Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October 2014, 08:52 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Belo Monte Dam: Drowning out indigenous protests in the Brazilian Amazon

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Belo Monte Dam: Drowning out indigenous protests in the Brazilian Amazon, 28 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fedb3e45.html [accessed 22 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Belo Monte, which translates as 'Beautiful Hill', is located in the northern Pará state of Brazil. Ever since the federal government publicized its intention to construct a giant hydroelectric energy facility in the Amazonian rainforests of Pará, a heated national and international debate has arisen over the form, function and implications of the project – especially with respect to indigenous peoples and the overall environment. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project was first proposed back in 1987 by the Brazilian power company Electrobras. Despite its massive size, it was intended to be just one unit of a monumental six-dam Amazon mega-project; however the resulting outcry led to the shelving of the other five plans. In 2005, the Belo Monte project was declared a priority by the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Dam construction was then fast-tracked by the Brazilian Congress leading to increased overall momentum as well as the related controversy.

Contention within the government itself led to the resignation in late 2009 of two senior environmental agency officials. Brazil's Federal Public Prosecutor's Office also filed suit to stop the dam. It charged that the region's indigenous peoples had not been consulted as required by the Brazilian Constitution (Article 231) as well as by Brazil's obligations under ILO 169 and other international agreements.

Upon taking office in 2009, Lula's successor, President Vilma Rousseff, continued to push for construction while criticism mounted. The government argued that the massive US$ 17 billion project is crucial for development and will create jobs, as well as provide electricity for millions of homes.

Opponents of the Belo Monte dam charge that the hydro-project offers little real benefit either to indigenous communities or to the majority of the national population. In addition to displacing thousands of indigenous people, they state that it will produce publicly subsidized energy primarily for the large privately owned extractive industries in the Amazon region.

The Belo Monte dam is expected to produce around 11,200 megawatts of power and will be the third largest in the world. When completed in 2019, the 5 km wide dam will back up the Xingu River, which is one of the main tributaries of the giant Amazon River, and flood 500 square km of pristine rainforest land, drowning trees and wildlife and causing population dislocation.

The National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) – the government agency responsible for protecting the country's indigenous Amerindian population – has publicly claimed there will be no direct effects on any indigenous group. However, this does not apply to indigenous peoples on lands that are not demarcated as tribal territory. In fact, although the Brazilian government estimates that the dam will displace about 16,000 people, environmental groups such as Amazon Watch put the figure at 40,000. They point out that it will directly affect the livelihoods and threaten the survival of the thousands of Arara, Juruna and Kayapó indigenous peoples who live downstream. Environmentalists warn that diverting some branches of the Xingu River will cause abnormally low water levels during the dry season. This will likely disrupt the reproductive cycles of some species of turtles and fish that have traditionally provided food security for Amazon indigenous communities. In addition, according to electrical engineering experts, even under optimum conditions the huge costly dam will only function at 10 per cent of potential capacity during Brazil's three- to five-month dry season.

In the face of the apparent inevitability of construction, a united opposition emerged, consisting of indigenous communities, the Movement of People Affected by Dams – which claims to represent 1 million people displaced from their lands by other dams – as well as several environmental organizations and scientists. In late 2010, indigenous groups filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). They claimed their right to free, prior and informed consent had not been respected.

During February 2011, a Brazil federal court judge blocked dam construction citing 29 unmet environmental criteria. The government appealed the stop order. At the end of March 2011, the IACHR also asked Brazil to stop the dam's licensing process until its developers consulted with indigenous groups and environmentalists in the area.

The Brazilian government's response was immediate, uncompromising and unprecedented. The country's foreign ministry publicly rejected the IACHR request, calling its move 'unjustified'. President Rousseff also decided to immediately halt Brazil's approximately US$ 800,000 annual contribution to the IACHR. Furthermore, the government decided to withdraw from Brazil's 2012 participation in the IACHR itself. The country suspended the membership on the IACHR of Brazil's candidate – a former Human Rights Minister under the previous administration. Shortly thereafter, in June 2011, the Brazilian environmental agency gave final approval to the dam.

In November 2011, in response to more suits filed by environmentalists and indigenous groups, a federal court handed down a ruling in favour of the project. While one judge raised concerns, another noted that while consultations with indigenous groups were 'informative', they were not relevant to the decisions made by the Brazilian Congress. Judge Maria do Carmo Cardoso argued that since the actual infrastructure of the Belo Monte dam and its reservoirs would not be physically located on indigenous lands, she saw no need for consultation with the indigenous groups. There was also special concern about her statement that 'indigenous peoples should consider themselves "privileged" to be consulted about large projects that affect their livelihoods'.

The conflicting opinions of the judicial panel as well as the fact that the case involves a constitutional issue, all but ensures that the legal turbulence caused by the Belo Monte dam and its effect on indigenous populations will continue to eddy all the way up to the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil.

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