Brazil's environmental agency gave final approval on Wednesday, June 1, for a giant hydroelectric power plant in the Amazon rain forest that has been at the centre of a protracted battle between the government and environmentalists over the fate of indigenous people.

After three decades of planning, the environmental agency, Ibama, granted a license to the North Energy consortium for the dam, which will be the world's third largest, capable of producing 11,200 megawatts of electricity.

Opponents said they would not give up the fight against the Belo Monte dam, which they said would flood a large part of the Xingu River basin, affecting local fishing and forcing tens of thousands of indigenous people from their native lands.

“We will not cede an inch,” said Antônia Melo, the coordinator of Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, a group based in Altamira, a city that will be partly flooded. “Our indignation and our strength to fight only increases with every mistake and every lie of this government.”

Belo Monte became a priority for the previous government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who contended that the plant was critical to Brazil's future energy needs. His successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has remained committed to the project.

‘Robust technical analysis'

The license was granted by the environmental agency after “robust technical analysis,” the government said in a news release. The North Energy consortium will pay $1.9 billion for “social-environmental measures,” to help people affected by the dam's construction and to offset environmental effects, an agency spokeswoman said. The government itself has committed $314 million, she said.

Conservationists have become increasingly critical of Brazil's efforts to protect the Amazon rain forest. Brazil's deforestation numbers increased sharply over the past nine months, and the lower house of Congress last week approved a revision of the Forest Code that would open up protected areas to deforestation while granting amnesty to agribusiness developers for previous forest-clearing. The Senate has yet to vote on the measure.

“The government has an important choice — to go back to a future of wasteful publicly funded mega-projects and frontier chaos, or ahead, to the future of a sustainable and equitable green economy leader, with rule of law, good governance and a secure natural and investment environment,” said Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund.

‘Spells disaster'

The $17 billion dam, which is expected to start producing electricity in 2015, would divert the Xingu River along a 62-mile stretch in Pará State. Environmental groups say it will flood more than 120,000 acres of rain forest and settlements, displacing 20,000 to 40,000 people and releasing large quantities of methane. The Ibama spokeswoman put the number of displaced people at 20,000 but insisted that no indigenous people would be removed from their lands.

“This is a tragic day for the Amazon,” said Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch. “Despite all the promises the dam builders are making around mitigation and compensation, this dam is going to spell disaster for the local people.” (Myrna Domit contributed reporting.) — © New York Times News Service