Responding to a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Brazilian government refused on Tuesday to suspend construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon. Last Friday the commission had requested that the Brazilian government stop the dam’s licensing process until it had addressed the concerns of environmental and indigenous groups who filed a petition against the dam in February. The move is the latest in a long-standing battle between the Brazilian government and environmental and human rights activists, including Hollywood notable James Cameron, Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar of California and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the IACHR’s demands were “premature and unjustified,” and that the dam project was “strictly adhering to all relevant standards for construction.”
The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which will be the world’s third-largest—after the Three Gorges dam in China and Itaipu, jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay—will extend 3.75 miles long and divert the flow of the Xingu River in Brazil’s northern Pará state. Environmental groups say it would flood close to 200 square miles of virgin rainforest, displacing up to 50,000 indigenous residents and releasing large quantities of methane gas, causing irreparable damage to the environment.
The Brazilian government, which estimates the number of displaced people to be much lower, says the dam is crucial for economic development and for upgrading Brazil’s energy infrastructure. It says the dam will create thousands of local jobs and, by the time it becomes fully operational in 2015, provide electricity to 23 million homes. Brazil currently uses hydroelectric power for than 80 percent of its energy needs.
Construction of the dam, expected to cost between $11 and $17 billion, has been stymied since it was first proposed in the 1990s. After a drawn-out bidding process, a contract for construction was awarded to the nine-company Norte Energia consortium in April of last year. Licenses for the actual building of the dam have yet to be granted, but the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama gave the go-ahead to clear land for it in January. Last month a Brazilian higher court lifted a lower-court order suspending construction based on environmental concerns.