Brazilian Court Halts Belo Monte Dam’s Operations
Water is an important natural resource for any society, but it has particular significance in Brazil. More than 75 percent of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Recently, drought conditions and a growing demand for power have put pressure on the existing electricity-generating infrastructure. The Belo Monte Dam Complex, a newly constructed hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River near Altamira, Pará, was expected to provide another source of power, but the dam has yet to start generating electricity. A federal court suspended the dam’s operating license until the dam’s builder, Norte Energia, fulfills its obligations to the region’s indigenous people.
The dam’s operating license includes a requirement that Norte Energia and the Brazilian government reorganize the regional office of FUNAI, the national agency responsible for protecting the rights of Indians, according to TeleSur. That work is long overdue. The courts had previously ordered Norte Energia to carry out that restructuring work in 2014. The company’s failure to comply led to fines on both the government and the company.
The indigenous people have long opposed the Belo Monte project. They say that the dam constricts their water and food supply. There are also fears that the tens of thousands of workers involved in the project will stay in the region, potentially expanding mining and farming operations in the rainforest. With an installed capacity of 11,233 megawatts, the dam was designed to be one of the world’s largest in terms of potential energy production. But the dam’s electricity output will be about one third of its capacity, a concession to a request from native groups and environmentalists who objected to the dam’s blocking of the Xingu River.
Those concessions may not be enough. Norte Energia was originally granted its license to construct the dam contingent on the company taking precautionary measures to protect the indigenous communities in the region. The Public Federal Ministry (MPF), an independent governmental body, however, accuses Norte Energia of abdicating its responsibility. The MPF found that the construction of the dam destroyed the peoples’ social organization, customs, languages, and traditions.
At the moment, the FUNAI offices in Altamira are closed and the agency’s presence in the region has dwindled from 60 employees in 2001 to just 23 employees today, according to Reuters. While Brazil needs the power that the Belo Monte dam would produce, the country’s indigenous people need the advocacy and support that Brazilian law affords them, and that Norte Energia pledged. If Norte Energia fails to comply with the legal obligations that it agreed to before it began construction, the company can expect continued court intervention, which would ultimately leave idle one of the largest and most needed dams in the world.