And finally they made it. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon blocked the dam project which would flood their pristine rain forests. The order to stop work on the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in the northern Brazilian state of Pará was unanimously adopted by a panel of judges in a regional federal court.
The judges ruled that the construction of what is to be the world’s third-largest dam failed to respect the Brazilian constitution or International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, both of which require prior consultation of local indigenous communities.
But it leaves a lesson for other infrastructure works: the courts in this country are prepared to uphold the right of indigenous people to be consulted on projects that affect them and their territories.
"The Federal Constitution and the ILO Convention state that the national Congress must consult affected traditional peoples before authorising any project for the exploitation of resources on their land,” said Judge Antônio de Souza Prudente, announcing the ruling.
But "on the contrary, deputies and senators approved the decree that allowed the construction work to begin, providing for a posterior rather than previous consultation," said Prudente, adding that this was "the way dictatorships work." "Indigenous people must be listened to and respected,” he stated.
Belo Monte is one of the major infrastructure projects planned by the administrations of Brazil’s leftist Workers' Party, under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.
The government argues that the dam, which will flood over 500 square kilometres of land, is necessary to meet the country’s growing energy needs.
Belo Monte will have a maximum capacity of 11,233 megawatts (MW) during the rainy season, and an average capacity of 4,500 MW. It will supply electricity to some 26 million people, while generating job opportunities.
But indigenous villages and traditional communities living along the banks of the Xingu river are opposed to the dam, because although it will not flood their territories, it will divert 80 percent of the water in the river, reducing their water supply and severely affecting the fish stocks that they depend on.
For years the communities have held protests against the dam, which increased after work got underway in 2011. The issue has drawn wide international attention.
In April 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recommended that the Brazilian government immediately suspend work on the dam, and called for "free, prior, informed, in good faith, and culturally appropriate” consultations with the local indigenous communities. But the government rejected the request.