Belo Monte Dam Suspended by High Brazilian Court

By: 
Zachary Hurwitz
Federal Judge Souza Prudente of the Federal Tribunal in the Amazon region.
Federal Judge Souza Prudente of the Federal Tribunal in the Amazon region.
Photo courtesy of Agencia Brasil

Federal Judge Souza Prudente of the Federal Tribunal of Brazil's Amazon region suspended all work today on the Belo Monte Dam, invalidating the project's environmental and installation licenses. 

While the project has been suspended previously on numerous occasions, and those suspensions overturned on political grounds, this latest decision could have some legs. The decision breaks down in the following way:

  • The federal judge ruled that no consultations were held with indigenous people prior to Congress issuing Decree 788 in 2005, which effectively approved the Belo Monte Dam. Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution requires consultations to be held directly by the Congress prior to approval. In this case, approval was given three years before publication of the environmental impact assessment, and no consultations with indigenous peoples were ever carried out by the Brazilian Congress.
  • As a result, the project's environmental license (granted in 2010) and installation license (granted in 2011) are now considered invalid, meaning that no further work can continue on the dam.
  • Brazil's National Congress must hold a series of public hearings, or consultations, with the indigenous tribes that will be affected by Belo Monte. Only after such consultations occur and are considered satisfactory, must the Congress legislate a new approval for the dam.
  • The government and project consortium Norte Energia, S.A. can appeal to Brazil's Supreme Court, Brazil's Superior Court of Justice, the President of the Federal Tribunal, and Brazil's Attorney General, in the next 30 days. Since this is a constitutional matter, the appeal is likely to go to the Supreme Court. 

In a press conference given today late in Brasil, Souza Prudente stated that "only in a dictatorial regime does a government approve a project before holding consultations."

The decision supports the arguments that the affected tribes have been making over the lifetime of Belo Monte: tribes will face downstream livelihood impacts as a result of a reduction in the flow of the Xingu river on the 100-km stretch known as the Volta Grande or "Big Bend," and were never properly consulted, much less gave their consent.

In the words of the decision itself,

"installation will cause direct interference in the minimal ecological existence of the indigenous communities, with negative and irreversible impacts on their health, quality of life, and cultural patrimony, on the lands that they have traditionally occupied for time immemorial.  This requires the authorization of the National Congress after holding prior consultations with these communities, as deemed by law, under the penalty of suspension of the authorization, which has been granted illegally."

Beyond the fact that the Belo Monte Dam is now considered illegal by one of Brazil's higher courts, the fact is that Brazil doesn't need Belo Monte.  Economic rationale for the dam is based on a projected economic growth of 5% or more a year, but over the past few quarters, GDP has been lucky to grow at even a measily rate.  As far as Belo Monte's importance to Brazil's economic race, this is really a case of the horse following the wagon.

And, as illustrated by this historic court decision, the wagon has been trampling on indigenous people and their rights, along the way.

Update (August 15, 4pm PST): So far, the suspension of Belo Monte still stands.  However, last week, in another historic decision, the same federal court ordered the immediate suspension of one of five large dams planned for the Teles Pires river in the Teles Pires/Tapajós basin, given the lack of prior and informed consultations with the Kayabi, Apiakás and Munduruku indigenous peoples affected by the project.  Last night, the President of the court illegally overturned the decision of his fellow judges, highlighting a growing crisis within Brazil’s judiciary.  We need to keep up our work in support of indigenous people’ rights in the Teles Pires/Tapajos region, where the Dilma Rousseff administration is planning over a dozen large dams over the next decade.

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