Brazil Approves Construction of Controversial Dam in the Amazon

The Belo Monte dam would be the world’s third largest, but critics say its benefits have been overstated.

Brazil’s government issued an environmental license for the construction of the Belo Monte dam on a tributary of the Amazon River, Reuters reports.

The company that wins the bid to build the dam will have to pay $800 million and fulfill 40 conditions designed to reduce the environmental and social costs.

“The environmental impact exists but it has been weighed up, calculated and reduced,” said Environmental Minister Carlos Minc, according to Reuters.

Cost estimates for the project range from $9 billion to $17 billion. The facility – to be built on the Xingu River in Para state – will generate enough electricity to power 23 million homes, the BBC reports. Only China’s Three Gorges and the Itaipu dam along the Brazil-Paraguay border are larger.

More than 12,000 people will be relocated and nearly 100 square miles of rainforest will be flooded because of the embankment. But critics of the dam say that costs are not being adequately assessed.

“No one knows the true cost of Belo Monte,” said Aviva Imhof, campaigns director for International Rivers in a press release.

“The project would displace tens of thousands of people, and destroy the livelihood of thousands more. Even as Brazil argues that the international community should support rainforest protection, its government insists on promoting mega-infrastructure projects in Amazonia that are socially and environmentally indefensible.”

Critics also argue that the dam will produce less than 10 percent of its electrical generating capacity during the four-month dry season.

Additionally, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has had a series of problems with Brazil’s environmental agencies. Silva’s push to build dams in the Amazon caused his environmental minister Marina Silva to resign in the spring of 2008. Meanwhile the environmental protection agency led by Silva often refused to issue licenses for large dam projects, according to the New York Times. President Silva split the agency into regulatory and licensing functions in 2007, prompting its employees to strike.

More protests are expected since the dam has been approved. Local opposition groups will be holding demonstrations this week in Para, according to International Rivers.

“We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia. We are opposed to dams on the Xingu, and will fight to protect our river,” the chief of the Kayapo indigenous group said in International Rivers’ press release.

Source: Reuters, BBC, International Rivers

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