This article first appeared in The Guardian.
Without an operating licence the hydroelectric plant will stand unused but projects to limit the impact on the local community remain incomplete
Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric plant is facing another setback after the country’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, threatened to withhold an operating licence until the consortium which built the dam completes mitigation projects in the area to be affected.
Without the operating licence, Norte Energia – a consortium of 10 Brazilian public and private energy companies and investment funds, is banned from flooding Belo Monte’s reservoir. Without the water in the reservoir, the turbines of the world’s third-largest hydroelectric power plant – Brazil’s biggest engineering project – will remain unused.
Brazil’s national human rights council voted unanimously to advise Ibama in August to withhold the licence over Norte Energia’s grave violations of human rights and failure to comply with the terms of its contract. On Tuesday Ibama said it would withhold the licence until the consortium had completed mitigation projects it had promised.
Environmental campaigners welcomed the decision. “If Ibama is serious about the consortium implementing all the conditionalities of the project, we could be in for a significant delay,” said Brent Millikan, the Amazon program director of the NGO International Rivers.
But Norte Energia insisted that the Ibama order was not a rejection of its application but rather a call for the company to provide proof of the projects it had undertaken to compensate the local community for the impact of the dam.
José Anchieta, the director of socio-environmental affairs at Norte Energia, said that Ibama requirements were just minor details already factored into the company’s plans.
“I am not worried about this at all,” he told the Guardian. “Tomorrow we will meet with Ibama and we will soon resolve these details.” Anchieta insisted that the first part of the dam complex, the Sitio Pimental, would begin operations by the end of this year, and that Belo Monte as a whole would come on stream in March 2016.
An analysis of the social and environmental projects due to be completed by Norte Energia revealed a number of “pending impediments” to the operating licence, according to Thomaz Miazaki, Ibama’s director of environmental licencing.
Ibama listed 12 areas which “threatened the issuance of the operating licence”, including Norte Energia’s failure to “conclude the relocation of the population based in the area directly affected [by the dam], especially … the residents of the islands and banks of the Xingu river”.
Anchieta said that all of those residents awaiting resettlement would be housed in the next week or two. “There is no one left in the directly affected area,” he said.
About 20,000 people have been relocated as a result of the dam, with many complaining of inadequate compensation for the loss of their homes and livelihoods.
Brazil’s federal public ministry, a body of independent public prosecutors, has filed 23 lawsuits against the Belo Monte project, for ignoring requirements to reduce its environmental impact and for failing to provide sufficient compensation to the indigenous peoples and riverine communities displaced by the dam.
Six of the claims were initially successful, only to be overturned following the invocation of a military-era law, the suspensão de segurança, which mandated work on the dam to continue in the name of national security.
Ibama also criticised Norte Energia for its non-completion of a new sewage system in Altamira, the rapidly expanding city close to the Belo Monte dam, and ordered it to complete the eight bridges and two flyovers designed to improve the city’s road network. Since work started on the dam in 2011, the city’s population has risen from 100,000 to more than 150,000.
When complete, the Belo Monte plant is expected to generate 11,200MW, enough to satisfy the energy needs of 60 million people, according to Norte Energia. About 70% of Brazil’s energy comes from hydroelectric plants.
Despite the outcry over Belo Monte, the government plans to build 60 large dams in the Amazon basin over the next 20 years.
“With each one of these projects, the government says it has learnt its lesson and promises not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” Millikan said. “But the post-Belo Monte dams are just the same or even worse.”