Sep 9 2017

The Intense Battle between Indigenous Communities and Powerful Corporations

By Raghav Trehan and Richa Sharma*

“I say this because I know that if you want to take care of the forest, you need to invest in us – indigenous peoples – because no one takes better care of the forest than we do.”

According to the Brazilian Government, the ongoing construction of the world’s 4th largest dam over the Xingu River is ‘eco-friendly’. The emission of methane gas which displaces oxygen surely sounds pretty eco-friendly to us. Obviously human beings inhale methane and exhale oxygen. Science, right?

The devastating effects of the Belo Monte Dam on the flora, fauna and riverside communities are definitely not ‘eco-friendly’. In fact, 400 square kilometers of the Amazon forest will be flooded by Belo Monte’s reservoirs. Of course, that’s not important. What’s more important is the millions of dollars these corporations will be earning through the exploitation of exhaustible natural resources.

Let’s have a look at what we need to know and what we need to DO!

Everything You Need to Know about the Belo Monte Project

With the aim of ensuring energy security in mind, 1975 saw the formulation of plans for the construction of new hydroelectric dams in Brazil. The initial plan consisted of 297 projects to be built in Brazil. A contract was signed with Norte Energia (a construction consortium comprising of Eletronorte, Neonergia, Cemig, Light, J Malucelli Energia, Vale and Sinobras) to build the project. With a capacity of 11,233 megawatts (MW), the estimated cost of the controversial Belo Monte project is £15bn, making it the 2nd largest hydroelectric dam in Brazil. The installation license for the project was issued by IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) in 2011.

Officials at IBAMA were under serious pressure to give their approval for the project. In 2009, however, two senior managers decided to resign from their posts in opposition to the project. The Belo Monte has been widely criticized by environmental organizations across the globe, because of the severe damage it will inflict on the flora and fauna of the Amazon.

It will increase global warming and cause changes in landscapes.

“Each ton of methane has an impact on global warming about 200 times that of a ton of CO2 while it remains in the atmosphere, but methane remains for a relatively short time (12.4 years on average), whereas CO2 remains about ten times longer.”

-Philip Fearnside

The major downside to such a design specification is the significant shift in landscape required by the turbines; this is why Belo Monte requires a large reservoir; the area does not have a naturally occurring high hydraulic head (an example of a naturally occurring high water head is a waterfall).

-Apratim Guatam, Ian Haubold, Vicky Pacey, David Papirnik, Mehek Premjee and Patrick Schlumpf

Harsh Challenges Faced by the Indigenous Groups

More than 20,000 indigenous groups have been forced to relocate their houses. These groups are continuously losing all the basic necessities (such as food, medicinal crops watered by the river, transportation) that were provided to them by the Xingu River.

Cultural artifacts belonging to the tribes have been washed away by frequent floods. Some people have even lost their family members. The livelihood of riverside communities, which was completely dependent on the Xingu River, is now coming to an end. For thousands of years, this river has been a part of the Amazon ecosystem.

“For us the river means many things. For everything we do, we depend on the river. For us to go out, to take our parents around, to get medical attention, we need the river for all these things. If a dam is constructed on the river, how will we pass through it? … We don’t want to see the river closed off, our parents dying in inactivity. For us the river is useful and we don’t want it to wither away – that we not have a story to tell, that it become a legend for our children and grandchildren. We want them to see it with their own eyes.” – Zé Carlos Arara, a leader of the Arara people.

The local fishing industry has drastically declined as 16.2 million tons of fish have died due to a lack of oxygen. Even though irreparable damage has already been done, IBAMA ordered Norte Energia to pay a fine of $US 10.8 million as compensation.

Brazil has violated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 8 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says:

States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:

  • Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
  • Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;”

Let’s Have a Look at what We May Lose Forever

White-cheeked spider monkeys, which are commonly found near the Xingu River, might be lost. Not only that, even the giant Amazon River turtles that specifically come to the Xingu River in order to lay their eggs are endangered. Another major loss includes Cacao crops – found near the banks of the Xingu River – that have already been wiped out by Norte Energia.

We may also lose a huge variety of Amazonian butterflies, 45 different types of honey, 16,000 tree species, 180 different tribal languages, some of the world’s most unique spiritual ceremonies, 1300 types of birds, 70% of Amazonian plants which are known to have anti-cancerous properties, Arawati tribes, 20% of the world’s oxygen, 3000 species of fish (including the pink dolphin), 400-500 indigenous Amazon tribes (out of which 50 have absolutely no contact with the outside world), and 1500 unique types of flowers!

What’s Lined Up Next? The Tapajos River!  

More hydroelectric dams such as Chacorão, São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá are to be built on the Tapajos River in the near future. Many riverside communities, including the Munduruku tribe, will be affected by the construction work of these dams. Thousands of people are continuously protesting against the proposed projects. The only people who will benefit by these projects are the investors and powerful corporations. The compensation provided by these corporations can never be compared to what’s being destroyed forever – our priceless environment.

What Can We Do to Help?

You can write a letter to the President of Brazil to express your concern.

Works Cited:

  1. Maíra Irigaray, ‘The Munduruku People: A Living History of Resistance’, http://amazonwatch.org/news/2015/0430-the-munduruku-people-a-living-history-of-resistance
  2. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples available at: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf
  3. Rhett Butler, ‘10 Facts about the Amazon Rainforest’, http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon-rainforest-facts.html
  4. Philip Fearnside, ‘Dams With Big Reservoirs ‘, https://www.theglobalist.com/dams-climate-change-global-warming-brazil-paris-agreement/
  5. Apratim Guatam, Ian Haubold, Vicky Pacey, David Papirnik, Mehek Premjee, Patrick Schlumpf, ‘Brazil’s Belo Monte: A Cost-Benefit Analysis’, http://franke.uchicago.edu/bigproblems/BPRO29000-2014/Team09-EnergyPolicyPaperBeloMonte.pdf

*Raghav Trehan and Richa Sharma are 4th year students, pursuing their B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at Fairfield Institute of Management and Technology, GGSIPU, New Delhi. They are keenly interested in human rights and environmental law. Currently, they are interning at the Delhi International Arbitration Centre.

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