Belo Monte Dam Moves Ahead Despite Indigenous Protests, Celebrity Visits, and Court Injunctions

indigenous people belo monte dam hearing photo

Indigenous participants in a public hearing on the Belo Monte dam. Photo via International Rivers.

Neither the celebrity sway of "Avatar" director James Cameron nor a top court's injunction were, in the end, enough to stop the Brazilian government from moving forward with plans to develop the huge Belo Monte dam, which indigenous groups and environmentalists say will displace thousands of people and damage the Amazon ecosystem.On Tuesday, the country's electricity regulator announced that a consortium of nine companies had won the right to build a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon. According to the BBC, the 11,000-megawatt dam would be the third largest in the world, after the Three Gorges in China and the Itaipu dam jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay.

jericoa rapids xingu river brazil photo

The Jericoá Rapids on the Xingu, the river where the dam would be built. Photo via International Rivers.
Indigenous Brazilian Indians Set Up Blockade
Opponents say the Belo Monte dam, which they have been fighting since at least the 1990s, would flood 500 square kilometers of land and disrupt the lives of up to 40,000 people, most of them Brazilian Indians living on the banks of the river. Boats full of indigenous people have begun arriving at the proposed site to establish a permanent village to block construction of the dam, which they say would destroy their homes and livelihoods. According to Amazon Watch, one of the groups leading the campaign against the dam:

For the Xingu's poor farmers, temporary employment created by the dam is not a viable replacement for lost agricultural lands and the river's fish supply.... Mega-projects typically confront indigenous communities with disease, loss of food and clean water sources, cultural disintegration, and human-rights abuses by lumber cutters, migrant workers, and land speculators. The indirect and long term impacts of Belo Monte are of even greater concern as other unsustainable industries such as aluminum and metal refineries, soy plantations, logging, and mining expand into the area.

Also in response to Tuesday's announcement, hundreds of Greenpeace activists gathered in front of the National Electric Energy Agency in the Brazilian capital, where they dumped three tons of manure, calling the excrement "the best representation of what this infrastructure project means to Brazil."

belo monte dam local activist photo

Local activist Oswaldo Sevá explains the impacts of the Belo Monte dam. Photo via International Rivers.
James Cameron's 'Personal Crusade'
Just a few weeks ago, it had seemed the tide was turning in the activists' favor. International attention had been piqued by a recent visit to the Brazilian Amazon by Hollywood director James Cameron, who the New York Times said had adopted the anti-dam campaign as a "personal crusade."

Federal Court Judge Antonio Carlos de Almeida Campelo then suspended the preliminary license for the dam, saying the project presented "a danger of irreparable harm." This ruling, however, was overturned by a regional appellate court in time to allow the bidding on the project to go forward.

The campaign is "a struggle about the future of Amazonia," says International Rivers, another activist group involved in the fight against the Belo Monte dam:

The Brazilian government has plans to build more than 100 large dams in the Amazon Basin over the next 20 years. Many Brazilians believe that if Belo Monte is approved, it will represent a carte blanche for the destruction of all the magnificent rivers of the Amazon -- next the Tapajos, the Teles Pires, then the Araguia-Tocantins, and so on. The Amazon will become an endless series of lifeless reservoirs, its life drained away by giant walls of concrete and steel.

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