Friday, 14 September 2012

When Clean Energy Is Not Enough

The world's appetite for clean energy has never been so great.  Global warming, with its shadow of impending doom, is largely to blame for this obsession with alternative energy.  And rightly so.   But the world should not miss the forest for the trees in its glorious pursuit of (green) happiness.  Though clean energy is a commendable solution to meet our growing demand for energy, other environmental issues should not be sacrificed in the process.

And that is essentially what a federal court in Brazil avoided last week when it suspended the construction of potentially the world's third largest hydroelectric dam (the "Bel Monte dam") for failure to consult with indigenous communities in the Amazon region.  The federal court's decision stated that the Brazilian Congress acted illegally in giving the green light for the project without consulting with indigenous tribes living in the area.  As this renders the project's environmental license invalid, the consortium conducting the project is liable to a daily fine of 500,000 Brazilian reais (US$247,500) if construction continues.

Brazil has one of the world's most diversified energy matrices. According to Brazilian government data, 45.3% of its energy is generated from renewable sources, such as water, biomass, ethanol, wind and solar sources.  Hydroelectric power plants, such as the would-be Bel Monte dam, generate over 75% of the electricity used in Brazil.   As the Amazon region depends heavily on fossil fuels for energy, the Brazilian government is adamant on pressing ahead with the Bel Monte project to make the region more self-sufficient.

Brazil is also home to almost half a million indigenous people, whose ancestors pre-date Brazil's European discovery by the Portuguese in 1500.  If construction of the dam goes ahead, approximately 500 square kilometers of land along the Xingu River in the Amazon would be flooded.  According to official government estimates, this would displace some 16,000 people, with environmentalists putting the number much higher at 40,000.  The project may also adversely affect large areas of the rainforest and fish stocks upon which indigenous people depend on.

In his ruling, the judge noted the consortium's failure to follow an international law known as the International Labor Organization Convention No. 169 ("the ILO Convention"), ratified by Brazil in 2002, which demands consultations of tribal and indigenous people, before work can commence in areas that may affect them.  The Convention seeks to protect tribal peoples' right to, amongst other things, own the land they live on and to make decisions about projects that may ultimately have an adverse impact on their lives.

The court's decision comes as a surprise given that Brazil's Solicitor-General recently signed a directive that opens up all indigenous lands to mineral, dams, roads, military bases and other developments of "national interest' without the need to consult with or address concerns of indigenous people.  Not only is the directive in clear violation of the ILO Convention, but it has also been described as "unconstitutional" by Brazil's Public Prosecutor's Office.

Ultimately, the court's decision may do little to prevent the construction of the Bel Monte dam.  The consortium may appeal and win.  Alternatively, the Brazilian Congress may expedite consultations with indigenous tribes to satisfy procedural requirements.  The decision highlights inherent tensions in environmental policies that seek to promote clean energy to sustain economic growth on one hand, and sustainable development on the other. Decision-makers are caught in the middle by having to engage in a balancing act that may not always produce the best results, nor protect the most valuable interests.
"The fundamental question that Brazilians must re-examine is not merely how to balance different stakeholder interests, but how do we deal with our growing energy consumption" says Kamila Guimaraes De Moraes, a Brazilian environmental lawyer and Capes Foundation researcher at The Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.

The development of clean forms of energy is a worthwhile pursuit as the world struggles to tame global warming.  But it may not have the impact we so eagerly anticipate if it is not accompanied by a more fundamental -- cultural -- change. That is, recalibrating our hunger for energy writ-large.  Any other solution is likely to merely treat the symptoms of a problem that can arguably only be resolved by an etiological solution.  Says Ms. Guimaraes: "We must therefore reassess our way of life."

Originally published on OpEdNews

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