The Belo Monte Dam is now complete, with irreparable loss of livelihood to the local residents, species and environment, and, to make matters worse, the minimum conditions required for its operation are not yet fulfilled. Sanitation was a prerequisite for the dam being approved by IBAMA, Brazil’s Environmental Agency, but approval was nevertheless granted, and the fulfilment of this condition in the city of Altamira (a population of 100,000 that has doubled since the construction works started in 2011) has been extended to September 2016. On 8th March, the MPF (Federal Prosecutor) of the state of Para’ filed its 25th legal action against Norte Energia, the consortium responsible for the construction works, and called for the dam operations to be halted, given the high risk of collapse of the local health care. No sanitation is currently in existence and the underground freshwater sources, the water table, are at risk of contamination from the refuse present in the area (1). Alteration in the course of the river due to the dam has already affected the entire river ecosystem, causing massive fish death and more than 500 homes to be flooded in Altamira (2).
It seems that Norte Energia is not the sole responsible for the state of paralysis in Altamira. Last year a new hospital was built (with a delay of a year and half on the original plan), and the local Health Council has not yet made it operational, as it waits the completion of an emergency unit for its launch, whilst the local hospital is struggling for space and cannot cope with the current demand (3). Brazilian politics are also in disarray, and one of the epicentres of the recent corruption scandals are the operations associated with the construction of Belo Monte, with bribes being dispensed and funds diverted from the construction works to support political campaigns.
In the mean time, history is about to repeat itself along the Tapajos branch of the Amazon, gravitating around the city of Santarem, where a harbour for bulk carriers (shipping grains and ore) is seeking planning permission, further opening up this area of the rainforest to development. This project has also come under attack by the local MPF and MFE (Federal and State Prosecutors), for inconsistencies in the environmental assessment and for a lack of consultation of the local populations (as occurred in Belo Monte). Around 40 large hydrolectric dams are planned or under construction in the region, for more than 30 MW of installed capacity. The largest will be Sao Luiz do Tapajos, with 4,000 MW of average capacity, nearly as much as Belo Monte (5,000 MW is the likely output, as 11,000 maximum capacity is not likely to be achieved consistently if at all). The first environmental assessment was submitted in August 2014, but IBAMA is not yet satisfied with it and has asked for an additional assessment to be carried out (4)
This is a good time for Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to visit Brazil (7-17 March). A previous visit of her predecessor took place in August 2008. Her report will be issued to the UN and to the Brazilian government in September 2016 (5). Hopefully her presence and report will put pressure on Brazil to change its attitude and readdress its current “development” policies, which effectively ignore any environmental consideration, and therefore the needs of indigenous people, who depend on the Amazon being preserved as an intact ecosystem.