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Problems and Purpose
Public hearings were carried out by the Brazilian Government as a consultative mechanism in the licensing process for construction of the Belo Monte Dam.
Background History and Context
Hydropower accounts for about 16 percent of the world’s electricity, but more than 70 percent in Latin America. Brazil is one of the countries that has great hydroelectric potential due its immense territory covered with large rivers from south to north. Despite often being identified as a source of “clean energy," the potential environmental and social damages related to the construction of dams must be taken into account if we want to have a better look at the broader picture.
Belo Monte Dam is a gigantic hydro power plant intended to generate 11.233,1 Megawatts (MW) of energy to supply the growing demand of the country’s industry. Once finished it will be, therefore, the third largest dam in the world . It is located in thecity of Altamira, at the state of Pará, more specifically close to the famous Xingu River and the Xingu National Park.
Its origins date back to the early 1970s during the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985), when the government began to consider the Amazon as a strategic region for national defense and a reservoir of immense natural resources that should be exploited as much as possible. In accordance with that vision of national economic development, the country would need energy to supply the demands of a growing industry. The military governments started to build both Tucurí and Itaipúhydropower plants during the 1970’s, the latter now being the largest Brazilian dam.The dam, at this time namedKararaô (ironically, a battle cry of the Kayapo people, one of the most affected by the dam), was conceived as part of a broader plan to explore the Xingu River Basin .
During the first audiences in 1989, the Kaiapó people was successful blocking the plans of the Sarney government to build the Kararaô dam. Since then, the project was in standby mode until it has come back during the first years of the second term of Lula da Silva’s government. Renamed after Belo Monte, the former Kararaô dam was targeted as one of the strategic projects of the PAC 1 (acronym for Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento), a governmental package of billionaires’ investments on infrastructureproposed by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party). Since 2009, the construction of the dam has been subject to a controversial debate, involving the Brazilian government, environmentalists, indigenous social movements and attracted a lot of international attention .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
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Participant Recruitment and Selection
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Methods and Tools Used
Broadly speaking, public hearings can be defined as an administrative expedient to facilitate the dialogue between the government and other relevant social actors to enhance transparency, legitimacy and input of information, increasing the quality of the democracy .
The Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988 identifies public hearings as a preferred means to enable popular participation on contentious issues. Public hearings can be applied to law projects, design and implementation of public policies (as well as the evaluation of their outcomes), environmental damages that may occur during and after the construction of any huge infrastructural project, etc. Public hearings can be called by the executive power for all its branches and agencies, the legislative power and the Ministério Público (Public Ministry), at both the state and federal level of governance.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
There were four public hearings conducted as part of the licensing processes required to the analysis of the dam’s viability . They were carried out within six days in September 2009 in the cities of Brasil Novo, Vitória do Xingu, Altamira and Belém, the capital of Pará state.
The main criticism went around the fact that the EIA (Environmental Impact Report) was available to its participants just two days before of the meetings, which left little room for a carefully considerations of its findings and proposals. The Ministério Público Federal than suggested the Brazilian Institute of Enviroment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to promote more 13 public hearings to hear the affected communities, which was not executed.
The judicial battle over the viability of Belo Monte and the potential damages to the natives groups of Xingu and the biodiversity of the area is still on the Brazilian political agenda. The more recent developments includes a suspension of the construction by the Federal Court of Altamira, asking for the complete fulfilling of the requirements to mitigate its impacts .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Public hearings have been an increasing practice of state agencies and legislatures in order to receive input of the population targeted by a specific public policy or of the civil society more broadly. Nevertheless, it is hard to measure the effectiveness of the public hearings as consultation mechanisms that are able to provide empowered space for groups directly affected by huge infrastructural projects such as Belo Monte.
With just few exceptions , there is still little empirical analysis about the case here discussed. Thus, a more general overview of media coverage and the numerous reports made by NGO’s and even by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  show concerns regarding the failure of the Brazilian government to address the claims spelled out by the natives groups of Xingu.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The public hearings are institutional mechanisms that are supposed to increase the participation of concerned people affected by contentious policies, a piece of legislation or a potentially damage or displacement caused by huge infrastructure projects. However, the analysis of the case of Belo Monte Dam shows the shortcomings of this participatory device and lead us to reflect on some points that is worth considering:
- The “low intensity”  of the public hearings as a valid method of consultation of natives groups. What is the real possibilities for them to have their voices heard? Do the natives groups have any capacity to change crucial features of the project? Is a public hearing the most adequate institutional mechanism to consult those groups? If not, what could change on it to achieve its stated goals? Moreover, it is not trivial to think on all the cultural specificities involved on consultations with aboriginal peoples, issues related to the language used, values at stake and spiritual beliefs that should be taken into account when there is this kind of consultation;
- Directly related to the previous point, stands out the fact that the Brazilian government still had not regulated the provision of the 169 ILO Convention and the 1988’s Brazilian Constitution related to the previous consultation of indigenous peoples. It seems implausible, to the date, that there will be any further advances on this issue on the coming years;
- In a historical perspective, the failure of the consultations with native groups through public hearings inscribes itself within the historical pattern of the relationships between them and the Brazilian state, marked by a more technocratic rather than political approach.
The growing criticism of the civil society on the “Belo Monstro”, “Belo Monte de Problemas!”, “Belo Monte de Violações” (as some indigenous activists call the Belo Monte dam) and the international pressure to stop its construction seem to have little impact on it to the date.
Oliveira, João Pacheco de; Cohn, Clarice João Pacheco de Oliveira e Clarice Cohn (Orgs.). Belo Monte e a questão indígena; Brasília - DF: ABA, 2014.
Eliane Brum’s articles to El País: http://brasil.elpais.com/autor/eliane_brum/a
Vítimas de uma guerra amazônica: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2015/09/22/politica/1442930391_549192.html
Belo Monte: a anatomia de um genocídio: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2014/12/01/opinion/1417437633_930086.html
O dia em que a casa foi expulsa de casa: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2015/09/14/opinion/1442235958_647873.html
Belo Monte, empreiteira e espelhinhos: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2015/07/06/opinion/1436195768_857181.html
Diálogos sobre o fim do mundo: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2014/09/29/opinion/1412000283_365191.html
A não gente que não vive no tapajós: http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2014/09/15/opinion/1410784316_802493.html
Amazon dams keeps the lights on but could hurt fish, forests: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150419-amazon-dams-hydroelectric-deforestation-rivers-brazil-peru/#.Vo3dCXfISFA.facebook
Belo Monte dam suspended by high Brasilian court: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/258/belo-monte-dam-suspended-by-high-brazilian-court
Instituto Socioambiental (Brazilian NGO): https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br
Was Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam a Bad Idea? http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2014/03/07/was-brazils-belo-monte-dam-a-bad-idea/#3515c10915c0
The first version of this entry was written by Leonardo de Souza Barros, UFMG, Brazil.
Lead image: Lalo de Almeida "Public hearing for the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon, one of the most controversial Brazilian projects. The proposed “PEC 65” constitutional amendment violates fundamental human rights acquired by the Brazilian society, including those of indigenous and other traditional groups, of participating in environmental decision-making." https://goo.gl/7uQoo1