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Major construction on the Belo Monte Dam commenced on the Xingu River during Brazil's New Year holidays, signaling a new phase in the Brazilian government's intentions to sidestep environmental legislation and human rights conventions to build the world's third largest hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon. The project's first blockades of the river, known as coffer dams, are being built to dry out a stretch of the river, allowing for its permanent damming. Local protestors paralyzed construction at the dam site Jan. 18, affirming that resistance to the project is far from over.
The protests centered on Belo Monte's Pimental work site, where protestors denounced "unprecedented crimes" of the Brazilian government against the Amazon and its people. Organized by the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (Xingu Forever Alive Movement)—a grassroots coalition of social movements, indigenous groups, and NGOs—the protest included fishermen, farmers, students and other groups that are suffering the impacts of the Belo Monte Dam project.
The protestors arrived at the dam site by boat, unfurling banners in front of the coffer dams with slogans such as "Belo Monte—crime of the Federal Government," blocking the movement of workers and machinery, and paralyzing construction for more than two hours. The protestors spoke peacefully with construction workers, explaining the motivations for the protest.
"Despite the criminal operations that are Belo Monte, where the Brazilian government is spending billions to devastate the Xingu while creating a situation of complete chaos among local communities, we will continue to resist this monstrosity and work to call attention of the Brazilian public and the world that this wanton destruction of the Amazon will hurt us all," said Antônia Melo, coordinator of the Xingu Vivo movement. "To take away the river is to take away the life of its people, because water is life."
The first of three coffer dams, which are earthen walls built to dry out stretches of the river to open the way for dam construction, will connect the left bank of the Xingu to Pimental Island in the middle of the river. The Norte Energia (NESA) dam-building consortium has also begun to raze the jungle on the island after receiving authorization from the federal environmental agency IBAMA to clear cut more than 5,000 hectares of rainforest.
Local residents were not previously informed by the government-led NESA consortium of the impending construction of the coffer dams, initiated soon after the New Year. Instead, they were alerted by a Xingu River tinged with red mud and the thundering of dynamite exploding in construction areas.
"When we learned what they were doing, it practically killed us with sadness," said Josinei Arara, a member of a threatened Arara indigenous community 10 miles downstream on the Xingu from the Pimental dam site. "The dam builders have kept none of their promises to compensate our village. In they meantime, they're assassinating our river."
Outraged with the muddying of water they rely upon for drinking, cooking, and bathing, the Arara denounced NESA's pollution of the river to Brazil's Federal Public Ministry this week, also citing the clear deficiency of legally-mandated mitigation measures.
If construction continues, the Belo Monte Dam complex will divert 80 percent of the Xingu River's flow into an artificial canal and reservoir, devastating a riverine ecosystem of unique beauty and biodiversity, as well as the livelihoods of three indigenous tribes and other traditional communities.
"The building of coffer dams, traversing one of the main channels of the Xingu, is already a major intervention in the riverine ecosystem," said Brent Millikan of International Rivers. "Besides destroying habitats and interfering in the river's hydrology, coffer dams create obstacles for local boat transportation and the movements of fish."
The Rousseff administration has remained obstinate in pushing ahead with Belo Monte, ignoring criticisms from scientists, legal experts, religious figures, artists and street protests throughout Brazil and the world. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, linked to the Organization of American States, was scoffed by the Brazilian government when it issued precautionary measures issued by the to ensure consultations with indigenous peoples and protection of their rights. Meanwhile the Rousseff administration has pressured judges to stall or overturn legal actions against Belo Monte, while intimidating federal public prosecutors that issued them. The Belo Monte Dam is one of the first of dozens of large dams planned for construction in the Amazon by the Brazilian government.
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Brazil’s Senate has decided to pursue short-term gain over long-term security in a vote to do away with long standing protections for the Amazon and other key forested areas, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned Dec. 7.
The new law, promoted by some rural and agribusiness interests, opens vast new areas of forest to agriculture and cattle ranching and extends amnesties to illegal deforestation conducted prior to 2008. Areas formerly held to be too steep or vital to the protection of watersheds and watercourses are among those now open to destruction.
Polls showed a majority of the population opposed to the revision of the Forest Code, with a vocal majority of experts warning that the new version of the law will hinder Brazil’s long-term development and not help it.
“We have a powerful minority condemning the future of millions of Brazilians, all in the name of quick financial gain,” stated WWF-Brazil’s CEO, Maria Cecilia Wey de Brito. “No thought has been given to the social and economic costs of destroying our forests. The Senate has adopted, once again, the outdated and false notion that conservation and development are somehow at odds, something we know is not true.”
If signed into law by Brazil President Dilma Rousseff, the changes will jeopardize Brazil’s significant environmental achievements of recent years and severely undermine global efforts to fight climate change and halt biodiversity loss. The changes are also expected to expose poor Brazilians to larger risks from floods and droughts.
Brazil has committed to 2020 targets of a nearly 40 percent cut in its growth curve of greenhouse gas emissions and a reduction of Amazon deforestation levels by 80 percent compared to average rates registered for the period of 1996-2005. These are commitments of global interest, now almost certainly out of reach because of the revisions to the Forest Code.
The Senate decision also comes in the midst of international climate talks in Durban, South Africa, and precedes Brazil’s hosting of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in June 2012. Brazil’s credibility as it hosts this and other key global events (2014 World Cup, 2016 Summer Olympics) will be severely compromised if it passes environmental legislation favoring deforestation of the Amazon and other globally-important regions, WWF warned.
“WWF-Brazil has gone along with the legislative processes, has worked with others to help bring science to the political debate and has defined common points with good agribusiness and others,” said Wey de Brito. “Now we must urge President Rousseff to consider the severe implications of signing the revisions into law, including irreparable harm to Brazil’s natural resources, its economic development, and to the future health and well-being of millions of Brazilians and billions of people around the world.”
WWF-Brazil is supported by WWF’s entire international network in urging President Rousseff to act in Brazil’s interests rather than a sectional interest—noting that the president has already said she would not support an amnesty for illegal deforestation.
“We're at a time in history when the world seeks leadership in smart, forward-thinking development,” said WWF International Director-General Jim Leape. “Brazil was staking a claim to being such a leader.
“It will be a tragedy for Brazil and for the world if it now turns its back on more than a decade of achievement to return to the dark days of catastrophic deforestation.”
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