SAO PAULO — More than 400 activists on Thursday occupied the site of Brazil's $11 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, demanding that construction be halted on the controversial project in the heart of the Amazon.
"Everything was peaceful -- there were no guards or workers," a spokesman for the Indigenous Missionary Council, a group linked to the Catholic Church, told AFP.
The indigenous people and environmentalists at the site of what would be the third biggest dam in the world -- after China's Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu dam on the border of Brazil and Paraguay -- say they will stay indefinitely.
They are demanding a definitive halt to work on the project in western Para state, or at least a suspension of construction until local residents can be consulted, the spokesman said.
Construction on the Belo Monte dam -- which would produce more than 11,000 megawatts, or about 11 percent of Brazil's current installed capacity -- has been the subject of legal wrangling for decades.
A federal court ordered a halt to construction last month, which opponents had hailed as a "partial victory" pending a government appeal.
Environmentalists and Amazon Indian tribes say the dam will cause massive destruction of Brazilian fauna and flora in the area.
The project also has drawn international criticism, including from Oscar-winning movie director James Cameron of "Avatar" fame, who said rainforest indigenous tribes could turn to violence to block dam construction.
But the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has insisted the project should be allowed to go ahead, making it the centerpiece of government efforts to boost energy production in the rapidly growing economy.
The project is expected to employ 20,000 people directly in construction, flood an area of 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) along the Xingu river and displace 16,000 persons.
The government had pledged to minimize the environmental and social impact of the dam and asserted that no traditional indigenous land was to be affected.
The activists said they decided to occupy the site after Brazil refused to participate in a mediation session organized in Washington by the Organization of American States.
"The way our own government is treating us -- lying to us and refusing to engage in dialogue with the people affected -- is shameful," said Sheyla Juruna, of the Xingu Forever Alive movement.