No End To Brazil's "Pandora Dam" Drama

Brazil's "Pandora Dam" in the middle of the Amazon is the most schizophrenic and controversial hydroelectric power project on this green earth. It's up. It's down. It's on. It's off. So far this year, the Belo Monte 11,300 megawatt power station smack dab in the heart of Indian country in the Amazon rainforest has been shut down four times.

The saga for this $9 billion-plus hydroelectric dam continues. It's a good thing that Brazilian publicly traded mining company Vale is now majority owned by the government and its state pension fund behemoths. If it was not, the company would be wise to dump its 9 percent stake in what has been nothing but heartache for all involved.

On Aug. 14, 2012, the federal prosecutors office in the state of Para, where Belo Monte is being built, successfully convinced a federal district court in the capital city of Brasilia to suspend construction of the dam.

As it is, Brazil's Pandora dam is nothing but dirt, rocks, and hundreds of laborers from the north covered in red dirt. They've been building dirt dams along the Xingu River to make way for the concrete construction later on. The dam calls for diversion of up to 100 kilometers of the Xingu, an Amazon River tributary. Part of the river gets dried out during the dry seasons in the jungle. River dwelling tribes that number less than a thousand strong worry that when the diversion is through, the river will no longer be navigable and may see some Xingu tributaries dry out for good, impacting their way of life and a key route to the city of Altamira nearby.

Groups represented by the anti-Belo Xingu River Movement have been asking for an audience with Congress to discuss the environmental impact, but have not yet gotten their wish granted. That's mostly because the higher ups in the tribal pecking order at the National Indian Foundation, Funai, have already given Belo its blessing. For the Brazilian government, the tribe has spoken.

But the tide may be turning. Belo cannot seem to get off the ground. It has 15 lawsuits filed against it since 2004. But the government owned consortium behind the project, known as Norte Energia, which exists solely as the owners of Belo Monte, have friends in high places.

Like the presidency, for example.

In late August, the attorney general successfully got the chief justice of an even higher court to overrule federal judges who — on the merits of the case against Belo Monte and the environmental impact of river diversion — had agreed that the local tribes had the right to a hearing with Congress. Chief Justice Carlos Ayres Britto disagreed with the regional court's ruling and issued an injunction. So it's back to work in Pandora.

This is one hell of a dam. As it is, it is the biggest hydroelectric project in the works. Once built, it will be the third largest in the world, still dwarfed by China's Three Gorges dam along the Yangtze River, a 20,000-plus megawatt power station.

In August 2010, Hollywood director James Cameron made a short documentary comparing the construction of the Belo Monte dam to the struggles of the fictional planet Pandora in his film Avatar. He called the video "Message from Pandora". But the A list has been no match whatsoever for Belo.

Belo has some serious muscle behind it. Like the movie, instead of a major Earthbound mining corporation, it has a Brazilian multinational mining corporation and the entire legal authority of the Brazilian federal government behind it, digging up virgin rainforest in the only part of the country left to build clean hydroelectric power plants.

That clean energy comes with a price, as in immediate environmental destruction in order to build the power station in the first place. The energy is cleaner than fossil fuels, and it powers nearly all of Brazil's electricity, but building it comes with a price to land and rivers.

"The chief justice of Brazil unilaterally decided to ignore the merits of the Para state prosecutor's case and overturn that earlier ruling," said Brent Milliken, director of the Amazon program for International Rivers, a multinational NGO with offices in Brasilia. "They could have ordered something like a restraining order, but they can't just ignore the merits of the case."

Extending the earthen dam across the wide Xingu River will require the oversight of Funai and the Brazilian Environmental Institute, Ibama. They will have to say whether or not this dam is going to block off important water ways for local tribes. Ibama has already greenlit the project. Their decision, whenever it comes, could cause yet another bump in Belo Monte's long road to completion.

Norte Energia is still targeting the dam to be done by 2015. But if this company can't go a few quarter without taking an unwanted vacation, it might have to stretch that date out.

Workers returned to the Belo Monte site on Aug. 28.

On Sept. 3, the Para state federal prosecutors office filed an appeal with the Brazilian Supreme Court to stop construction of the Belo Monte dam yet again until consultations are held with indigenous people affected by the project. The appeal requests that Ayres Britto reconsider his decision; if he does not agree, the case will be examined by the plenary of the Supreme Court.

"It is inconceivable in a democracy with due legislative process that Congress would make a decision, with direct and profound impacts on an indigenous community, without so much as ensuring that this ethnic group has the right to speak, to at least have the possibility of influencing members of Parliament whose decisions will affect their destiny" stated the MPF appeal. "The notion that consultations with indigenous peoples can be conducted after a project has been authorized is entirely inconsistent with the principals of self-determination guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution."

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