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Malaysia's Bakun dam online but criticisms persist
by Staff Writers
Bakun Dam, Malaysia (AFP) Oct 27, 2011

Activists occupy site of huge Brazilian dam
Sao Paulo (AFP) Oct 27, 2011 - More than 400 activists on Thursday occupied the site of Brazil's $11 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, demanding that construction be halted on the controversial project in the heart of the Amazon.

"Everything was peaceful -- there were no guards or workers," a spokesman for the Indigenous Missionary Council, a group linked to the Catholic Church, told AFP.

The indigenous people and environmentalists at the site of what would be the third biggest dam in the world -- after China's Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu dam on the border of Brazil and Paraguay -- say they will stay indefinitely.

They are demanding a definitive halt to work on the project in western Para state, or at least a suspension of construction until local residents can be consulted, the spokesman said.

Construction on the Belo Monte dam -- which would produce more than 11,000 megawatts, or about 11 percent of Brazil's current installed capacity -- has been the subject of legal wrangling for decades.

A federal court ordered a halt to construction last month, which opponents had hailed as a "partial victory" pending a government appeal.

Environmentalists and Amazon Indian tribes say the dam will cause massive destruction of Brazilian fauna and flora in the area.

The project also has drawn international criticism, including from Oscar-winning movie director James Cameron of "Avatar" fame, who said rainforest indigenous tribes could turn to violence to block dam construction.

But the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has insisted the project should be allowed to go ahead, making it the centerpiece of government efforts to boost energy production in the rapidly growing economy.

The project is expected to employ 20,000 people directly in construction, flood an area of 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) along the Xingu river and displace 16,000 persons.

The government had pledged to minimize the environmental and social impact of the dam and asserted that no traditional indigenous land was to be affected.

The activists said they decided to occupy the site after Brazil refused to participate in a mediation session organized in Washington by the Organization of American States.

"The way our own government is treating us -- lying to us and refusing to engage in dialogue with the people affected -- is shameful," said Sheyla Juruna, of the Xingu Forever Alive movement.

The first turbine is spinning, electricity is pulsing out, and the water level is climbing in the Borneo jungle behind Malaysia's huge $2.2 billion Bakun hydroelectric dam.

But questions continue to swirl around the viability of a project described by critics as a graft-plagued human and ecological disaster -- and as opposition mounts against a dozen other planned dams in Sarawak state.

The first turbine from French giant Alstom began producing electricity in August and the dam's reservoir in the Malaysian portion of Borneo island has swelled to the size of Singapore since impoundment began a year ago.

After years of warnings about the impact on Sarawak's pristine jungles and the forced removal of thousands of local tribespeople, the dam's head Zulkifle Osman sees light at the end of the tunnel.

During a tour of the facility, the managing director of Sarawak Hidro who has overseen construction since 2000 defended the dam despite an electricity surplus in the state and the lack of a market for its power.

"It is a chicken-and-egg game," Zulkifle told AFP.

"I am confident there will be a lot of demand for electricity in Sarawak."

But dam opponents say the situation confirms warnings about Bakun as an ill-planned and unnecessary boondoggle.

The facility is located on the Balui River, a mighty waterway that drains a vast rainforested area of northern Borneo -- home to orangutan, spotted leopards, rare plants, and a renowned biodiversity.

The project was first approved in 1986 under then-premier Mahathir Mohamad as a cheap electricity source for more-developed peninsular Malaysia even though the country is a net oil and natural gas exporter.

But in a 2005 report, anti-graft watchdog Transparency International termed the dam one of the world's "Monuments of Corruption," citing years of delays, ownership changes, and overall costs that more than doubled.

"No users have made any legal written commitment for the usage of the energy," said Elli Luhat, a former Sarawak forestry official, now an environmental activist.

"I have a real fear that Bakun dam will one day become a white elephant."

Tribal residents say warnings about the dam's ecological and human impact are coming true.

Residents living in the shadow of the dam, one of the world's highest at 205 metres (673 ft), say the river's biodiversity has degenerated, fish catches have plunged, and once-clean waters smell foul and are unsafe to drink.

Silting has occurred, inhibiting navigation in the river, natives say.

Climbing into his boat in Uma Nyaving village about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Bakun, Kayan tribesman Richard Let complained of the thinning fish numbers.

"Now there is not enough for my family and the fish are small. The river is choking under silt and is making it difficult to fish with our boats," said Let, 31.

Downstream from the dam, nearly 12,000 indigenous Kayan, Kenyah, Ukit and Penan people live in traditional wooden longhouses in a resettlement area in the town of Sungai Asap. Their ancestal homes are now underwater.

They enjoy amenities unknown when they dwelt in the forest -- piped water, electricity, schools, Internet access and health services.

But Bulan Merang, 43, who moved to Sungai Asap 12 years ago, struggles to feed her eight children amid high food prices and new social strains.

"Children no longer respect their elders. Even my 21-year-old son says I am a useless woman whenever he gets drunk," she said.

The tribes, who previously grew rice and bananas and hunted wild boar, say their new land is infertile. Age-old hunting grounds are submerged and they must purchase staple foods.

"We were not dependent on money (before). Here everything is money," Bulan added.

Ironically, Sungai Asap's electricity comes not from Bakun but from a huge diesel-powered generator -- the dam's electricity is sent away on power lines criss-crossing the green terrain, headed to a state grid already at capacity.

Sarawak is rich in natural resources but poverty is rampant. Its leaders are keen to diversify from mining, agriculture and forestry and into high-tech industries and say ample power sources are needed to lure foreign investment.

"I am confident the power from Bakun will be taken up. MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) is working hard to get investors," Zulkifle said.

Zulkifle brushed aside concerns over the safety of Bakun, one of the world's largest rock-filled embankment dams, calling it "sound."

He said released water was treated to ensure it was clean and denied corruption allegations.

"All the money that is paid is audited. We are scrutinised," he said.

The dam was meant to help cut Malaysia's dependence on oil and gas for electricity generation. Up to 90 percent of output was to be sent to more industrialised peninsular Malaysia via undersea cables.

But economic downturns over the years forced protracted construction delays and shuffling of contractors, and the cable plan was shelved on cost concerns.

The Malaysian chapter of Friends of the Earth says nearly a quarter of electricity capacity in Sarawak already is unused, noting that the country as whole also has an electricity surplus.

The planned eight turbines will have a capacity of 2,400 megawatts when installed by 2014. Current Sarawak demand is 1,000 MW.

Then-finance minister Anwar Ibrahim suspended the Bakun dam and other big schemes in 1998 amid a regional financial crisis, angering Mahathir, who was known for backing grandiose projects.

It was revived in 1999 after Anwar was ousted in a falling-out with Mahathir, with Sarawak Hidro acquiring the project from original private Malaysian developer Ekran.

The dam's capacity remains far too much for Sarawak and only the undersea cable could salvage its viability, said Anwar, now opposition leader.

"Otherwise we will have a white elephant. Sarawak does not need all that power," he told AFP.

Despite the Bakun controversy, the state has plans for a dozen more dams, angering local tribes.

There are about 200 cases in Malaysian courts brought by indigenous people fighting state acquisition of their land for dams, timber concessions, or other developments.

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Brazil snub to OAS heightens row over dam
Brasilia, Brazil (UPI) Oct 26, 2011 -The Brazilian government's public snub to the Organization of American States, environmental groups and leaders of indigenous communities raised the stakes in the controversy over its plans for the world's third largest dam.

The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River in the northern state of Para is opposed by environmentalists who argue it will harm the pristine ecology of an Amazonian region and displace thousands of indigenous Brazilians, destroying their villages and settlements.

The government rejects those objections, saying the dam is needed to meet projected shortfalls in Brazil's energy needs and is vital for Brazil's economic growth. The Belo Monte will be the second-largest hydroelectric dam complex in Brazil, after the Itaipu Dam on the Brazilian-Paraguayan border, and the world's third-largest in installed capacity after the Three Gorges Dam in China.

At the OAS-sponsored meeting Wednesday in Washington, a Brazilian government delegation was to have met with the campaigners. Instead the government opted out and explained its boycott simply as an expression of its right to build the dam, leaving the critics demanding a more reasoned defense.

Opponents say the dam isn't needed because Brazil's energy needs can be met with a more efficient use of the existing national grid capacity.

The Belo Monte Dam's planned installed capacity of 11,233 megawatts would meet government targets to modernize the northern region and promote more industry there. Once connected to the grid, the dam's power generation capacity will be a boon to southern areas, where rapid industrialization is making demands on available electricity supplies.

Opponents say some of the demand can be met by cutting waste in the supply network. The critics also say the construction of the giant dam will open the way for other dams to be built along the northern rivers, with devastating consequences for the ecology and traditional indigenous communities.

Plans for the dam began in 1975 but were met with controversy. The plans were revived in the 1990s and new designs were ordered before the government in August 2010 signed a contract with Norte Energia after securing approval from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.

In January this year the government issued an installation license despite intense controversy but a federal judge on Feb. 25 ruled against the construction. The court's intervention didn't last long, however, and a higher court on March 3 overturned the federal judge's order.

The government issued the license to construct the dam on June 1 but a federal judge again blocked construction on Sept. 28.

The OAS got dragged into the controversy after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, one of its autonomous bodies, issued a public plea to the Brazilian government to halt work on the dam. The petition angered the Brazilian government, which rejected the commission's request. Part of the anger was caused over the commission's emphasis on the humanitarian impact of the dam and the threat to livelihood of thousands of indigenous people.

Before announcing the boycott, Brazilian Energy Minister Edison Lobao said it is the right of Brazil's government to decide if it wants the dam built. Campaigners have vowed to continue their protests.


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Brazil pulls out of OAS meet over Amazon dam dispute
Rio De Janeiro (AFP) Oct 24, 2011
Brazil will not take part in the annual meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington on Wednesday due to a dispute over a giant hydroelectric plant, said opponents of the scheme. "We received a statement from the permanent mission to to OAS on Friday evening and reports that Brazil will not be represented at the meeting," said lawyer Andressa Calgas, director of support group ... read more

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