October 19, 2011
The environmental license for the controversial Belo Monte dam violates the constitutional rights of indigenous communities and is therefore illegal, ruled a federal judge in Brazil on Monday.
Judge Selene Maria de Almeida concluded that the 2005 decree that authorized the dam is illegal because Congress failed to carry out a consultation process with communities that will be affected by the dam. The consultation process is a right guaranteed to indigenous communities under Brazil's constitution.
A statement from International Rivers and Amazon Watch, groups campaigning against the dam, explains Almeida's ruling:
Almeida’s decision cited the need for Brazil to comply with its commitments to ILO Convention 169 and other international agreements that require free, prior and informed consent among indigenous peoples regarding projects that significantly affect their territories and livelihoods. Almeida’s decision spotlights a major gap between domestic and international legal frameworks regarding indigenous rights and their effective implementation within current practices of dam-planning and licensing in Brazil.
In Monday’s federal court hearing, Almeida’s decision discarded arguments by lawyers representing the Brazilian government that the Belo Monte Dam infrastructure and reservoirs would not be physically located on indigenous lands and, as a result, there was no need for consultations with indigenous peoples. Citing overwhelming evidence from official sources and independent researchers, Almeida concluded that the diversion of 80% of the Xingu River into artificial channels and reservoirs would have devastating impacts downriver for the Arara, Juruna and Xikrin Kayapó indigenous peoples, given inevitable losses to the tribes' ability to catch fish, raise crops, and navigate freely. As such, prior consultations by the Brazilian Congress with indigenous communities are required before the dam project can be legally authorized.
Judge Almeida concluded that the Brazilian Congress should have also based its decision concerning authorization of Belo Monte on the conclusions of the project’s environmental impact assessment, including anthropological studies on its consequences for indigenous peoples.
Almeida's decision comes less than three weeks after another judge ordered a halt to construction activities due to concerns over the impact on local fisheries.
Amazon Watch says that despite the recent rulings, the case is far from over. It will likely end up in Brazil's Supreme Court.
Belo Monte has proven extremely controversial. The $11-17 billion project, which would block most of the flow of the Xingu River and inundate thousands of hectares of rainforest, has been fiercely opposed by indigenous groups and environmentalists. Critics say the dam will operate well below capacity for much of the year when river levels are low. It will also disrupt fish migration patterns, affecting local livelihoods.