Judiciary, Rousseff on collision course

Sept. 29, 2011 at 6:29 PM
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BRASILIA, Brazil, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Brazil's judiciary and government are on a collision course as debate over a multibillion-dollar giant dam heats up.

Brazilians from a wide spectrum of political opinion don't want the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex, the government says it is essential to the Latin American country advancing toward a prosperous future. Campaigners and critics of the giant dam projects aren't convinced.

In the latest tussle between the executive, environmental campaigners and the judiciary, a judge ordered a halt to the construction of what promises to be a giant dam in the thick of Amazonian forest.

Officials argue the dam will catapult the region into the 21st century, the critics see it sinking precious and unique fauna and flora in vast lakes to be created by dams.

The Belo Monte dam is being built despite 30 years of campaigning by opponents who say the "monster" project will displace 30,000 minority people and destroy ecology of the Amazonian forest. The project is estimated to cost $17 billion.

The protesters, who includes "Avatar" director James Cameron, argue that devastation from the dam will be widespread along a 60-mile stretch of the river. Supporters say 11 gigawatts a year of electricity to be produced by the 3.7-mile dam by 2015 will help modernize the region and wrest residents out of poverty.

Norte Energia, a Brazilian consortium in charge of the project, is clearing about 238 hectares of forest along the Amazonian tributary Xingu. The dam is likely to flood a 193-square-mile area and partially dry up the Xingu River. Further licenses for actual construction are yet to be granted.

The Norte Energia consortium is made up of the state-run utility Eletrobras, Brazilian pension fund Petros and several local construction companies. Although it was initially opposed by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva he became a strong supporter and was backed up by newly elected President Dilma Rousseff.

Critics counter officials' claim that Brazil needs the additional electricity generation capacity. They cite huge instances of electricity wastage across the country which, if properly addressed, will obviate the need for additional capacity with disastrous results for the Amazonian environment.

Brazilian judges have indicated on many occasions they favor the environmentalist campaign groups and individuals -- or just ordinary folk committed to preserving the natural environment in unspoiled regions, including the Amazonian forests.

In the latest judicial intervention, ostensibly in favor of a fisheries group, Judge Carlos Castro Martins barred any work that would interfere with the natural flow of the Xingu river. The Belo Monte dam would do exactly that when built.

The fight isn't over because the government says the dam is crucial to meeting Brazil's growing energy needs.

The 11,000-megawatt dam is to be the third biggest in the world after the Three Gorges in China and Itaipu on the Parana River which is jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay.

Martins barred Norte Energia from a range of activities involved with the dam construction. The ban covers any moves toward building canals or a port, using explosives, installing dike or carrying out any other infrastructure work that would interfere with the natural flow of the Xingu and affect the local fish stock.

The consortium behind the project will likely appeal the decision, pitting the government against a judiciary that is responding to the growing public opposition to the dam project.

In June, the Brazilian environment agency Ibama backed the construction, dismissing concerns by environmentalists and indigenous groups that the darn will harm the world's largest tropical rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people.

Ibama said the project was subjected to "robust analysis" of its impact on the environment before given the go-ahead. Critics dismiss the claim, saying the government, its agencies and the business community are all determined to go ahead with the construction irrespective public opposition.

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