Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon

by Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)
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Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
Empower Indigenous Brazilians to Save their Amazon
The Munduruku open the assembly in ceremony.
The Munduruku open the assembly in ceremony.

Beneath a thatched-roof hut along the Tapajós River, Munduruku people from communities across this region of pristine Amazon rainforest gathered for a general assembly.

There were tribal elders and children, mothers and fathers, representatives from NGOs and government bodies. 

They came together to discuss problems, and to find solutions. They came to chart a course forward that would enable them to continue to live and grow in harmony with the natural world.

October’s assembly was their first meeting since the announcement of the cancellation of the Tapajós Dam; its license was denied due to the severe environmental impacts it would cause.

The rejection was a triumphant victory for the movement to protect Brazil’s Amazon, after years of disappointment and defeat caused by the nearby Belo Monte Dam.

I was there because of Belo Monte: to share stories, strategies, and lessons learned from our advocacy for the people of the Xingú River who have been impacted by the dam.

With me I brought a team from Climate Reality who produced a short documentary to share these stories with the world.

While the fight for the people of the Xingú has been long, we remain committed to achieving justice for them.

By taking their case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, we intend to influence decision-making in Brazil and discourage the implementation of more large dams in the Amazon, including those planned for the Tapajós River basin.

The devastation caused by Belo Monte has become a cautionary tale for neighboring tribes like the Munduruku.

Because of the harm done to the people and life of the Xingú, the Munduruku understand exactly what they have to lose if the dam on the Tapajós were to happen.

They would lose their homes, their sacred sites, and their connection to their ancestors.

They would lose their river.

Like the Xingú is to the Kayapo and Juruna people, the Tapajós is to the Munduruku.

It is their highway and their supermarket; a sacred waterway, a divine gift.

They thank their gods for the bounty provided by their healthy jungle home, for the tinguejada (fish), and for all that the river gives them.

It was an honor to be present to witness the strength and unity of the Munduruku people. It was humbling to join my voice with theirs.

I hope that the voices of the Munduruku are heard. I hope their territory is respected, and the dam and other development projects stopped for good. 

And I hope the Brazilian government learns the lesson that countless indigenous people already have—large dams must stay out of the Amazon!

Rodrigo during the general assembly.
Rodrigo during the general assembly.
A Munduruku leader discusses important issues.
A Munduruku leader discusses important issues.
Men dry fish from the Tapajos River.
Men dry fish from the Tapajos River.
Night falls on the Munduruku village.
Night falls on the Munduruku village.

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Homes in Altamira near the operating site.
Homes in Altamira near the operating site.

Even as the turbines of the Belo Monte Dam have begun turning, the fight for justice continues. The ongoing operation of the world’s third largest dam—corrupt and careless as it is—cannot stop us.

In fact, each new allegation of corruption and abuse only fuels our desire for justice for those who have been affected by the dam. 

And our most important battle is now strongly underway: our case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which opened for processing at the close of last year. 

In it, we’re working to hold Brazil accountable for the countless human rights violations that have been committed in the name of the Belo Monte dam: the absence of consultation with and free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities; the lack of adequate assessment of environmental and social impacts; forced displacement; and severe violations to the rights of indigenous peoples, riverine communities and residents of Altamira.

We’re in the process of getting the case admitted before the Commission, so they can establish—as an independent, international body—if these violations occurred and whether the State must respond for them.

As part of the process, Brazil had to respond to our allegations before the Commission. We received their response on August 9 and are now working to counter their claims. 

Our legal submission is due on October 10, and until then we’re working night and day to effectively convey the importance of the Commission investigating the human rights abuses that have been suffered due to Belo Monte.

You support will help us to keep writing, and keep defending the people of the Xingu River basin.  

The State and dam operators continue to blatantly disregard the human rights of those living in the dam’s shadow.

On September 1, the dam’s operating license was suspended yet again because sanitation systems in the city of Altamira—a legal obligation operators were required to meet long ago—were never installed.

Wastewater floods the streets of Altamira, and threatens to turn Belo Monte’s reservoir into a stagnant pool of sewage.

Unfortunately, as with many legal decisions attempting to protect the rights of those affected, the suspension was overturned a few weeks later.

It’s clear the forces behind Belo Monte have no respect for the environment in which they’re working, and even less for the local people who depend upon the river and forests for their survival.

Many of the people we represent live in the neighborhoods of Altamira, and are exposed to raw sewage. Those who live outside the city have been displaced from their land, cut off from their primary water source, or have had their way of life destroyed. 

Together we can ensure the Brazilian State is held accountable for the immense environmental and social damage the dam has caused.

Thank you for not giving up on this fight.

Rest assured, we won’t stop until we achieve justice for the people of the Xingu. 

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Rio de Janeiro coastline, site of the Olympics
Rio de Janeiro coastline, site of the Olympics

As the Brazilian flag was raised at the Rio Olympics to the soft sounds of acoustic guitar, the familiar words of my country’s national anthem struck me:

Giant by thine own nature,
Thou art beautiful, thou art strong, an intrepid colossus,
And thy future mirrors that greatness.

For centuries, it’s been easy, a point of pride, to celebrate the natural bounty of our landscape, from the mighty Amazon basin to the thousands of miles of pristine coastline.

What’s proved most difficult is defending it.

Last year Brazil was the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders. At least 50 of us were killed; so far this year, 23 have been assassinated. The Amazon, where I was born and spent my childhood, is the epicenter of these crimes.

Plantations, ranches and large dams have been built on land where homes once stood. Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities, guardians of the natural world, have been evicted from lands passed down through the generations.

It’s clear that economics and development have been prioritized above public health and wellbeing.

Increasingly, dams have also become agents of dispossession in the Amazon. On the mighty Rio Xingu, Belo Monte has displaced indigenous communities that depended on and cared for the river basin. Vast amounts of rainforest have been destroyed, with disastrous impacts on wildlife. Several plant and animal species are now extinct; literally tons of fish have died, likely from contamination. Altamira, the city closest to the dam, is now ranked third in Brazil for violence and inequality. Belo Monte is hardly bringing equitable and just development to Brazil.

There are reasons for hope, though. A couple of things that happened last week made me believe we might see some positive changes in the near future.

First, the government denied the environmental license for a Tapajós River mega-dam that would have repeated the destruction of Belo Monte, devastating the lands and culture of the Muduruku people.

The second is more symbolic – the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. I was particularly moved by the focus on two issues that Brazil must make a priority in coming years: deforestation and climate change.

The attention to environmental crisis was powerful. It would have been even stronger, though, if indigenous people hadn’t been portrayed only as relics of Brazil’s ancient origins. In reality, our indigenous groups are crucial players in present and future efforts to achieve sustainability.

To a certain extent, hope is what the Olympics are all about. They bring the world together for a common good, and, at their best, aid in the development of a peaceful society concerned with preserving human dignity across all continents.

Although I have deep personal disagreements with the execution of the Olympics in Rio, I hope Brazil takes seriously the symbolic commitment demonstrated in the opening ceremony.

I hope Belo Monte is the last case of its kind.

I hope human rights and environmental defenders can work safely and without fear.

I hope future generations grow up in a country that is really a “giant by thine own nature.

Only then will our future truly be as great as the magnificent lands we call home.

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Flooding in the streets of Altamira.
Flooding in the streets of Altamira.

On May 5th, the Brazilian government grandly inaugurated the Belo Monte Dam. It was with tremendous sadness that we witnessed then-President Dilma Rousseff and her administration celebrate an energy project that has been built on the backs of the indigenous and riverine communities of the Amazon.

Reflecting on the irony of the grand ceremony, and the injustice this dam has caused for the people who live beside it, I created a video blog to share my thoughts and feelings on the matter. Watch it here!

Now, just over a month from the time Belo Monte’s initial operations began, the ironies inherent in the celebration of the project are increasingly clear.

An international team of biologists has just released the results of a comprehensive study that warns of the negative impacts large dams have on biodiversity in the Amazon. Studying the impacts 191 existing dams, and 246 dams that are planned or under construction, they found that the construction and operation of large dams put many important species at risk and threaten the region’s biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

This week, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights released the report on their recent visit to Brazil. Several months before the dam’s inauguration, they toured the country gathering information and collecting testimonies from victims of human rights abuses in the country, including those affected by Belo Monte.

Thanks to your support, one of our attorneys, Flavia Vieira, accompanied the delegation of the Working Group on their visit to the area impacted by Belo Monte. She was able to share information with them and convey our assessment of the situation. 

We welcome the results of the report and the international light it shines on the realities of those impacted by Belo Monte. Since the UN’s visit there, Belo Monte has begun operations, and the situation of those living in its shadow has considerably worsened.

We hope that both the Brazilian government and Norte Energía comply with the recommendations made in the UN report, and take to light growing evidence of the damage large dams like Belo Monte cause to life in the Amazon. 

We will continue monitoring developments surrounding Belo Monte, and representing victims in our case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We will not stand for the injustice this dam continues to cause. And we will not rest until all responsible parties are held accountable.

Thank you for standing beside us in this important fight for justice.

Displaced indigenous people.
Displaced indigenous people.

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Power station for Belo Monte Dam. Maira Irigaray.
Power station for Belo Monte Dam. Maira Irigaray.

“The river is dead!” exclaimed Raimundo as we navigated in his motorboat from Altamira toward the big bend of the Xingu River.

From my perch in Raimundo’s boat, it was easy to see how bleak the landscape surrounding Altamira—the northern Brazilian city closest to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam—has become. The big island of Arapujá, located across from Altamira, has been completely deforested, causing a radical change in the currents of the river. Many of the smaller islands, previously inhabited by fishermen, are now completely submerged, only the tops of trees visible above the rising water.

I visited Altamira, and the indigenous and riverine communities nearby, with colleagues from Justiça Global. We came to update our case, and to inform those affected by Belo Monte of a new hope for justice: in December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opened the case against Brazil for human rights violations caused by the dam.

In January, Norte Energía, the company charged with the construction and operation of Belo Monte, opened the dam’s floodgates without warning communities living downstream.

They say the Xingu grew seven meters in just an hour. In some communities, the rising water flooded their riverside land, taking with it canoes, boats and items of clothing.

Destroying lives

The boat took us to a spot in the river where a large island once stood with a house in the middle. Raimundo Nonato had lived there. He raised animals and dedicated his life to fishing. It had been the perfect place to bathe in the river. It was there, in 2013, that Antonia, leader of Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Siempre, baptized me as a defender of these waters. Now the island is under water, and all that remains to be seen are the tops of some fruit trees.

Leoncio, an indigenous man from the community Arara da Volta Grande, says his community lives in fear of the river’s expected growth, the loss of their culture and way of life, and the death of 16 tons of fish. They have seen cracks in the dike of the dam’s bypass channel and fear it will break, as the Fundão mining waste dam did in Minas Gerais. On our tour of the area, we also noticed discolored patches on the dike, which should certainly be a sign of alarm.

Leoncio said the fear keeps him up at night.

On the indigenous lands of the Arara da Volta Grande and Paquiçamba, the life of inhabitants has changed radically. They must now travel to the city (Altamira) to sell their harvest and to buy food. The changing environment has drastrically reduced opportunities for fishing and hunting, rendering their traditional subsistence lifestyle inadequate.

Leoncio says that his peoples’ traditional knowledge and community life are being lost.

Their homes are different, as is the formation of their village. Norte Energía has carelessly constructed houses that conflict with their culture, because of the location and materials used. Their community lacks even a well from which to retrieve drinking water, a condition that should have been met more than five years ago.

Pain, injustice and struggle

On our trip, we spent nine days in the area around the Belo Monte dam. We listened to so many stories of pain and injustice: of indigenous children that died from bad medical care in villages without access to the city; of indigenous people who left their villages to seek shelter in the city and now live in the overcrowded Casa del Indio, surrounded by filth and, often, conflicting ethnic groups.

We relived the stories of tireless struggle, like that of Socorro, an indigenous woman whose home was destroyed, along with those of her relatives.

Socorro and her family all had to haggle with the company, as if their basic human rights were negotiable. Some received very little money in compensation, others the option of a prefabricated house in a neighborhood far from the river.

Socorro’s parents live in one of those neighborhoods. Behind their new cement house, they built a small home with the wood they were able to save from their destroyed home. It is there that they really live, by the light of small kerosene lamps, sleeping in hammocks. Electricity is not part of their lives.

Residents of Altamira live surrounded by the ironies of the third largest dam in the world. On February 28, Altamira and various cities in the state of Para were left without electricity. The cutoff, described by the receptionist at our hotel as routine, was due to testing on one of the dam’s turbines.

There’s not much time now until the Belo Monte begins operation.

If, for the countries of the region, Belo Monte represents the cherished dream of development, for me it represents a nightmare from which I’m dying to awake.

It’s a nightmare of pain and human rights violations, in which a beautiful, living river is quickly fading away. Going with it are the lives and the dreams of those who have long depended upon its clean and healthy waters.

Human rights are not negotiable. The victims of Belo Monte need justice now!

It is that dream of justice that I hope, one day soon, becomes reality.

As always, thank you for your support of our efforts to help those impacted by Belo Monte.

Traditional ways of life are being lost. Irigaray
Traditional ways of life are being lost. Irigaray
Islands are submerged by rising water. Irigaray.
Islands are submerged by rising water. Irigaray.
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Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
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Twitter: @AIDAorg
Project Leader:
Astrid Puentes
Lima, Brazil
$18,235 raised of $20,000 goal
 
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