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
View of Altamira. / M. Irigaray
View of Altamira. / M. Irigaray

More than a year after Belo Monte was inaugurated, problems continue to plague the Brazilian mega-dam.

In addition to being a central player in the massive Odebrecht corruption scandal, the dam project is, time and again, faulted for the complete lack of oversight and accountability with which it was instituted.

Last month, a Brazilian federal court suspended the dam’s operating license. Prosecutors said the operating company, Norte Energía, failed to complete basic sanitation work in the city of Altamira, which has been directly affected by the hydroelectric project.

The sanitation system is just one of a score of conditions that the dam was required to fulfill before filling its reservoir and beginning operations. The project has routinely ignored such conditions, and left those living in its shadow without adequate compensation and support.

The license’s suspension is an important step forward in the fight for justice for the many people and communities affected by Belo Monte.

It is the first time that a federal court has suspended one of Belo Monte's suspensão de segurança, a legal tool that was used to allow the dam's operation even though it hadn't completed the conditions required under its operating license.

In practice, the decision means that the dam must immediately halt all operations, although the completion of pending work may continue.

We are encouraged by the court’s decision and the real-life impacts it may have for people of Altamira, many of whose homes and neighborhoods have been plagued by flooded streets and sewage overflow.

As we continue our international fight for the rights of the people of the Xingu—our case remains pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—we hope the Brazilian justice system continues to guarantee the protection of the rights of all those affected by the Belo Monte Dam.

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Artesanal miners against Belo Sun. / M. Irigaray
Artesanal miners against Belo Sun. / M. Irigaray

Last month, communities of the Xingu River basin received some good news: the installation license for the Belo Sun mining project was denied!

The project is planned to be Brazil’s largest open-pit mining operation. Its implementation would further aggravate the sensitive situation of indigenous and riverine communities whose human rights have already been gravely impacted by the nearby Belo Monte Dam.

For people whose way of life has already been drastically changed by development, this small victory in the long fight to stop the mine was a needed sigh of relief. 

Belo Sun was stopped for the same reasons we’ve been fighting against Belo Monte all these years: the operator has inadequately addressed the concerns of local indigenous and riverine communities.

Since the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights authorized precautionary measures in the Belo Monte case in 2011, the government has been under international pressure to protect the life, health, and integrity of the people of the Xingú.

With this news, we’re happy to say our work to expose the injustices of Belo Monte is having an impact on development in the Brazilian Amazon.

Media coverage, international pressure and a sweeping corruption scandal have thrust Belo Monte into the spotlight. The third largest dam in the world now stands as a shining example of how not to implement energy projects in the region.

In the shadow of Belo Monte’s mistakes, the Brazilian government recently denied the license for a Tapajós River mega-dam; the denial of the Belo Sun license makes it two battles won for the interests of the people of the Xingú.

It seems the Brazilian government is finally beginning to pay attention to the rights of its traditional and indigenous populations in the face of large-scale development.

But the larger fight remains, and we won’t rest until we achieve justice for the people and communities affected by Belo Monte. 

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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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Organization Information

Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AIDAorg
Project Leader:
Astrid Puentes
Lima, Brazil
$19,519 raised of $20,000 goal
 
407 donations
$481 to go
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