Brazil's New Dam Unleashes Flood of Anger and Hope: World View

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By Sheena Rossiter

After 36 years, countless petitions and protests, and several supreme-court cases brought by environmentalists and indigenous populations, Brazil's giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam has finally received the go-ahead from the federal government.

Construction is expected to begin later this year on the Amazon Basin project -- but not without a fight.

The complex, which will be built along the banks of the Xingu River in Para state, will be the third-largest hydroelectric dam in the world. A facility that could generate more than 11,000 megawatts of energy would seem to be a fine idea for a country whose gross domestic product grew 7.5 percent last year, right?

Not quite. The $16 billion project will require flooding almost 200 square miles (516 square kilometers) of the Amazon region -- displacing thousands of people, and potentially ruining the environment.

Even so, the Brazilian government feels pretty good about the dam, and is confident of its due diligence. Here's how Energy and Mining Minister Edison Lobao put it:

No dam in the world has been preceded by so much care and so many studies. There are 35 years of studies around Belo Monte. There have been 30 public hearings held about the construction of Belo Monte. About the indigenous communities, there are 11 in the area. No indigenous reservation will be flooded by Belo Monte. No indigenous person will have to leave where they are today.

According to Ibama, Brazil's state-run environmental institute, the license for construction was granted after "robust analysis" that included looking at "the social and environmental gains" of the project. The license was granted even though Norte Energia SA, the group of companies building the dam, didn't meet all of the 40 environmental requirements set out by Ibama, according to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

Ibama has said that it's common to have disputes in the licensing process, and it guaranteed that all requirements would be met before any adverse social or environmental effects result.

Environmentalists aren't buying it.

"I feel puzzled to hear that all of the conditions were met,” said Marcelo Salazar, a team coordinator at the environmental group Instituto Socioambiental. "People who live there know that the city does not have the conditions to receive a project of this size."

"It's becoming a habit of this government to approve projects without all the conditions being met,'' said Ricardo Baitelo, the coordinator of Greenpeace's energy campaign in Brazil. "If they were to be disregarded, why were they imposed?"

As Lobao, the energy and mining minister, was waiting for the ink to dry on the licensing agreement, opponents of the dam across the country were planning protests via Facebook over what some termed a "death sentence to the people of the Xingu."

Here's Mauricio Santos Matos, a blogger who has made his name writing about Belo Monte, urging Brazilians to take to the streets:

Belo Monte will be even bigger than the Panama Canal ... destroying the precious habitat for many species, all to 'create' energy that could be easily generated with higher investments in energy efficiency and renewable. … Make your poster, wear your headband, your red nose, bring your pot, your guitar, mother, dog, parrot. Paint your face, scream loud!

There were plenty of screams, and a fair amount of sarcasm.

"Our dear president Dilma, having said she would not build it, agreed to the start of construction on the Belo Monte plant," said one activist, Leonardo Janz, on the news site Minuto Noticias. "Even after getting letters from the people (with more than 600,000 signatures), formal statements opposing it from renowned NGOs, the SBPC (Society for the Advancement of Science), and amazingly ... Even with the clear legal alerts from the MPF (Federal Prosecutor)."

But there was another side to the story. The Brazilian government announced that it will try to mitigate the negative effects of the dam's construction, and Norte Energia says it will invest heavily in the affected region, building a health clinic, expanding schools and improving infrastructure.

Journalist Paulo Henrique Amorim has turned his well-read blog, Conversa Afiada, into a pro-Belo Monte outlet over the past few months, unleashing tirades against what he likes to call PIG, or Partido da Imprensa Golpista -- which translates in English as the "Pro-Coup Press Party." He claims that PIG, by which he means left-wing media, has created an "ideological blackout surrounding Belo Monte," even though data suggests the dam will provide socioeconomic benefits. He argues that indigenous land won't be "directly affected" by the construction, and charges that critics haven't considered the energy independence that Belo Monte will bring to Brazil.

Paulo Leandro Leal, a columnist for the regional newsletter Eco Amazonia, says much of the debate over Belo Monte has been stirred by interest groups that don't always have the welfare of local residents in mind:

Belo Monte could just be an infrastructure project in a developing country, but it became a symbol of a war waged by NGOs against the interests of an entire nation … A war that had been successful in the past, when they managed to avoid building the plant, in the '80s. Now, with three decades of delay, Brazil decided to show it is a sovereign nation and that it will not bow to the charms of the rich North.

Once the project gets off the ground, he argued, the anger and hype now clouding the dam will quickly dissipate. "The next few years, nobody will remember the controversy around the project, but will take advantage of the energy that makes the economy spin and that arrives in all Brazilian homes," he said.

The project's managers didn't waste any time publicizing the jobs Belo Monte will bring to the Altamira area, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The day after the full license was granted, the Belo Monte Blog, which is run by Norte Energia, announced the first graduation ceremony of the companies' job-training program, called "Train to Grow."

Their motives, however, aren't entirely altruistic: The program is training workers to build the dam.

(Sheena Rossiter is a contributor to the World View blog. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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-0- Jun/17/2011 18:06 GMT