Brazilian Megadam: US Celeb Activists 1, Gov't 1

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 4/16/2010 12:16:00 AM
The construction of megadams has long been controversial and has served as constant fodder for those interested in IPE, development, and/or the environment. In the seventies and eighties, the World Bank was constantly criticized for promoting the construction of megadams from voices in civil society. The arguments against these megadams are well-rehearsed: (1) they are costly and not particularly efficient means of generating energy; (2) they disrupt indigenous peoples' lives by removing their sources of livelihood (like fishing) or forcing relocation; and (3) they cause significant ecological damage by disrupting river flows, industrializing irreplaceable rainforests, and so on. Civil society has played a role in drawing attention to the ecological consequences of these megadams. In particular, the World Bank has since soft-pedalled their construction and reduced funding for them accordingly. If you're interested, Susan Deakin had a neat article a couple of years back in the Journal of International Relations and Development on how this change of heart came into being that I much recommend.

An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that at the tail end of the megadam era, two came on to the drawing board. The first was China's Three Gorges Dam that I have covered in some detail in the past [1, 2]. The other is the main topic of today's post, Brazil's proposed Belo Monte Dam. FYI, Three Gorges Dam is by far world's largest dam; when it is fully operational it will produce 22,500 megawatts. The second is an earlier Brazilian project that is still very massive, Itaipu Dam, which puts out 14,000 MW. My cultured readers and classical music snobs (they aren't always the same ;-) are aware that composer Philip Glass was suitably awed by the scale of Itaipu as to compose excellent music about it. If constructed, the estimated output of Belo Monte will be 11,233 MW, making it the world's third largest dam in terms of output.

While it has proven to be effective to pressure the World Bank for funding these projects--it eventually decided against funding Three Gorges Dam as well as Belo Monte Dam--the governments of these countries have continued with plans to bring them to fruition. China's Communist Party being essentially immune to criticism, Three Gorges is there despite flooding historically rich areas and the rest of it. However, a drama is still playing out in Brazil over Belo Monte. The indigenous peoples have long been against this project as they are the ones who will be worst affected. In the 1990s, Belo Monte also became something of a cause celebre as none other than Gordon "I'll Be Watching You" Sumner (aka Sting) brought it to the world's attention [see this footage]. He's even made an analogy that if some banks are too big to fail, what more the rainforest? What is interesting now, of course, is that Brazil is now led by a former labour activist, President Lula, who one would expect to be more sympathetic to the voices of the poor.

Yet fast forward a decade and we have debates falling under similar divides. In early February, the Brazilian government's environmental analysis concluded that the project could go ahead and set the stage for bidding among construction firms. Yes, they have inserted all sorts of environmental qualifiers and other guidelines that must be followed, but at the end of the day, the government declared that the show must go on.

Enter our new batch of celebrity activists James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar) and Sigourney Weaver (the heroine of his Alien franchise). Not having seen the former two movies, I gather that Avatar deals with indigenous peoples being subject to the questionable mores of "development." There's even footage of Cameron visiting the site of the planned dam, the Xingu River. Now we have more recent news of yet another monkey wrench being thrown into this long-running saga as the judicial branch seems to have issues with Brasilia. From Reuters:
Brazilian judicial authorities have delayed an April 20 auction for the construction of the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in northern Brazil, an official statement said late on Wednesday. The auction was put on hold by a federal judge in the state of Para where the dam is to be built, in order to examine petitions submitted by the public prosecutor which claim provisions for environmental protection at the site are inadequate.

The 11,000 megawatt project is expected to cost around 20 billion reais ($11.44 billion) but interest by the private sector has waned. Two major Brazilian firms said they no longer intended to bid as it was not financially attractive. The government is likely to appeal against the decision at a federal tribunal in the country's capital, Brasilia.

The injunction was issued after the first of two petitions submitted to judges was accepted as valid for consideration. "The (prosecutor's office) argues specifically that the construction of the (dam) will violate various provisions of environmental legislation, including lack of conclusive scientific data," the statement on a justice ministry website said. If the decision is upheld, Brazil's environmental agency Ibama will also be required to issue a new license for the project whose first phase is expected to be completed by 2015.
For now it's a draw. Having opened the project to bidding, the government has been stymied by concerned parties. And who will bid on this project now? More importantly, will the builder be able to stand up the civil society and environmental scrutiny this project will invariably bring? We'll see. In the meantime, Amazon Watch has a lot of information of use for those mulling where they stand on this important debate.