira river, which will add 6,600MW to installed capacity. But it is Belo Monte, the giant among them, that has become the prime target of anti-dams campaigners.Opponents say that dams only look cheap because the impact on locals is downplayed and the value of other uses of rivers—for fishing, transport and biodiversity—is not counted. They acknowledge that hydropower is low-carbon, but worry that reservoirs in tropical regions can release large amounts of methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas.

In the 20th century thousands of dams were built around the world. Some were disasters: Brazil’s Balbina dam near Manaus, put up in the 1980s, flooded 2,400 square km (930 square miles) of rainforest for a piffling capacity of 250MW. Its vast, stagnant reservoir makes it a “methane factory”, says Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Amazonian Research, a government body in Manaus. Proportionate to output, it emits far more greenhouse gases than even the most inefficient coal plant.

But many dams were worth it (though the losers rarely received fair compensation). Itaipu, built in the 1970s by Brazil’s military government, destroyed some of the world’s loveliest waterfalls, flooded 1,350 square km and displaced 10,000 families. But it now supplies 17% of Brazil’s electricity and 73% of Paraguay’s. It is highly efficient, producing more energy than the Three Gorges, despite being smaller.

Of Brazil’s total untapped hydropower potential of around 180,000MW, about 80,000MW lies in protected regions, mostly indigenous territories, for which there are no development plans. The government expects to use most of the remaining 100,000MW by 2030, says Mr Ventura. But it will minimise the social and environmental costs, he insists. The new dams will use “run of river” designs, eschewing large reservoirs and relying on the water’s natural flow to power the turbines. And they will not flood any Indian reserves.,,,

The protesters’ legal challenge to Belo Monte is based on the claim that they have not been properly consulted, something the government denies. The constitution says that before exploiting any resource on Amerindian lands, the government must consult the inhabitants. But it is silent on how this should be done. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a similar clause in its Convention 169 on indigenous rights, to which Brazil is a signatory.  The government says that since no demarcated territories will be flooded, such formal protections do not apply. “We hold consultations about the projects we’re doing not because we have to, but because it is right,” says Mr Ventura. Between 2007 and 2010 there were four public hearings and 12 public consultations about Belo Monte, as well as explanatory workshops and 30 visits to Indian villages.

In 2011, in response to a complaint filed by Indian groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a halt to construction pending further consultation. That was “precipitate and unjustified”, said the government, refusing the request. The ILO has asked Brazil’s government for more information on how it intends to fulfil its legal obligations.

The legal uncertainty surrounding Belo Monte is bad for both the Indians and contractors, says Mr Sales—not to mention Brazil as a whole. A draft law detailing how to consult indigenous people is expected by the end of the year. But before Congress legislates, ground is likely to have been broken on most of the new dams….

Belo Monte was given an initial budget of 16 billion reais, which had risen to 19 billion reais by the time of the auction. Norte Energia’s winning bid for Belo Monte offered a price of 77.97 reais/MWh. Since then, its budget has risen by a third.  Officials insist that the costs are Norte Energia’s problem. That looks disingenuous. The group is almost wholly state-owned. In November, the national development bank gave Norte Energia a loan of 22.5 billion reais—its largest-ever credit. If Belo Monte turns out to be a white elephant, the bill will fall on the taxpayer.

Dams in the Amazon: the Rights and Wrongs of Belo Monte, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 37

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The War on Dams

amazon river satellite image

An Amazonian community has threatened to “go to war” with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders.  The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.  Public prosecutors, human rights groups, environmental organisations and Christian missionaries have condemned what they call the government’s strong-arm tactics.

According to witnesses in the area, helicopters, soldiers and armed police have been involved in Operation Tapajós, which aims to conduct an environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed construction of the 6,133MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam.  The facility, to be built by the Norte Energia consortium, is the biggest of two planned dams on the Tapajós, the fifth-largest river in the Amazon basin. The government’s 10-year plan includes the construction of four larger hydroelectric plants on its tributary, the Jamanxim.

Under Brazilian law, major infrastructure projects require prior consultation with indigenous communities. Federal prosecutors say this has not happened and urge the courts to block the scheme which, they fear, could lead to bloodshed.  “The Munduruku have already stated on several occasions that they do not support studies for hydroelectric plants on their land unless there is full prior consultation,” the prosecutors noted in a statement.

However, a court ruling last week gave the go-ahead for the survey. Government officials say that neither researchers nor logistical and support teams will enter indigenous villages. The closest they will get is about 30 miles from the nearest village, Sawré Maybu.  The ministry of mines and energy noted on its website that 80 researchers, including biologists and foresters, would undertake a study of flora and fauna. The army escort was made possible by President Dilma Rousseff, who decreed this year that military personnel could be used for survey operations. Officials say the security is for the safety of the scientists and the local population.

Missionaries said the presence of armed troops near Sawré Maybu village, Itaituba, was intimidating, degrading and an unacceptable violation of the rights of the residents.  “In this operation, the federal government has been threatening the lives of the people,” the Indigenous Missionary Council said. “It is unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to impose dialogue at the tip of a bayonet.”

The group added that Munduruku leaders ended a phone call with representatives of the president with a declaration of war. They have also issued open letters calling for an end to the military operation. “We are not bandits. We feel betrayed, humiliated and disrespected by all this,” a letter states.  One of the community’s leaders, Valdenir Munduruku, has warned that locals will take action if the government does not withdraw its taskforce by 10 April, when the two sides are set to talk. He has called for support from other indigenous groups, such as the Xingu, facing similar threats from hydroelectric dams.

Environmental groups have expressed concern. The 1,200-mile waterway is home to more than 300 fish species and provides sustenance to some of the most biodiverse forest habitats on Earth. Ten indigenous groups inhabit the basin, along with several tribes in voluntary isolation.  With similar conflicts over other proposed dams in the Amazon, such as those at Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antônio and Jirau, some compare the use of force to the last great expansion of hydropower during the military dictatorship. “The Brazilian government is making political decisions about the dams before the environmental impact assessment is done,” said Brent Millikan of the International Rivers environmental group.  “The recent military operations illustrate that the federal government is willing to disregard existing legal instruments intended to foster dialogue between government and civil society.”

Jonathan Watts, Amazon tribe threatens to declare war amid row over Brazilian dam project, Guardian, Aprl. 3, 2013

See also Resisting Dams, The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil

To Have their Say: Indigenous Peoples Rights and Energy Projects in Latin America

Deep in the rainforest, the village of Sarayaku is two days by river from the nearest town. But its 1,200 Kichwa Indians are now in the spotlight. On July 25th the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador’s government had ignored the rights of Sarayaku’s residents when granting permission for an energy project—putting governments in the Americas on notice that big physical investments are not legal until the indigenous people they affect have had their say.

The dispute began in 1996 when Petroecuador, the state oil firm, signed a prospecting deal with a consortium led by Argentina’s Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC). Much of the area it covered was the ancestral land of Sarayaku’s residents, who were not consulted. CGC later offered locals medical aid for their consent. Some villages signed up, but Sarayaku held out.  Nonetheless, by early 2003 CGC had drilled 467 boreholes around the town for seismic surveying, and packed them with 1,433kg of high explosives. They were never detonated, and remain buried in the forest. As well as felling trees and destroying a sacred site, the company ruined some of Sarayaku’s water sources. Work ceased in 2003, and CGC’s contract ended in 2010.

The court found that the state had breached the villagers’ rights to prior consultation, communal property and cultural identity by approving the project, and that CGC’s tests had threatened their right to life. It ordered the government to pay damages, clear the remaining explosives and overhaul its consultation process. In future affected groups must be heard in a plan’s “first stages…not only when the need arises to obtain the approval of the community.” However, the judges did not ban prospecting on Sarayaku lands. The right to consultation does not grant a veto.

The ruling will be studied closely in the myriad Latin American countries struggling to balance big investments with local rights. A narrow reading of the decision suggests that governments must tiptoe around indigenous concerns, but can act more boldly when other groups protest, since the ruling was based partly on the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

The ruling also shows that the regional justice system has not lost its mettle. In 2011 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which litigates cases at the court, asked Brazil to halt work on the huge Belo Monte dam because its neighbours were not given a sufficient chance to speak up. Brazil’s government, which had authorised the dam only after a long public debate, saw this as a violation of its sovereignty. It did not comply, and stopped contributing money to the commission.  The commission was weakened by angering the region’s biggest country and by the criticism that it had exceeded its mandate. After Brazil presented new evidence in the case, the commission reversed its stance on Belo Monte. Moreover, last month the Organisation of American States voted to draft a reform plan for the commission, which some fear could strip it of important powers. Ecuador was among the commission’s loudest critics.

The Sarayaku case was not as heated as Belo Monte, since Ecuador’s government had already promised to pay damages. However, the court’s decision did strongly reassert its right to intervene in development cases. Moreover, Ecuador’s government plans to tender a big chunk of the Amazon for oil exploration later this year, despite indigenous opposition. If neither side backs down and the protesters appeal, the court’s next ruling on development in Ecuador may be far more contentious.

Indigenous rights in South America: Cowboys and Indians, Economimst,July 28, 2012, at 32

Resisting Dams: Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Two indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are holding hostage three engineers working for the company building the contested Belo Monte dam, the latest trouble to hit the $13 billion project.  The engineers working for Norte Energia, a consortium of Brazilian firms and pension funds, were being held in a village close to where the 11,233-megawatt dam is being built on the Xingu River, Brazil’s national indigenous institute, called Funai, said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Juruna and Arara tribes say construction of the dam, which has been opposed by environmental groups and activists like Hollywood director James Cameron, is already preventing them from traveling freely along the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon River.  The dam would be the world’s third biggest, after China’s Three Gorges and Brazil’s Itaipu dam.

The three engineers, whose identities were not revealed, met with village leaders on Tuesday to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the dam, including a mechanism to allow boats to get around the construction site.  But the indigenous leaders were dissatisfied with the proposed solution and in protest prevented the engineers from leaving, environmental groups said. “The authorities report that the engineers are being prohibited from leaving the village but there is no use of force or violence,” Amazon Watch and International Rivers, two environmental groups opposed to the dam, said in a statement. Norte Energia declined to comment.

Funai said it did not know what the tribes were demanding in order to release the men. Funai representatives were with the Norte Energia employees to take part in talks with tribal leaders, the agency said.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists see the dam’s construction as the first step toward increased development of the Amazon basin, a hotly contested region that has seen violent and deadly conflicts between indigenous tribes and ranchers, miners and loggers.  The government of Brazil, a country which depends on hydroelectric power for more than 80% of its electricity, has said that it will build several dams in the Amazon to take advantage of the region’s ample hydroelectric potential, but has sought to minimize the impact of construction and operation of the dams.

In late June, members of several local tribes occupied the Belo Monte construction site to make similar demands, accusing Norte Energia of failing to carry out mitigation measures which the company is required to implement as part of its license to build the dam.  The company is required to invest about $1.6 billion in social programs such as building sanitation networks and relocating houses that occupy land to be flooded by the dam. In the past, the company has reiterated that it will carry out those investments, but that the investments will be completed as dam construction progresses…

Norte Energia is composed of government-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras, or Eletrobras, the pension funds of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro and government lender Caixa Economica; as well as utilities Neoenergia and Cemig and mining company Vale. Eletrobras is the biggest shareholder, with a 49.98% stake.

Excerpt,PAULO WINTERSTEIN, Tribes Hold Engineers of Dam in Brazil, Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2012

See also Amazon Watch, International Rivers

Judges Rule: the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil

Brazilian judge has blocked plans to build a huge hydro-electric dam in the Amazon rainforest because of environmental concerns. Federal judge Ronaldo Desterro said environmental requirements to build the Belo Monte dam had not been met. He also barred the national development bank, BNDES, from funding the project.

The dam is a cornerstone of President Dilma Rousseff’s plans to upgrade Brazil’s energy infrastructure. But it has faced protests and challenges from environmentalists and local indigenous groups who say it will harm the world’s largest tropical rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people.

Judge Desterro said the Brazilian environmental agency, Ibama, had approved the project without ensuring that 29 environmental conditions had been met. In particular, he said concerns that the dam would disrupt the flow of the Xingu river – one of the Amazon’s main tributaries – had not been met.

The government says the Belo Monte dam is crucial for development and will create jobs, as well as provide electricity to 23 million homes. The 11,000-megawatt dam would be the biggest in the world after the Three Gorges in China and Itaipu, which is jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay.

Excerpt, Brazil judge blocks Amazon Belo Monte dam, BBC News, Feb. 25, 2011