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Historic indigenous gathering in Amazon voices fierce opposition to dam building project

5 June 2008

In May 2008 over 1,000 indigenous Brazilians from the Xingu River basin met with representatives from social and environmental movements to declare their opposition to the construction of hydroelectric dams in the area. The historic meeting was one of the Amazon region’s largest gatherings of indigenous peoples in the last twenty years.

Small farmers, riverbank dwellers and urban populations also joined the Xingu Forever Alive encounter to express their concerns about the damming of Amazon rivers, which affects not only the natural resources upon which these local people depend, but also the biodiversity of the region and agricultural activities.

The most polemic issue discussed in the meeting was the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. This dam will divert water from the river displacing over 10, 000 people and affecting the Xingu’s fish stocks. More than 20 indigenous groups live in and around the Xingu Basin, including Kayapo, Juruna, Suya and Ikpeng.

In their collective statement, released after the gathering, indigenous groups emphasized how their survival is so closely related to the river.

“We take our food from the river, we depend on its clean water, we depend on it for our agriculture, we celebrate its beauty and generosity everyday, we have our culture, spirituality and survival deeply rooted and depending on its existence”.

The Belo Monte Dam is one of the Brazilian government’s high priority new development projects, and, according to experts, will be the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world, expected to be responsible for the generation of 6.4% of the energy consumed by the country by 2020. However, independent experts have affirmed that the dam will be inefficient, generating little or no energy during the Xingu’s low-water period, which lasts for about four months each year.

In 1989, the Kayapo and other indigenous groups from the Xingu Basin mobilized to reject the Brazilian government’s plans for the construction of six hydroelectric dams on the river. The mobilization led to the invalidation of a World Bank loan for the dams and the plans were suspended for more than a decade. In recent years however, the attention of Brazil’s energy planners has once again focused on the Xingu Basin. The event’s organizers claim that the current mobilization against the dam is made stronger by the involvement of not only indigenous groups, but local people who will also be affected by the project.

In an interview for the website Amazonia, one of the representatives of the Kamaiura tribe, Kanawayuri Kamaiura, declared that the construction of the dam would be the beginning of the end for his community.

“Our survival depends on fishing, with the dam we will become more vulnerable. It will kill many fish, change their availability, size and taste. We will not have our resources guaranteed”.

In the meeting’s final document, the participants reinforced their strong opposition to the construction of any dams in the Xingu Basin and claimed that any development project for the region must first be discussed with the local population.

“The impact of the Belo Monte Dam on the communities has not being taken into consideration”, says Andre Villas-Boas, coordinator of the Xingu Program of the Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental.

Although the Brazilian Constitution and the ILO Convention 169 ensure the right of indigenous people to be consulted about any measures or actions that will affect their lives, indigenous groups insist that the Belo Monte project has never been discussed with them. However the state power company responsible for the construction of the dam, Eletrobras, says that the project has already been discussed with other local communities and indigenous people will be the next in line in the consultation process.

The new Brazilian development program is highly criticized by environmentalists and human rights activists because it does not consider the impact of the dams, roads and small hydroelectric units on the environment and local populations. Even Marina Silva, Brazil’s Environment Minister, resigned in protest at the program in May after five years in government. Ms Silva was one of only a small number in government defending against a powerful lobby advocating development at ‘any cost’ in the Amazon region and her resignation is seen as a major setback for the advancement of environmental issues in Brazil.