Federal prosecutors in the northern Amazon state of Rondônia, where the project would be located, filed the suit on 14 March seeking the suspension and cancellation of the project’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

Federal Power Company Furnas and private engineering company Odebrecht performed the EIS, which Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama is analyzing. The legal action claims that the study is not complete, as Furnas and Odebrecht did not include the impact of transmission lines that would link the complex to the national grid. Prosecutors also say Furnas failed to consult local indigenous populations and did not study in detail the impact on the populations. The action claims that the EIS limited itself to a description of the indigenous populations that could be affected, without taking into account the effects of the project on their way of life.

The prosecutors’ decision to seek a court suspension fell on the same day the federal government announced it expected the Madeira complex to be auctioned in July. Madeira, on the Madeira river in the western Amazon forest region close to the Bolivian border, has been facing opposition from Brazilian and Bolivian environmental groups. The government wants to harness the vast hydroelectric potential of the Madeira and Xingu rivers in multibillion dollar projects meant to boost electricity supply and ward off a repeat of a power crisis that crippled growth in 2001.

Brazil’s plans include two dams on the Madeira, a main tributary to the Amazon, at a cost of $9B to produce 6450 MW of electricity. Conservation groups say the project will affect 550km2 forest and threaten the survival of several species of large catfish that migrate some 4500km to breed in the upper Madeira. Thirty-three endangered mammal species live in the region to be flooded, including the spotted jaguar, the giant anteater, the giant armadillo, giant otter and several species of birds.

The government says the Madeira project is critical, if the country is to keep pace with energy demand in the next decade. Madeira is made up of 3300MW Jirau and 3150MW Santo Antonio and 130km of transmission lines to Porto Velho. Environmentalists say the government has overestimated future demand for energy.