Brazilian Soldiers and Native Tribespeople Are Clashing in the Amazon
(All photos courtesy of Munduruku Denúncia)
Although the Brazilian economy has hit a few speed bumps recently, the wheels of growth have been in motion for some time, and the country is desperate for renewable energy sources to keep its industrial and economic growth buoyant. This is why, for the past year, the Brazilian government has been constructing the new Belo Monte dam in the Amazon's Xingu River. Unfortunately, the Xingu is one of the last remaining natural, uncorrupted rivers in the entire Amazon rainforest. This is both incredibly depressing—given that the Amazon covers almost half a continent—and the reason why the Brazilian government's plans have faced such a large amount of international outrage.
Leading the charge against President Dilma Rousseff and her army of private contractors are a number of Amazonian tribes who live along the river, having done so for countless generations. As the collective group—who are just some of the 20,000 people at risk of being displaced by the dam—said in a statement, “We are the people who live in the rivers where you want to build dams. We are the fishermen and peoples who live in riverine communities. We are Amazonian people and we want the forest to stand. We are Brazilians. The river and the forest are our supermarket. Our ancestors are older than Jesus Christ.”
The remains of some of those ancestors have already been desecrated by building work on the dams; burial urns of ancestral members of the Munduruku tribe were dug up at the Sete Quedas rapids, a site considered to be holy by indigenous people in the area. After the incident, one protester said, "We are witnessing the devastation of this land. The island of Pimental was completely destroyed, with a sole tree left standing, and the water is putrid. It is very shocking."
That putrid water, contaminated by building works, has led to a spate of diarrhea cases, and species of fish hunted specifically for their nutritional value have plummeted in number. Key transport links that previously allowed the local community access to basic health and education resources have also been blocked off by the building of the dam.
Lacking any kind of tangible international or political support, and increasingly at risk of being quite literally trampled over by the building of the dam, the tribes took to a form of protest most recently seen played out (with little real purpose or reward) in the West: occupation.
The occupations of dams and construction sites have been underway since last June, with new demonstrations attracting more tribespeople and local fishermen to protest together in solidarity. However, as the protests—which can last for weeks at a time—become more popular, they are being met with greater resistance from the Brazilian troops and mercenaries deployed to protect the government's business interests.
Three hundred women and children spell out “Pare Belo Monte,” or “Stop Belo Monte.”
And the guards sent in to deal with protesters aren't your typical layabout security guards—they're soldiers, with guns and helicopters and everything and anything else the Brazilian government deems necessary to deal with people peacefully trying to defend the homes their families have been living in for generations.
In order for this disproportionate force to become legally acceptable, President Rousseff signed Decree no. 7957/2013 in March of this year, which conveniently gave her the green light to use the National Guard and other armed forces as her passion project's personal bodyguards.
A group of guards for the Belo Monte dam keep an eye on protesters.
Despite the very real threat of violence at the hands of the dam's armed guards—highlighted by the fatal shooting of an indigenous man, allegedly in response to the occupation of a cattle ranch built on holy land—the tribes have vowed to keep protesting until their demands are met.
But is there any hope for the Amazonian tribes? I spoke to Maria Irigaray and Leila Salazar-López from Amazon Watch about the current situation.
VICE: So, what are the plans for the Xingu River?
Leila Salazar-López: The government recently announced plans to construct 23 large dams over the next eight years. While this number remains unacceptably high, it's actually lower than previous government projections. The government has not publicly disclosed the reasons for its revised projections, but we believe that the shift reflects growing recognition that the dam construction in the Amazon will continue to face legal challenges and costly delays stemming from the strong opposition of local communities and international organizations.
So the protests are having an effect?
Construction on Belo Monte has been halted on at least seven occasions over the last year due to the protests. This has caused a drop in shareholders' profits, and it's predicted that the construction companies may lose up to $2 billion in revenue if things continue at this pace.
What have been the consequences on the indigenous population from the dams being built?
Maria Irigaray: The consequences are serious and widespread. There are issues with contaminated water, having fishing and trade routes blocked off, food supplies diminishing, conflicts within the communities due to money being offered to some and not others, an increase of alcohol and drug use, and death due to the consumption of industrial food.
Have any of the tribe chiefs been to any worthwhile government meetings? I understand that one of the chiefs has an online petition to stop the dam construction, currently at over 44,000 signatures.
Some of the chiefs have been to different government meetings several times, but there's no true dialogue. President Dilma has never met them and has given the clear message that, despite all of the protests, the building of the Belo Monte dam will go ahead.
Leila: The Belo Monte dam campaign continues to be a frontline battle that needs to be fought for the future of the communities, forest, and last remaining wild rivers of the Amazon. Even if the campaign is not fully successful in stopping the first dam, the growing controversy is likely to lessen the project’s adverse impacts on Xingu River communities and ecosystems, increase the project’s financial and reputational costs, and put the brakes on future upstream dams planned.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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