Brazil Gives Green Light to 'Monster Dam'

Brazil's environment agency gave final approval this week for the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, an immense hydroelectric station that has become a cause celebre in Hollywood.

The dam is slated for construction on the Xingu River in the midst of the Amazon rainforest and upstream from a national park that is home to indigenous groups.

The dam project, in planning for 30 years, has stirred opposition among environmentalists and celebrities, including the singer Sting and Hollywood director James Cameron, who compared the conflict to a "real life" version of his film Avatar. Earlier this year, 20 Brazilian scientific societies, including the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science and the Brazilian Anthropology Association, wrote to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff opposing the dam, saying it would violate the human rights of indigenous groups.

Cameron produced a video entitled "Message from Pandora" criticizing the plan.

Brazil's environmental agency, Ibama, issued a license to the consortium Norte Energia SA on Wednesday to begin construction of the dam, which is expected to cost $16 billion and would flood 199 square miles of forest.

Indigenous groups say the dam would trample civil rights and signals an "authoritarian" approach by Brazil's government. "The government seeks to build this dam at any cost in order to benefit corporate interests at our expense," said Antônia Melo, a spokeswoman for the Xingu Alive Forever Movement.

Designers say the 3.7-mile-wide dam, slated for completion in 2015, would be able to produce over 11,233 MW of energy, ranking it as the third largest in the world. BBC provides a detailed map of the dam.

Brazil derives over 80% of its electrical power from hydro power, putting the country in the top ranks of users of renewable energy. In a statement, Brazil's government said "with the Belo Monte Dam, Brazil takes an important step to maintain its hydro-based electricity mix, one of the most clean and renewable in the world."

The dam is one of several large hydro projects being built on tributaries of the Amazon River that are expected to damage pristine regions.

Belo Monte is expected to lower water levels in the Xingu River and affect indigenous groups who depend on the river for fishing. An analysis by anti-dam campaigners predicts 40,000 people could be displaced by the dam. Brazil's government estimated the number of displaced at 20,000.

The project's approval indicates that Brazil's government is supporting development in the region despite vocally emphasizing environmental concerns in terms of the Amazon. Last week, deputies in Brasília passed a draft version of a new forest code that environmentalists say would condone further deforestation. During the last week, three environmental campaigners have been killed in the Amazon.

Opponents said they would continue to oppose what they call the "monster dam." In a press release, the group Amazon Watch said the dam would also release vast amounts of methane, a global warming gas, offsetting environmental benefits.