Work on the Belo Monte giant hydroelectric dam complex in the Brazilian Amazon which has generated so much controversy in Brazil because of its environmental impacts has officially began.

Heavy equipment has started to level the ground where the dam is to be built in the state of Para north, near the confluence with the Xingú River.

The Belo Monte dam would be the third largest hydro-electric dam in the world in terms of electrical output behind the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipu and China’s Three Gorges.

On completion it will span 3.75 miles across the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon, and would generate more than 11 GW.

The Brazilian government has stated that the project is necessary to meet the nation’s energy demands. The project would also require clearing a large area of Amazon jungle and displacing about 20 000 indigenous people by flooding a 516 square kilometres area. It would also dry up a 62 mile stretch of the Xingu River.

The US$17 billion project has triggered reaction and resentment from environmentalists, indigenous tribes and local people who fear for the future of the river basin and its rich wild life once the cam’s main cement wall is built.

The plight of the local people in particular has become a national and international cause. Opponents of the massive project also argue that the dam threatens the extinction of 372 fish species along the Xingu River.

in February a federal judge cancelled authorisation for the project, ruling that Brazil’s Environmental Office (IBAMA) had been presuurised into granting permission even though the construction consortium had not met a number of environmental demands nor put forward a plan to recover the degraded areas.

Nonetheless, IBAMA had granted licensed to the project under pressure from NESA and other government agencies, such as the Energy Ministry. In fact it is widely suspected that the Energy Ministry forced the resignation of IBAMA’s last chief official due to his continued opposition to the Belo Monte Dam project.

But another judge threw out the ruling following on an appeal from the Brazilian government that considers the works essential for the country’s energy future and the development of the Amazon basin.