After decades of demonstrations and protests against the building of an enormous hydroelectric dam at Belo Monte in the lush Brazilian rainforest, the government has finally given approval to begin construction. The first stages of development of the controversial project calls for the clearing of nearly 600 acres of forest, to be followed by the flooding of 121,600 more acres once the dam is finished. This important approval not only marks the early stages of its immense environmental impact, but a social one as well. For the nearly 50,000 mostly indigenous people who live in the region, the approval signal a precursor the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.Despite the controversy surrounding the dam, Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, has ultimately given the go-ahead to begin the initial stages of construction at Belo Monte. When completed, it will be the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world, capable of powering 23 million homes.
Leading the fight against the Belo Monte dam had been the Brazil's indigenous peoples, who went as far as storming the Capitol to have their voices heard on the issue. Environmentalists have also taken issue with the 11,000-megawatt dam's sprawling footprint in the Amazon.
Even celebrity activists, like Avatar director James Cameron, have joined in the fight against the project, citing its impact on indigenous communities. The involvement of foreign protesters was often irksome for government officials. Last June, former-President Lula slammed "gringos" that "stick their nose where it does not belong."
When I spoke with Brazil's ex-Energy Minister, Márcio Zimmermann, in August, he echoed those sentiments, pointing out that the project had been "widely studied" and would "not flood indigenous reserves."
Still, Belo Monte has not been without its detractors from within the government. Just last week, IBAMA's president, Abelardo Bayma Azevedo, resigned amid pressures from the Energy Ministry to green-light the project. According to Brazilian media, Azevedo argued that approval could not be granted due to IBAMA's ongoing investigation into the dam's environmental impact. His leaving office apparently helped facilitate the approval needed to move forward.
After decades of debate, the granting of approval for the start to construction won't likely settle the issue for those opposed. Nevertheless, the government sees the project as an important step towards developing the nation's power-grid and fulfilling its goal of ending energy poverty in Brazil.
With the crossing of this hurdle, more remain; actually building the dam itself will require further approvals be granted. Officials hope to have the project completed by 2015.
More on the Belo Monte Dam
Brazil's Lula Slams "Gringo" Protests of Amazon Dam
Indigenous Tribesmen Storm Brazilian Congress
Belo Monte Dam Moves Ahead Despite Indigenous Protests, Celebrity Visits, and Court Injunctions