Located in the northern part of the Xingu River in Brazil, the Belo Monte Dam is the third-largest dam in the world. Over 20,000 people from the Xingu Indigenous Park have been forced to leave their communities and have lost their main resource of survival. A new threat has arisen, as Belo Sun Mining Corporation is looking to open a gold mine in Volta Grande, part of the Xingu River.
After the Belo Monte case meeting in the Inter-American System in December 2021, the AIDA legal team sent a detailed report to the IACHR in February 2022. The report focused on the status of the non-compliance by the Brazilian State of the Precautionary Measures granted in 2011.
In response, the State of Brazil sent insufficient information on the allegations of human rights violations suffered by the traditional communities and indigenous people affected by Belo Monte. The Brazilian government tried to excuse itself by arguing that the company that operates the hydroelectric plant would be responsible for the violations.
As part of AIDA’s commitment to local communities and organizations, in February 2023 we sent a second detailed report on the situation. The report focused on the negative impacts for 11 indigenous communities and 25 riverine communities affected by blockage of the river for electricity production. In particular, our report highlighted extreme poverty caused by the environmental degradation to the river.
In 2022, the Brazilian authorities internally recognized that there was an extinction of fishing in the Xingu River, as a result of drought and a decrease in the quality of its waters. This demonstrated the seriousness of the impacts that have been denounced by the communities, such as the inability of using the river water for cooking, bathing, or cultural activities without suffering from stomach and skin diseases. It also exposed the level of environmental degradation resulting from the large hydroelectric dams and how these mega-interventions have destroyed the traditional way of life of the Xingu people, putting their integrity and health at risk. In addition, our report highlighted the impacts on the mental health of these populations, who were forced to leave a life of interdependence and symbiosis with their environment. Communities that were sustained by their surroundings, now depend on welfare policies and charity in the cities to which they have been forced to relocate.
In the report AIDA asks the IACHR to follow up on the Precautionary Measures granted in 2011, to guarantee the life and integrity of the Xingu communities. This would require the Brazilian government to determine that the company that operates Belo Monte must guarantee a minimum essential amount of water in the natural course of the river, so that the ecosystem processes can resume functioning, guaranteeing the life of the river and its people.
The Belo Monte Dam is the third-largest dam in the world. The dam is located in the northern part of the Xingu River in Brazil and covers 500 square kilometers of forest and farmland. Due to the dam’s operations, the people of the Xingu have lost a main resource of survival, and over 20,000 people have been forced to leave their communities. A similar situation could happen if Belo Sun Mining Corporation is situated in the region. Belo Sun is a gold mine located in Volta Grande, part of the Xingu River, and if put into operations could leech contaminating fluids, employ high quantities of cyanide, and cause acidic waste to reach rivers.
AIDA has been working with local communities and organizations for years to bring visibility to the damage created by the Belo Monte dam to the communities and the ecosystem and amplified why Belo Sun will only destroy the Xingu even more.
The year 2022 is proving very difficult for the communities of the Xingu. Threats and hostilities to defenders opposing the implementation of the Belo Sun mining company have intensified, leading to several security incidents. AIDA is supporting the strengthening of grassroots organizations that accompany the defenders, as well as coordinating networks of allies who are joining forces to deal with criminalization, social marginalization, and direct threats. We assisted defenders in obtaining emergency resources, being removed from the field, and applying for inclusion in the defender protection program.
We have also written a report on the situation of threats against the life and integrity and stigmatization of defenders in the region, which we intend to send to the UN Special Rapporteur on Defenders as soon as there is guaranteed security for the defenders. In the meanwhile, we have submitted, in the Universal Periodic Review of the Brazilian state, in alliance with other organizations, two reports that specify the human rights violations and risks of the project's implementation in the region.
AIDA is working in alliance to counter the criminalization promoted by Belo Sun, and seeking to implement a strategy to combat the demonization of the Public Ministry among communities co-opted by the company, thus fostering unity and forming an organized resistance.
As part of the Amazon Basin, the Xingu river is a key component of livelihoods, culture and ecosystems in the Northern Region of Brazil. However, it has been threatened by infrastructure developments and extractive activities such as dams and mining. AIDA has been working closely with indigenous leaders and environmental defenders in order to ensure its protection.
Following up on our work to evidence the damage and impacts of the Belo Monte Dam case, we are now working closely with communities close to the Xingu River to protect it from the impacts of a gold mine Belo Sun. This mine is located about 10 km from the Belo Monte dam project. Gold mining possess a significant threat to the health of the Xingu River since the extraction utilizes mercury, a potentially deadly pollutant for water systems.
Environmental defenders denounced several anomalies with the operation license that was received by Belo Sun, especially regarding the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and its faults in fully determining the real impacts this mine could have on the region. AIDA prepared an analysis of the EIA for the project, signaling the anomalies and potential dangers of this assessment and how the mine could really affect the ecosystems that depend on the Xingu River and in consequence, the livelihoods and human rights of those who inhabit the region. This analysis was used by the Public Environmental Defense Office in litigation to stop the operations of Belo Sun, this resulted in a suspension of the operating license. This is a very important first step toward protecting the Xingu River and the Brazilian Amazon, and we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure the protection of these ecosystems and those who depend on them.
However, despite the suspension of the operating license, several environmental defenders and indigenous leaders have been receiving threats for their efforts in stopping this project. AIDA has continued our work with environmental defenders at the site, assessing them on security measures and plans in response to the multiple threats they have received from other stakeholders. We will continue to work on ensuring their safety and giving them the necessary tools for protection.
In December 2021, AIDA held the first working meeting for the Belo Monte case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This meeting was attended by Brazilian State officials who failed to explain how they have supported the communities affected by the Belo Monte dam.
AIDA, as representatives of the victims, presented a series of arguments that proved that the State has been failing to comply with the precautionary measures that should protect the indigenous peoples of the region.
As part of the arguments presented we provided evidence around:
During the meeting, the IACHR mentioned the need for the State and the representatives of the victims to enter into agreements to better monitor the situation, and requested more detailed information from the State on the status of compliance with the precautionary measures.
We are confident that it was clear to the IACHR that the State did not comply with these measures, since the State only presented general information without details. Nor did it refute our main allegations of a humanitarian crisis in the area, intense deforestation, and the real risk of the hydrograph plan.
To strengthen our arguments, in February 2022 we sent a written report to the IACHR that substantiates and deepens the allegations made during the working meeting.
AIDA continues to support the communities affected and will monitored the advances of the IACHR recommendations closely.
Building capacity and dialog
Together with our partners, we held a two-day seminar that brought together various legal, civil society, and public administration actors involved in the licensing of Belo Sun mine. We provided the opportunity for people from the Secretaria de Meio Ambiente e Sustentabilidade Pará (Semas) and Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to speak, and during the interaction the coalition demonstrated their strength and reinforced the fact that the decision to license Belo Sun was only political. The Semas representative did not respond to our arguments about the problems with the environmental impact studies. A part of the seminar was dedicated to a prior consultation workshop with the Volta Grande riparian communities, which was very empowering because the leaders affirmed that they wanted to carry out their autonomous consultation protocols. And finally, the analyses of the defenders and prosecutors showed the lack of legality, transparency, and coherence of Semas and other governmental institutions.
Supporting legal actions
The Public Defender's Office initiated a lawsuit against Belo Sun as a response to a technical report presented by AIDA that points out several flaws in the analysis of impacts and area of coverage of the mining project. The Defenders’ office is requesting that the mining project's licenses be annulled since the necessary studies were not carried out with respect to the affected riverside communities. These communities were not consulted either, which would justify the nullity of the licenses. AIDA, together with International Rivers and ISA, prepared an amicus brief to support the defense of the riparian communities represented. We contributed with a technical document in response to Belo Sun's arguments that seek to hide the flaws of the project with arguments of authority, refusing to respond objectively to our questions about the chosen methodologies, studies on the cumulative impact of the dam, and possible failures of the tailings dam and contamination of the river. In addition, we made a contribution of legal analysis that justifies the annulment of the license given to the project due to the lack of adequate consultation with the traditional communities that inhabit the Xingu.
Calling for international action
In an action to denounce the government of Pará to the COP, last week we drafted a letter of concern addressed to the governments that are part of the LEAF Coalition and GIZ, which were about to sign an agreement to send resources for green policies to the state of Pará. In our letter we made clear the contradiction between the governor's promises and the actual environmental policy of the state. The letter seeks to hold the funding governments accountable for establishing clear and objective criteria so that their resources are not used in a way that perpetuates the current predatory practice in the state. The letter had the support of the deputies Vivi Reis and Marinor Brito, as well as the indigenous Alessandra Munduruku, who delivered the letter at the COP signing event.
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