Brazilian President Lula da Silva signed Thursday the contracts for the Norte Energia consortium to start construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam in the Amazon basin.
Environmental and social organizations oppose the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, which they believe will have disastrous consequences for the region around the town of Altamira in the Amazonian state of Para.
The contract gives the consortium of 18 firms and investment and pension funds the right to exploit for 35 years the energy potential of the plant, set on the Xingu river.
The facility is scheduled to begin operating by 2015, becoming the third-largest of its kind in the world, while the construction will generate around 20,000 jobs, according to the Brazilian Mining and Energy Ministry.
The government stressed that the original project has been changed to ease its environmental impact, and that the dam associated with the plant has been reduced by 60% so that it does not require flooding areas currently held by indigenous communities.
Despite such assurances, the ceremony attracted protests from a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the presidential palace in Brasilia. On their placards, protesters changed the name from Belo Monte (Beautiful Hill) to Belo Monstro (Beautiful Monster) as a satire against the plant.
Demonstrators issued a letter signed by 56 religious, social and environmental organizations including the Roman Catholic Church. The text says the plant will be a death sentence for the Xingu River and will displace thousands of people from their homes.
International agreements are being violated, like Convention 169 of the World Labour Organization, the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the letter charges.
It notes that the plant is the object of 15 lawsuits that contest the construction permit issued by the Environment Ministry.
The plant, with a capacity to generate 11,233 megawatts, is expected to cost an estimated 11 billion dollars and is the biggest project of Lula da Silva's infrastructure-based growth acceleration programme. But indigenous communities vowed earlier this year to wage war on the plant if it is built.
Belo Monte will dry 100 kilometres of the Xingu, a river which holds three times as many species as the whole of Europe and which feeds thousands of people, warned Raul Silva Telles of the non- governmental organization Instituto Socioambiental. ”In this area there are two indigenous tribes that feed on the river, drink from the river, bathe in the river and sail through the river”.