Environmentalists aided by Avatar director James Cameron celebrated a big win on Thursday after a judge suspended bidding on construction and operation of an Amazon dam that would be the planet’s third-largest.
The ruling also resulted in the suspension of the hydroelectric project’s environmental license. It was reminiscent of 1989, when rock star Sting protested the same dam alongside Indians in an event that helped persuade international lenders not to finance it at a time when Brazil was shuddering under a heavy foreign debt.
The administration of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is promising to appeal, however, and Brazil, with government reserves of US$240 billion, has such a booming economy that it no longer needs money from abroad to build the US$11 billion Belo Monte dam.
Environmental groups and Amazon Indians “are incredibly energized by this decision and have renewed hope, although no one is naive,” said Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch. “Everyone recognizes that in Brazil, a decision like this could be overturned quickly, and that we haven’t won the battle yet.”
Speaking on Thursday to an environmental panel in Washington, Cameron said the Belo Monte dam “is a very, very important pivotal battleground” because it will set the stage for the development of 60 more dams.
Actress Sigourney Weaver, who starred in Avatar and traveled with Cameron to Brazil, welcomed the dam delay, but she warned of a long fight ahead.
“We haven’t stopped it; we postponed it,” Weaver said. “There needs to be more dialogue and the indigenous people need to be included.”
Increasing international condemnation won’t reverse Brazilian policymakers’ view that the dam is essential to provide a huge injection of renewable energy, said Christopher Garman, director of Latin American analysis at the Eurasia Group in Washington.
“This dam is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when it happens,” Garman said.
Brazil has a fragile energy grid that was hit last year by a blackout that darkened much of the nation. Belo Monte would supply 6 percent of the country’s electricity needs by 2014, the same year Brazil will host soccer’s World Cup and just two years before Rio de Janeiro holds the 2016 Olympics.
Soltani disagreed that the construction of the 11,000-megawatt dam is inevitable, saying Cameron’s involvement was a major advance and attracted attention that could “create pressure on the [Silva] administration and on the Brazilian public, and hopefully will encourage the Brazilian public to take a stand.”
Neither Silva nor top administration officials commented on Wednesday night’s court ruling, but the president made it clear just before the decision was made public that he believes the dam is necessary to meet skyrocketing electricity demand in the nation of more than 190 million. He also took on the project’s critics, both domestic and foreign.
“No one worries more about taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we do,” Silva said in a speech in Sao Paulo.
Without mentioning Cameron by name, Silva said people from developed nations should not lecture Brazil on the environment because those countries mowed down their own forests long ago.
“We don’t need those who already destroyed [what they had] to come here and tell us what to do,” he said.
Responding to the criticism, Cameron said he was saying to those affected by the dam: “I am from your future to tell you what you are going to be like and you are not going to like it.”
Bidding had been scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but the judge said more time was needed to examine claims that Indians were not consulted about the project and that insufficient environmental protections were put in place.
Government lawyers were analyzing the decision and would file an appeal soon, according to a spokeswoman for the solicitor general’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity due to department policy.
The director of Avatar and Titanic spent two days this week visiting Indian villages near the proposed dam site on the Xingu River, which feeds the Amazon, and talking with about 50 leaders of various groups.
Along with Weaver, Cameron also joined a protest in the capital of Brasilia, calling the fight against the project a “real-life Avatar” battle.
Avatar depicts the fictitious Na’vi race fighting to protect its homeland, the forest-covered moon Pandora, from plans to extract its resources. The movie has struck a chord with environmentalists from China, where millions have been displaced by major infrastructure projects, to Bolivia, where Bolivian President Evo Morales praised its message of saving nature from exploitation.
Environmentalists and indigenous groups say Belo Monte would devastate wildlife and the livelihoods of 40,000 people who live in the area to be flooded. They also argue that the energy generated by the dam will largely go to big mining operations, instead of benefiting most Brazilians.
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