Brazil vs. the Indigenous Fight against the Belo Monte Dam*
By Sophie McAdam
Many of you will have seen these two disturbing images of indigenous abuse by the Brazilian authorities that have been circulating the internet recently. The first depicts a visibly shaken indigenous man being forcibly restrained by a soldier as other members of the military take up arms and run to their positions in the background.
The second shows a mother with a toddler on her hip trying desperately to push back against the armed men surrounding her. Their faces and bodies are obscured by shields, so we can see only their military boots and a single threatening baton. These soldiers tower over the petite woman, whose distressed expression as she struggles against them makes for a very powerful photograph.
The story behind these tragic images relates to indigenous protests against the proposed building of the Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. The dam would flood a vast area of fertile land, dry up parts of the Xingu river, cause huge devastation to the rainforest, and greatly reduce fish stocks along a 100km stretch of river, a food source which the tribal people in the area depend on for their survival.
The Belo Monte dam is just one of many planned under Brazil‘s ‘Accelerated Growth Plan’, which aims to create jobs and boost the economy by building roads, dams and other infrastructure, mainly in the Amazon basin. Belo Monte will be the world’s third largest dam if it goes ahead. It was first proposed in the 1980s, and the fight against it has been brought to the world’s attention by endless protests by tribal people in the area: The Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã Indians all depend on the proposed site for their survival, according to Survival International, a charity that fights for the rights of indigenous people worldwide.
The man and woman shown in the upsetting viral photographs are members of the Kayapó tribe, who have been at the forefront of the battle against this so-called ‘growth’ for three decades and counting.
“We don’t want this dam to destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millenia and which we can still preserve”, the Kayapó explained to their government in an open letter. In another statement given to Survival, one of the tribe‘s elders urged:
“The world must know what is happening here. They must perceive how destroying forests and indigenous people destroys the entire world.”
Huge tribal protests in 2009 were successful in halting the progress of the Belo Monte dam, when the Kayapó warned that its construction would force them to declare war on the government; the rivers would run red with blood before they would stop fighting the proposed ecocide.
The dam will cost over US$10 billion and affect over nine million hectares of pristine rainforest. Although many would argue the economic benefits of such a plan. it’s worth pointing out that while the dam would bring in more than 200,000 workers to the area, it would also force an estimated 20,000 local people from their homes (not to mention many species of wildlife). A large proportion of those humans displaced will be indigenous peoples, who have been living in (and protecting) the area for centuries.
Above (photo by Terence Turner, Survival International): Kayapó form a dance line at an anti-dam protest, Piaraçu, Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 2006. Two hundred representatives of the Mebegokre Kayapó Indians met for five days to discuss the Belo Monte dam and four other dams which will devastate their lands. Almost a decade later, the tribe is still fighting government proposals.
Tribal people are very vulnerable to infections and illnesses from outside; even the common cold can be fatal. The proposed area to be dammed is thought to be home to many uncontacted tribes, who have the right to be left alone to live in harmony with their ancestral lands. The construction would attract large numbers of migrant workers and colonists who are likely to bring diseases to indigenous tribal people, literally putting their lives at risk. There is a high risk of invasion of native territories and violence, and the livelihoods of thousands of tribal people who depend on the forest and river for food and water would be destroyed.
In addition, the Brazilian government’s plans are illegal. Indigenous people have not been properly consulted about the dam, which violates both Brazilian and International law. The Xingu River is one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, and more than 80% of its flow would be diverted by the massive hydro-electric dam. This would have a devastating effect on a vital eco-system, one frequently referred to as ‘the lungs of the world’.
Please share this story if you want to support the Amazon‘s indigenous people in their fight, and consider writing a letter to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to urge her to re-consider Belo Monte and other proposed dams being built in the Amazon.