A dead alligator is a victim of Belo Monte dam construction. Amazon rainforest is burned by Norte Energia, a company outsourced by Belo Monte to clear the area that will become a lake after the Belo Monte dam is built. Monkeys, sloths, and numerous other species are slaughtered as the rainforest is cleared. Photo: Márcio Isensee e Sá

By Ana Aranha; translated by Holly Holmes     
27 January 2016

(Upside Down World) – Source in Portuguese: Reporterbrasil.org

This report follow up on an earlier article by Ana Aranha, published by Upside Down World here.

Gliding through the waters of the Xingu River in Pará, between white sand beaches and four-story trees, the contrast is intense when the boat approaches an island shrouded in smoke. The ground, covered by a thin layer of white powder, is still hot. There are no trees standing. All that is visible are tree trunks transformed into coal and piles of dry branches. The wind stirs still-burning embers. In the center of the island, surrounded by the marks of the fire, lays a dead alligator.

The fire was no accident, and soon uniformed officers arrive equipped with fuel and torches. They spread the flames over the piles of dry vegetation. The orange-colored uniforms read: Belo Monte (see note at the end of the report). They are employees of Norte Energia, a company outsourced by Belo Monte to clear the area that will become a lake. The hydroeclectric plant has permission to deforest up to 43 thousand hectares, some of which falls within Permanent Protection Areas (APPs).

The burning was authorized by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), but it has been criticized by environmentalists, local residents, and public authorities. "The smoke harms the environment, and for this reason [burning] is prohibited by law," says Luiz Alberto Araújo, municipal secretary of the environment in Altamira, one of the municipalities where the plant is located. "Small farmers can't [set fires], but IBAMA gives the plant authorization. It's a double standard."

In theory, the authorization is only for burning twigs. The logs should be turned to sawdust and used. Instead, the report witnessed dozens of logs being burned and dozens more turned to ashes. On condition of anonymity, workers confirmed that the burning of logs is a standard procedure.

The report also visited islands where deforestation was taking place. Monkeys screamed from the tops of trees that were being sawed down. Some jumped free only just before the trees fell. "Monkeys are smart; they jump and don't get hurt. Sloths don't [jump]," said an employee who asked not to be identified. "I won't lie--they always die. Sloth don't have the agility of monkeys. We often find the creatures broken, with broken hands or broken legs. Or even dead." The plant is required to employ a team that removes the animals during deforestation, but on one of the islands we visited, the trees were being cut down for more than an hour without the presence of the rescue team.

Amazon rainforest burned by Norte Energia, a company outsourced by Belo Monte to clear the area that will become a lake after the Belo Monte dam is built. Rather than use the trees felled in the area where the lake will be created, the plant purchases irregular wood. Photo: Márcio Isensee e Sá

After hearing complaints made to Repórter Brasil, IBAMA confirmed the "unauthorized burning of wood material" and the "complete irregularity" of the absence of the rescue team. Norte Energia, Belo Monte's responsible agency, has already been fined for burning timber and cited for failure to rescue animals. "If recurrence of the infraction [burning treetrunks] is confirmed, a new penalty will be applied according to the increase laid down by law," declared the environmental licensing director of IBAMA Thomaz Miazak de Toledo. Norte Energia did not respond to questions about the fires and rescue of animals.

The burning of trees and animal deaths is only the first stage of a vicious cycle that marks the relationship between Belo Monte and the surrounding forest. Authorized to devastate thousands of hectares, the plant should use the timber for its own purpose or donate it for external use. The entry of large volumes of timber into the local market would help reduce the pressure on the forest. This was the plan, and one of the conditions, for the project's approval. In practice, things turned out very differently.

Besides burning trees, Belo Monte has also wasted timber by abandoning treetrunks out in the open. The reporter visited three Belo Monte stockyards full of rotten timber. In one, the timber had been abandoned for so long that climbing plants lined the log piles. Soon, they could disappear within the forest entirely.

At the Laranjeiras Urban Resettlement--a housing development built on the outskirts of Altamira to house the evicted ribeirinhos [river-dwelling people]--the trunks were already cracked from the inside. Among them were chestnut logs, a tree protected by law that the plant was not allowed to knock down outside of the area to be flooded. The species was identified by Lindomar Andrade, the inspection coordinator for the Secretary of the Environment: "These trees were taken away and left out in sun and rain. Everything was ruined."

"This is an extravagance," said the surprised river-dweller João Pedro da Silva, when he learned that Norte Energia felled so many trees to build his home. He was removed from the burned islands and placed in the resettlement. The locale looks like the housing projects from the 1970s, with dozens of rows of identical houses surrounded by dry land. Since he was removed, he suffers from the heat and from "memories in his chest." His old house on the riverbank was "lined" by the forest. Norte Energia didn't leave a single tree standing in the new neighborhood.

The amount of waste is unknown since mid-2014, when the plant stopped disclosing the volume of felled trees. IBAMA's last report said that Belo Monte had used only 10% of 115 thousand cubic meters of timber felled for the project. The proportion could be even smaller, since the trees felled in 2015 were not included, the year in which activity was more intense. The plant can deforest up to 3.9 million cubic meters. [more]

Belo Monte: Burning Legal Timber Stokes the Fires of Brazil's Illegal Lumber Market

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