July 20, 2017

Brazil: Indigenous People Occupy Hydroelectric Dam Construction Site

Photo courtesy of Mongabay

The Munduruku indigenous people began occupying the construction site of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam, which is built on the Teles Pires river in the east of the Amazon. The current project is not the first of its kind and the Munduruku say that their sacred sites are being destroyed to make room for more hydroelectric projects. In the case at hand, the construction of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam involved the removal of sacred urns, which according to Brazilian law belong to the national state as archaeological relics. The Munduruku now demand that they be returned to them and brought to a place where no white man has access to, which would set a legal precedent for Indians throughout Brazil.  

Below is an article published by Mongabay:

“Our language is one, our river is one and the Munduruku people are one,” the Munduruku people often say. It was precisely this feeling of belonging that led some Indians to travel for days upriver and join others in the early hours of July 16 to occupy the building site for the São Manoel hydroelectric dam that is being built on the Teles Pires river in the east of the Amazon. In all, some 200 Indians, from about 138 indigenous villages distributed along the basin of the Tapajós and Teles Pires rivers, took part in the occupation.

The construction consortium, São Manoel Energia, immediately went to court to get the Indians evicted but, at the request of the local Public Ministry Prosecutor, a judicial decision has been delayed to see if a peaceful solution can be reached. This week a prosecutor will be going with Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, the acting head of the Indian agency, FUNAI, on a visit. Antonio Brasiliano, the director of São Manoel Energia, said that construction work would be halted for the duration of the occupation.

The decision to occupy the site was quietly made during a meeting of Munduruku women in May. After the occupation started, the Munduruku distributed a document in which they say “our sacred sites of Karabixexe [the Sete Quedas rapids, dynamited during the construction of the Teles Pires and Sao Manoel dams] and Deku ka’a were violated and destroyed. According to our shamans, our ancestors are weeping. Our Teles Pires and Tapajós rivers are dying. Our rights, which are guaranteed in the Federal Constitution and were achieved after the spilling of much indigenous blood, are being violated.”

The Munduruku are making a series of concrete demands they want fulfilled before they end the occupation. One is a request that their “robbed urns” – sacred urns that were removed during the construction of the São Manoel dam — be taken to “a place where no Pariwat [white person] has access,” with their shamans accompanying the journey. It would set a legal precedent for the Indians to get the urns returned because, according to Brazilian law, the urns are archaeological relics, belonging to the national state, and should go to an appropriate museum.

Another demand is for the hydroelectric companies to create a “Munduruku Fund” for four specific projects. One is for the creation of an indigenous university and another is for increased protection of their remaining sacred sites.

São Manoel Energia was unwilling to reply to Mongabay’s specific questions with respect to the Indians’ demands but sent a press release in which it stated that it was “totally committed to finding a solution that will guarantee the safety of the local communities, collaborators and the project.” It said that it had fulfilled rigorously all the conditions set by the authorities for the construction of the dam and was adhering to current legislation. This is, however, disputed by critics of the project and the Federal Public Ministry.

While São Manoel Energia is carrying out the construction work, the plant is owned by a consortium made up of Portuguese-owned Energias do Brasil, Brazil state-owned Furnas, and China Three Gorges Corporation, one of China’s early moves into Amazon megaprojects.

The Munduruku and other indigenous people have been severely damaged by the construction of two large dams – the completed 1,800-megawatt Teles Pires and the partially completed 746-megawatt São Manoel dam. Mongabay visited the Teles Pires village last year. Munduruku representatives repeatedly said that the construction work for the São Manoel dam was making their river dirtier and more turbid, and had decreased the fish population.

It is too early to calculate the long-term impact of the São Manoel dam but university lecturer fish expert Solange Arrolho, from the Mato Grosso State University, told Mongabay that the Teles Pires dam further down the river, which began operations in November 2015, had impacted fish migration.

“Before the dam was built, some fish, particularly large ones, migrated along the upper reaches of the Teles Pires, something that they cannot do now as the dam doesn’t have a side channel that allows them to get past the plant,” Arrolho said. But so far, bigger fish have survived. “They are finding other places to reproduce downstream. But they will become more vulnerable, much easier to catch, as they are held in larger quantities in front of the dam.” When the São Manoel dam is finished, she added, the damage will be greater.

It also became clear as Munduruku representatives talked that the disruption caused by the dams had severely damaged their cosmology. Along with other Indigenous Peoples, the Munduruku do not differentiate between the spiritual and material worlds. They repeatedly told Mongabay that their sacred site of Karabixexe [located under the dynamited rapids] has been destroyed and their sacred urns removed; they said their ancestors and the “mothers” of the fish and the animals in the forest are gone.

“We had this sacred place and when we died we went there. But now that the government has dynamited everything, we can’t become a spirit. We are going to die in our spirits too,” said Valmira Krixi Biwūn, one of the women warriors and a sage.

São Manoel Energia claims to have fulfilled the environmental and social conditions that were set by the Brazilian government for the construction of the dam but this is contested by Felicio Pontes, a prosecutor with the Federal Public Ministry (MPF). He told Mongabay that the São Manoel dam is “one of the worst acts of violence committed against indigenous people in Brazil yet few people know about it.” He added: “It will cause irreversible damage, especially to the Kayabi people, whose territory is located less than a kilometer from the dam.”

In 2014 Pontes took legal action against the company on behalf of the Indians and the riverine populations. According to the MPF, the company had failed to implement over half of the conditions. Pontes won his case but the victory had no practical consequences for the Munduruku. The MPF has gone to court six times on behalf of the Indians with respect to the São Manoel dam, and in all but one case it has won. But each time the government has invoked a legal instrument known as Suspensão de Segurança (Suspension of Security), which was widely used by Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85). Suspension of Security allows any judicial decision, even when based on sound legal principles, to be reversed in a higher court without further legal argument, using a trump card that simply invokes “national security,” “public order” or the “national economy.”

Pontes protested: “We won at all levels, arguing that the dam could not be built without the prior consultation of the Indians. But the dam is being built. The Indians are suffering from illnesses they didn’t have. All because of the political decision to use the ‘suspension of security,’ a tool that dates from the military dictatorship and should not exist in a democratic country.”

Prospects are not good for the Munduruku and other riverine communities in the region. Some 43 large hydroelectric dams and 102 smaller ones are planned along the whole of the Tapajós, Teles Pires and Juruena river valley. There is also discussion of the creation of an industrial waterway along the rivers, to facilitate the export of soy and other crops, though no project has yet been elaborated.