SAO PAULO – Construction on a mammoth hydroelectric dam in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rain forest resumed Tuesday, hours after the country's Supreme Court ordered a resumption of work on the project that has been strongly opposed by Indian groups and environmentalists.
The ruling by Supreme Court President Carlos Ayres Britto late Monday overturned an order handed down earlier this month by a lower court that suspended work on the $11 billion, 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte hydroelectric dam until indigenous communities living in the area are consulted.
The Norte Energia consortium, which is building Belo Monte, said in a statement that work on the dam resumed Tuesday morning.
In an earlier statement, the company said that the dam will not "directly affect any Indian territory" and that "the indigenous communities living in the region have been consulted and their opinions respected in the elaboration of the project."
The Supreme Court's website said Tuesday that Britto's ruling could be revised after the court conducts a "more detailed analysis of the merit of the case."
A court official said prosecutors who in the past have filed motions against the dam may appeal Britto's ruling, "but for now it is unclear when and if they will appeal." She agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name because she was not authorized to comment.
The government has repeatedly said that the project has been designed to minimize environmental damage and that it will help Brazil maintain economic growth.
The Supreme Court's decision "avoids the occurrence of major and irreparable damage to the economy, to public property and to the country's energy policy," the government said Tuesday.
"This is not the end of the line," said Cleber Buzatto, executive director of the Brazil-based indigenous rights group CIMI. "We are confident that in analyzing the merit of the case, the court will see that the government has focused all its arguments on the economic aspects of the project and none on the impact it will have on human lives."
Environmentalists fear the project will lead to more dams in the Amazon, creating development that will cause faster deforestation of the Amazon region. Scientists say the rain forest is one of nature's best defenses against global warming by serving as a huge absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Critics also say the dam will harm fish stocks vital to 14 tribes that inhabit the Xingu National Park downriver, turn up to 90 miles (150 kilometers) of the Xingu River into stagnant puddles and displace as many as 40,000 people. The dam will flood 200 square miles (516 square kilometers) of rain forest.
When completed on the Xingu, which that feeds the Amazon River, the dam would be the world's third largest behind China's Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu, which straddles the border of Brazil and Paraguay.
Celebrities including rock star Sting, film director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver have joined activists in lobbying against the dam.
Planning for Belo Monte began in 1975, but was delayed by Brazil's economic woes in the 1980s and 1990s. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who took office in 2003, championed the project as a cornerstone for Brazil's renewed economic development.
But the project has repeatedly been delayed in recent years as environmental groups and indigenous leaders brought legal cases against it. Federal courts in Para state have often ordered a halt to construction, but the decisions have been overturned by higher courts.