Sep 10, 2018

The Time for Indigenous Peoples to Decide for Themselves: The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex and the Juruna (Yudjá) People

“We are the Juruna from the Paquiçamba Indigenous Land, and those are our rules to be fulfilled by the government”

Since it began its operation in 2015, the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex (BMHC) in the state of Pará, Brazil, has led to several environmental adversities. By altering the cycles of the Xingu River, it has interfered in the region’s biodiversity and in particular in the food chains and habits of many species, especially of the fishes. Notwithstanding, ecological damages were not the only consequence of the project. Sharing a deep and historical relationship with the river, the Jericoá and Juruna (Yudjá) indigenous communities that live in the region have been directly affected by changes in its flows.

Not only is the river an important part of their culture and identity as a canoeing people, but it also provides them with the basic component of their diets and income. As fishes are no longer able to reach the fruits that now fall from the trees into the ground instead of the water, the Juruna (Yudjá) people are having trouble finding healthy animals to feed themselves. Forced to look elsewhere to sustain their communities, their livelihoods, health and practices are dangerously affected. Having proven the impacts of the Hydroelectric in their ecosystem, the Juruna (Yudjá) people have recently published a book to highlight the lack of proper assessment and the consequent risks the Hydrographic Consensus could raise. The book represents the latest effort of the Juruna (Yudjá) to attempt to take the lead on matters that directly affect their livelihood and land, as well as to defend the survival of the fauna and flora of the region.

Since 2013, they independently monitored the socio-environmental impacts Belo Monte has had on their territory and people. An outcome of five years of work of both researchers and members of the indigenous communities, with the support of the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA), this monitoring is based on facts and reflections on the ongoing and future impacts of the damming of the river. The goal was to produce an perspective of the Volta Grande of Xingu alternative to the one released by Norte Energia S.A., the company responsible for Belo Monte, by highlighting how it has affected fishing dynamics. The publishing of the results from the monitoring seeks to widen the spaces to make decisions about the future, accounting for everything and everyone involved in it.

Although Norte Energia’s official website highlights the fact that Belo Monte has not implicated in the flooding of indigenous lands, this image ends up diverting attention from great damages that have derived from it. When in November 2015 the Xingu was dammed and diverted from Volta Grande region, it left only a residual flow of water, dewatering a significant portion of the region. Since then, not only have the indigenous land seen a reduction of 80% of the previous natural quantity of water as well as its speed, but also its flows are now controlled by Norte Energia rather than following its natural rhythms.

By the time Belo Monte received its license to operate in 2010, it was formulated a Hydrographic Consensus (HC) that aimed at finding a middle ground between two conflicting interests and cope with the adversities that have derived from the reduction of the flow of water at Xingu’s Volta Grande. Seeking to reproduce as accurately as possible the natural seasonal pulse of floods and draught of the river, it established a minimum amount of water to flow through the region as to secure it socio-environmental sustainability. However, several data have indicated that this proposal have hardly met its goals, having greater reflected the interests associated to the production of energy rather than the ecological and social necessities.

As described by Brazil’s environmental protection agency (Ibama), the proposed mitigation measures were insufficient to guarantee the ecological and social dynamics of the region. Highlighting the risks its adoption could bring to a community that depends on the water and its aquatic fauna for food and income purposes, Ibama also refers to how it would inflict in the food security of the community, as their protein intake mainly comes from fishes and turtles. Both the Ibama and the National Indian Foundation (Funai) have further questioned the capacity of the proposal to secure the indigenous community’s fundamental rights, as the right to the territory and their physical and cultural survival.

In spite of its many contradictions, BMHC received a license subjected to 40 socio-environmental conditions, which also established that its HC would be implemented on a testing phase until the generation of energy reaches its full capacity in December 2019. As it is, by foreseeing alterations in the HC and recognizing the possible occurrence of adverse effects, it implies that the company in charge of BMHC is allowed to operate with eventual prejudice to the people and environment of the region.

Nevertheless, in face of the several adversities that have already emerged, it is crucial and urgent that the current “consensus” is replaced by another that takes into account local knowledge and is more sensible to the complex balance of dynamics of the region. In this context, the initiative from the Juruna (Yudjá) people to map the changes on their lives and ecosystem in the light of their traditional knowledge provides an important source of data that should be taken into account in the formulation of a new “consensus”. Counting with detailed data on the fishing dynamics, the study states the amount of water needed for the ecosystem to follow its natural dynamics. Further, by containing personal reports from members of the community, the study reflects much more than the impacts usually taken into account on scientific and technical reports.

The diversity of the region depends on the seasons and on the natural periods of flood and draught, which are the basis for the survival of the local people as well as of their livelihoods. Some of the on-going and possible adversities are sedimentation, changes in the penetration of light, levels of oxygen, temperature, quality, and nutrient levels of water. Further, the mechanized regulation of the water flow also promises to reduce seasonal hydrologic variation, affecting the transport of resources and the availability of water habitat. One of the major impacts of the river impoundment is reduced seasonal heterogeneity, which directly affects fishes’ dynamics.

Although some of the ways their lives have been affected are less explicit, they are no less important than the threat to their food sovereignty and, as such, they deserve to be recognized as a meaningful impact from Belo Monte. The river is becoming strange to the same people that have always believed to have a shared existence with it.

No longer able to foresee when floods will occur, people are anxious and afraid of letting their children play in the water. Their whole lives have been altered to embrace the changes and demands that came with the hydroelectric. When it comes to their inclusion in decisions regarding Belo Monte, their participation in meetings and in the formulation of documents is becoming a constant source of frustration. While the members of the community are required to reserve time for those activities, their demands hardly concretize themselves. Finally, there is the emotional factor. Forced to go through barriers when navigating the river and to endure questions from workers at the stations they must pass by, people are faced with changes all over their path, with dead trees and flooded islands that once have colored their surroundings.

But besides the study that sought to provide a database for the formulation of new ways to cope with the adversities from Belo Monte, the Juruna (Yudjá) have taken a step forward in the long path towards the inclusion of their knowledge, opinion, and interests in the decisions regarding the hydroelectric. By stating that their opinion was never accounted for by the time of the construction of Belo Monte, in 2016 the Juruna (Yudjá) have elaborated a “Consultation Protocol” in an attempt to revert this culture of not consulting the communities in regards to projects that could affect their territories and livelihoods.

Departing from the acknowledgement of the rights they know to uphold and the changes they have endured since Belo Monte was constructed, the protocol’s text contains rules and descriptions of what they should be consulted about, when the consultation should happen, who is supposed to take part in it, and how the decision-making process ought to occur. Backed by the fact that Brazil is a signatory of the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation since 2004, the Juruna (Yudjá) people are aware of their rights to be consulted over projects of changes that may affect them. Hence, they have made efforts to take the struggle over the defense of their land, work, and conditions of life into their own hands, having the chance to choose their development priorities.

An impressive demonstration of how indigenous communities may organize themselves in order to revert the assimilationist orientation that have frequently guided policies towards them, as well as the tradition of disregard, oppression and violation of their rights, the case of the Juruna (Yudjá) people is one to be honored. Not only could it inspire other communities to follow the same path, but it also represents a shift in the hierarchy through which decision-making processes all over the world have operated.

Finding an effective solution to the case of Belo Monte and its consequences for the Volta Grande of Xingu’s region is clearly a complex and sensitive matter. Nevertheless, the Juruna (Yudjá) people have shown to be unwilling to accept the imposition of any “consensus” that does not include their knowledge, opinions, and the necessities of the ecosystem that has forever been linked to their own culture and identity.


Photo courtesy of Ocupação Manduruku