A Lifetime of Injustice - the History of the Belo Monte Dam

The Brazilian government is currently constructing what would be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project on one of the Amazon’s major tributaries, the Xingu River. The Belo Monte Dam would divert the flow of the Xingu, devastate an extensive area of the Brazilian rainforest, displace over 20,000 people, and threaten the survival of indigenous tribes that depend on the river.

Fraught with corruption and global protests, the Belo Monte project has a long and complicated history. This timeline outlines key moments and developments from the beginning.

Plans Begin for the Kararão Dam Complex

Plans to dam the Xingu River are first proposed in the 1970s during the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil. The plans for what is originally called the Kararão Dam Complex consist of six dams throughout the Xingu basin (five dams on the Xingu River and one on the Iriri River). The reservoirs of these dams would directly flood indigenous territories and thousands of kilometers of protected forest.

Survey Work Begins for the Babaquara (Altamira) Dam

The initial survey is undertaken for one of the proposed six dams, the Babaquara Dam, later renamed the Altamira Dam.

Eletrobras Creates the "2010 Plan"

The Brazilian electric company Eletrobras produces a massive plan in 1987, known as the “2010 Plan,” providing information on dams expected to be built throughout Brazil by the year 2010 as well as listing other plans for dams without a projected date of completion. The 2010 Plan first leaks to the public and is later officially released in December 1987. The official plan lists 297 dams to be built throughout the entirety of the country, 79 of which are planned for Amazonia. According to the plan, the Kararão (later renamed Belo Monte) Dam is scheduled for completion by 2000 with the Babaquara (later renamed Altamira) Dam scheduled for construction by 2005.

The First Encounter of Indigenous Peoples Takes Place in Altamira

Initial proposals to dam the Xingu River give rise to strong opposition from indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and other social movements, culminating in the first “Encounter of Indigenous Peoples in Altamira” in February of 1989. Following the five-day televised meeting between indigenous tribal leaders and officials of Eletronorte (an Eletrobras subsidiary), the World Bank confirms its withdrawal of the half-billion dollar loan meant for funding the construction of the Xingu dams, effectively burying the Kararaô Dam project for a time. Subsequently, Eletronorte announces the removal of dams upstream of Belo Monte from the 2010 plan and that it will undertake a “resurvey of the fall” on the Xingu River, presented in such a way to imply that upstream dams (including Altamira/Babaquara) would not be built. However, this “resurvey” only refers to the remeasurement of topography along the river, perhaps affecting the location, height and engineering specifics of each dam, but in no way signifies that Eletronorte is abandoning its dam construction plans or that the same areas of forest and indigenous land would not be flooded. Eletronorte does agree to change the name of the Kararaô to Belo Monte, as “Kararaô” is a Kaiapó word of spiritual significance, which the tribe did not wish appropriated.

Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex is Born

After relevant geographic and technical modifications are made, the project is re–baptized once again, this time as the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex, referring to the engineering works for the first dam on the "Big Bend" of the lower Xingu River. Eletronorte argues that Belo Monte project will be feasible even as an "isolated" dam on the Xingu.

Babaquara Dam Suddenly Reappears

The Babaquara Dam suddenly reappears as a new dam with a new name, the Altamira Dam scheduled for completion in 2013, when it is listed in in a table of key future dams in the Eletrobras 1999–2008 decennial plan. Since then, the 6588 megawatt (MW) Altamira/Babaquara Dam has quietly crept into official presentations of plans. The 2005 federal budget of Brazil included funds for an improved viability study of the Altamira/Babaquara Dam, confirming the dam’s priority in current plans for hydroelectric development on the Xingu River. The remaining four dams, namely the Ipixuna (1900 MW), Kakraimoro (1490 MW), Iriri (770 MW), and Jarina (620 MW) dams are largely absent from public discussion, although the continued activity of Eletronorte engineers in the locations in question indicates that this lack of visibility does not mean that the plans have been abandoned. Most importantly, neither Eletrobras nor any other government authorities involved have promised to give up building these dams—only to postpone these projects until a later decision can be made.

New Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is Commissioned

At the end of 2000, Eletronorte signs a contract with FADESP, a foundation linked to the Federal University of Pará state, through which research teams are formed to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The conditions of this contract procedure, carried out without competitive bidding, and the attempt to obtain an environmental license for Belo Monte at the state level, rather than at the federal level, lead the Federal Public Ministry (Attorney General’s office) to file suit. Also in question were both Eletronorte’s failure to consult with indigenous populations who would be affected by the project as well as the lack of special congressional authorization of such studies in projects affecting indigenous peoples, both effectively contravening constitutional requirements (as per article 231). Eletronorte continues to try to dodge these requirements after redesigning the project.

Eletronorte References Additional Dams Upstream

At various times throughout the 2001–2004 period, the presidents of Eletronorte refer to plans for the construction of a second dam, the Altamira, just upstream of Belo Monte. The Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, in its public presentations on plans for expansion of the electric energy sector in the Amazon region, makes reference to Altamira along with Belo Monte.

EIA Suspended

Legal decisions in 2001 and 2002 stemming from the lawsuit by the Public Ministry result in the suspension of the EIA and the licensing process.

Belo Monte Plans Redesigned

Eletrobras and the Brazilian government, along with Brazilian oil and gas conglomerate Odebrecht, create a new design for the Belo Monte Dam. This new design calls for the construction of three dams (Belo Monte, Pimental, and Bela Vista), a series of large dikes, as well as two large canals to divert 80% of the Xingu river into an artificial reservoir. While no indigenous territory would be flooded, the Xingu River would be severely dewatered in a 100 square kilometer area home to three indigenous territories, potentially damaging indigenous tribal livelihoods.

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