Belo Monte: The dialogue that never happened*
Dom Erwin Kräutler, the Bishop of Xingu, is one of Brazil’s most important defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples. He has long played an important role in opposing one of South America’s largest and most controversial energy projects, the Belo Monte dam. On hearing in March of the government’s decision to start work on the dam, despite numerous complaints from experts and communities about the dam’s serious social, environmental and technical shortcomings, he has published an ‘open letter’ as an eleventh-hour attempt to get the government to rethink.
Open letter for National and International Public Opinion
Brasilia, 25th March 2011
I wish to publicly express, once again, my opposition to the Federal Government’s project to build the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. The irreversible consequences of this project will especially affect the municipal districts of Altamira, Anapu, Brasil Novo, Porto de Moz, Senador José Porfírio, Vitória do Xingu in the state of Pará, and the indigenous peoples of the region.
As the Bishop of Xingu and President of Cimi (Missionary Indigenous Council), I requested an audience with President Dilma Rousseff to raise personally with her our concerns, questions and all the arguments which support our position against Belo Monte. It grieves me profoundly that this interview was not granted.
Contrary to what I had requested, the government instead proposed a meeting with the Minister of the Secretariat-General of the Presidency, Gilberto Carvalho. However, last Wednesday on the 16th March in Brasilia, this Minister announced in front of an audience of more than a hundred social and church leaders participating in the Climate Change Symposium that, “the government holds a firm and well-founded conviction that Belo Monte must be built, that it is possible and viable … Therefore, I will not tell Dilma that she shouldn’t go ahead with Belo Monte, because I think that Belo Monte has to be built.”
This position shows once again how the government is only interested in communicating after decisions have been taken, thus denying us any open and meaningful dialogue. In these circumstances it makes no sense to meet the Minister of State Gilberto Carvalho and for this reason I decided to turn down the invitation.
During the last few years we have made a great effort to establish a channel of communication with the Brazilian government about this project. Unfortunately, we found from the start that this much-needed dialogue was impossible. My two meetings with the former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on the 19th March and the 22nd of July in 2009, did not go beyond mere formalities. At the second meeting, the former President promised us that representatives from the energy sector would shortly provide answers to the well-founded technical inquiries about the project made by Dr. Célio Bermann, lecturer for post-graduate studies in energy at the Electrotechnology and Energy Institute in the University of Saõ Paulo. These answers never given, nor were the technical arguments put forward by an expert panel made up of 40 scientists, investigators and university lecturers taken into account.
On the contrary, we have seen that, following these meetings, staff from Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment) complained of coming under political pressure to conclude their reports as soon as possible and to issue a preliminary licence for the plant’s construction. Such political pressures are public knowledge and they are the reason why various directors and presidents from the Institute have resigned. After this, a “Specific Licence” — something that does not actually exist in Brazilian environmental legislation — was granted for the beginning of construction.
On the 8th February 2011, indigenous peoples, riverside dwellers, small farmers and representatives of various social organisations held a public demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace. On this occasion, a petition opposing the project, signed by more than 600,000 people, was handed in. Although a meeting had been requested long before the demonstration, the President did not receive them. They were only able to deliver the petition to the substitute Minister of the Secretariat-General of the Presidency, Rogério Sottilli, accompanied by a letter in which they laid out their reasons for opposing the project. Once again, the Minister promised a dialogue, saying that he considered the letter to be “to be one of the most important reports I have recevied in my political career … I will pass on this report, this letter, your manifesto, your objections. ” But up to now, there has been no reply!
The four public hearings, held in Altamira, Brasil Novo, Vitória do Xingu and Belém, did not go beyond mere formalities to certify decisions already made by the government and to satisfy legal requirements. Most members of the threatened communities were not able to attend. Those against the project who managed to get there did not have a real opportunity to participate and explain their objections, because of the inappropriate, warlike security operation carried out by the police.
The indigenous people have never been heard. Some meetings took place to inform the indigenous population about the project. Some, who made their opposition to the Belo Monte dam explicit and whose objections were noted in the minutes, were told by Funai officials that indigenous hearings would be held later. But these never happened. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, the minutes of the briefings were fraudulently published by the government in a document entitled “Indigenous Hearings”. The manoeuvre was denounced by the indigenous people who attended these meetings and, based on what they said, we presented a petition to the General Attorney of the Republic asking for an investigation and appropriate action.
Mr Mauricio Tolmasquim, President of the Energy Research Company (EPE), has defended the Belo Monte dam by claiming that it will not affect the indigenous villages, because they will not be flooded. However, this argument is no more than an attempt to confuse public opinion. In fact, the very opposite will happen: the inhabitants, of the villages as well as of the riverside, will be left practically without water, as a consequence of the water volume reduction. Currently, these people make a living from fishing and subsistence farming and use the river as transport. How will they get to Altamira to go shopping or to transport their sick when a wall 1,620 metres long and 93 metres high will be erected right in front of them?
I believe it is fundamental to make clear that no studies have been conducted into the impact of the dam on downstream regions such as Senador José Porfírio and Porto de Moz, or into the quality of the water in the reservoir. What will be the future of the town of Altamira, with a current population of 105,000 inhabitants, when it is transformed into a peninsula bordered by a dead and stagnant lake? Those affected by the Tucuruí dam had to leave the region because of the numerous infestations of mosquitoes and endemic diseases. However, the technocrats and politicians who live in Brasilia simply dismiss scornfully the idea that the same will happen in Altamira.
We are warning national and international society that Belo Monte is being built illegally and that dialogue with the affected populations is being denied. It may end up being necessary to call in the armed forces, as has happened with the “transposition” of the San Francisco river in the north-east of the country.
If Belo Monte is built, the federal government will be directly responsible for the misfortune that will fall on the region of Xingu and the entire Amazon.
Finally, we state that no “concessions” will be enough. We will never accept this deadly project. We will continue to support the Xingu peoples’ fight against the construction of this “monument to insanity”.
Bishop of Xingu and President of Cimi (Missionary Indigenous Council)