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Brazil: Belo Monte at all cost

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BRAZIL’S ENERGY BLACK BOX

by Jan Rocha, São Paulo, 19/09/2011

Why does the Brazilian government insist on building the Belo Monte dam in spite of growing evidence that it will be an environmental and financial disaster?

Why does the government insist on placing all its energy eggs in one basket – hydroeletric dams – ignoring Brazil’s vast potential of alternative sources?

Why is Brazil’s energy sector still run by many of the same people who ran it during the military dictatorship?

In a recent interview in São Paulo, Felício Pontes, federal prosecutor for the state of Pará where Belo Monte is located, offered some answers.

Since the plans for the dam became known, he and fellow prosecutors have filed 11 injunctions against government agencies and the construction companies, on the grounds of illegality and inconstitutionality. But while the lower courts have accepted their arguments, the higher appeal court, the Superior Tribunal de Justiça (STJ), has so far refused to judge the cases brought before them, allowing work to continue until a final verdict is reached.

Among the various illegalities cited by Prosecutor Pontes are the failure to consult the indigenous groups directly affected, mainly Kayapo IndiansKayapo Indiansthe Kayapó, Juruna and Arara, and irregularities in the environmental licensing process. The prosecutor claimed that the Xingu, known as the Virgin River because it is so clean, would be transformed into a stagnant lake in front of Altamira, full of algae and dead fish.

A 100-km loop of the river, known as the Volta Grande, will be left high and dry most of the year as the water is diverted through a canal to the dam, with a reduction of up to 90% in the volume of water during the dry season. Two hundred and seventy three species of fish are expected to disappear, leaving the population who live along it without their main source of food. Although they are directly affected, these indigenous peoples will not be given compensation. Only those whose homes will be flooded by the dam reservoir are eligible. Although it was a condition of the licensing, preparations for the expected influx of 100,000 people, who will be looking for work, in and around the dam in the infrastructure, housing and services sectors, has not begun. Violence in Altamira has already risen by almost 30 percent.

Felício Pontes said their latest injunction concerns the financing. Although the government originally claimed that Belo Monte would be built by private enterprise, without public funds, it is now entirely funded by state banks. Private banks withdrew because of doubts about the dam´s economic viability. The prosecutor alleges that this is a misuse of public funds.

So far Dilma’s government has steadfastly ignored all criticisms and the legal attempts to stop the dam. Worse, Pontes believes that to make Belo Monte financially and energetically viable, the government will eventually announce more dams on the Upper Xingu. Altogether he says they want to build 60 dams on Amazon rivers in the next 20 years, including six on the Tapajós and Teles Pires rivers.

Brazil’s energy matrix will continue overwhelmingly dependent on one source – hydroelectric power. Brazil’s abundant alternative sources, like wind or solar energy, have barely been scratched. While Belo Monte will gobble up an estimated R$31 billion of public funds – twice the original figure – other renewables are starved of funding for research and development, so that Brazil must import the technology, when it could have its own. To depend so much on water, when climate change is making a mockery of the seasons and the Amazon has already begun to see more frequent droughts, hardly seems sensible planning. To claim that it is clean energy, when it involves the destruction of huge amounts of biodiversity and threatens the survival of indigenous communities, is misleading.

Felicio PontesFelicio PontesFor Felício Pontes, Brazil’s energy policy is a black box, which dates from the days of the military regime, thirty years ago. Some of the same people are still in charge, with the same outdated views on energy.

Not surprisingly, the only answer of Edison Lobão, the energy minister, to Brazil’s growing demand for energy has been to announce four new nuclear plants, despite the new wave of doubts caused by Japan’s Fukushima disaster. According to Wikileaks, one US Ambassador to Brazil described Lobão as favouring the privatization of the electricity sector. The Americans have also been critical of Brazil´s environmental legislation.

It is no coincidence that the big construction companies who build the dams and nuclear plants are also the main funders of politicians’ election campaigns, making them a powerful lobby and dominant player in the energy field. Solar and windpower does not require the vast amounts of earthmoving, the thousands of tons of concrete, the thousands of workers, employed in dambuilding.

So Brazil’s energy programme remains stuck in the past, when it could be a pioneer in renewables.