From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published February 2, 2011 11:07 AM

Brazil Approves Construction of the Belo Monte Dam Project

The proposed Belo Monte Dam in northern Brazil would be the third largest hydro-electric dam in the world in terms of electrical output. The dam would be 3.75 miles long and generate over 11,000 megawatts, which could power up to 23 million homes. Government officials say that the dam is an essential step in supplying energy to the nation's growing population. However, the project is rife with environmental conflicts. The project requires the clearing of 588 acres of Amazon jungle, the displacement of over 20,000 indigenous people, flooding a 193 square mile area, and drying up a 62 mile stretch of the Xingu River.


Last week, Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, approved the commencement of work to construct the $17 billion Belo Monte dam. They issued licenses to the consortium behind the dam project, Norte Energia, which is made up of local construction companies, the state-run utility company, Eletrobras, and a large state pension fund, Petros.

The concept of the Belo Monte dam has been around for 30 years, but until now has been held up. Conservationists and indigenous tribes have fought vigorously against its approval. In 2009, Kayapo Indians attacked a government electricity official with clubs and machetes. The advocacy group, Greenpeace, along with other critics such as the singer, Sting, and Hollywood director, James Cameron, have been on the scene. In fact, the storyline of Cameron's much acclaimed film, Avatar, bears a striking resemblance to events unfolding at Belo Monte.

The presence of foreign advocacy groups has been quite troublesome for Brazil's government officials. Last year, President Lula denounced the "gringos" and told them to stay out of Brazil's business. Many believe that the dam project's detractors are misinformed, claiming that the flooding would not affect indigenous areas and that the dam's effects have been widely studied.

Other government officials, however, have been critical. The former head of IBAMA, Abelardo Bayma Azevedo had resisted the Energy Ministry's demands that they give the go-ahead to the dam project. He claimed that IBAMA could not approve due to its ongoing environmental investigation. Two weeks ago, he resigned amid pressures from the Energy Ministry. His resignation paved the way for IBAMA's approval, which has allowed the dam project to move forward.

More obstacles remain for the dam project, because this approval is merely for clearing the 588 acres of rainforest, about the size of Monaco. Other approvals will be required as the project moves toward the actual construction phase. Officials are expecting the dam project's completion by 2015, at which point it will begin producing electricity.

Meanwhile, critics of the project are not giving up. The dam will affect the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon River, and home to rich biodiversity and endemic species. It will also affect the towns of Altamira and Vitoria do Xingu, whose residents will be forced to move. It will also affect the indigenous people living downstream, who will have their water access cut. Another large impact includes increased greenhouse gas emissions. As the lush jungle is covered by water, carbon is trapped by foliage, which then anaerobically decays to produce methane. So even though the electricity generation does not produce greenhouse gases, the dam itself could pollute more in CO2 equivalent than an oil power plant.

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