Sunday, March 25, 2012

Belo Monte nearly bankrupts the OAS?

Interesting tidbit pops up in this week’s edition of Semana, Colombia’s premier news magazine. The Organization of American States came close to running out of cash at the end of last year, with December’s paychecks hanging delicately in limbo as the agency struggled to with a growing deficit. Finally OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza managed to scrape together $3.5 billion that kept the group afloat.

As per Semana:

To achieve this, Insulza had to tap his diplomatic abilities and convince Brazil, one of the organization’s 34 members, to pay some of its back quotas. This was not easy. As of a year ago, the Brazilian representative does not go to meetings and the country froze its contributions in response to the ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which said Brazil should stop work on enormous Belo Monte dam that will force 50,000 peasants and indigenous people to abandon their land.

I’ve seen the conflict over this dam bring in the likes of Hollywood celebrities as well as protests around the world, but I’ve never seen this level of actual fall-out.

Brazil has gotten pretty sensitive to criticism about this one. Belo Monte, an 11,233 megawatt behemoth to be built on a tributary of the Amazon, is a hold-over from dictatorship era plans that included the creation of five different dams. Back then it was considered OK to flood huge areas to create reservoirs, which actually turn out to be a marvelous way to store energy that give Brazil a leg up when it comes to wind power (though exactly how “clean” Brazil’s hydrower is has become a matter of some debate). Belo Monte was designed without a reservoir, but will still flood a large area and push quite a few people off their land.

I can understand where Dilma and her people are coming from on this one. It’s a growing country with a growing need for electricity. But this project is such an absurd boondoggle that it’s hard to understand why Brasilia is so tenaciously clinging to a project that is such a bad idea for so many reasons.

For one, the protests and vows by activists and environmentalists to block progress at every step of the way ensure delays will abound (the 2010 auction that gave way to the project was suspended twice in the space of several hours by court injunctions that were issued, overturned, then issued again), meaning its start date will likely get pushed back over and over again. Meanwhile the government has set such a low price for the power to be produced there, part of an eternal effort to keep power artificially cheap, that the return on investment of the project is considered to be negative. Private contractors bowed out of the project, leaving state-run Eletrobras and its subsidiaries putting in most of the investment, along with mining giant Vale as part of its eternal quest to suck up to the government.

I wonder how much more of stink this project is going to create. And I wonder if the OAS will ever say anything again.

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