Work begins on the world's most controversial dam

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With the focus of most Brazilians on their most famous holiday (Carnival), construction work on the world's most controversial dam project quietly began.

According to a blog posted by Norte Energia, the consortium heading the Belo Monte Dam project, infrastructure works on roads that will provide access to the dam site began on March 7.

The dam across Brazil’s Xingu River (a major tributary of the Amazon) is expected to cost 20 billion reals (£7 billion) and is scheduled to be operational on December 31, 2014.  It is expected to be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border.  

The 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte Dam was conceived 35 years ago during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but the plans were shelved when they sparked a huge public opposition.

After 13 years of redesign, the plan to build the dam was revived in 2002.  Last August, a contract to build the dam was finally signed between the Brazilian government and Norte Energia. According to the Brazilian government, the dam is badly needed to keep up with the soaring domestic energy demand.

The planned construction of the dam has met with vociferous opposition both within and without the country for the massive environmental damage that is expected to result.

The dam is expected to alter nearly all of the Xingu River’s flow over a significant stretch, and will flood about 400 square km (about 100,000 acres) of jungle.  At the same time, about 20,000 people living in the area will be displaced and vast quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, will be released once the dam is operational.

Brazil’s environmental agency (IBAMA) finally granted a partial installation license for Norte Energia to clear about 2.5 square km (about 600 acres) of jungle for the Belo Monte Dam in late January, but a federal court in Para state presided by judge Ronaldo Destêrro ruled a month later that IBAMA had erred in allowing construction to begin, citing the failure to comply with social and environmental pre-requirements for the project.  

In another twist to the increasingly heated legal and political battle surrounding the project, the president of a federal regional court in Brasilia, Olindo Menezes, overturned Destêrro’s ruling on March 5, thus paving the way for construction to finally begin.

The site of the Belo Monte Dam includes most or all of the known distribution of some well-known aquarium fish species such as the Zebra plec (Hypancistrus zebra) and the Sunshine plec (Scobinancistrus aureatus). The effects on the fish populations of the vast alteration of hydrological regime brought about by the dam remain unstudied, but they are not expected to be benign.