Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Belo Monte monster dam threatens indigenous rights and the environment in the Amazon

By Julie Melrose, in Rio de Janeiro Brazil 

3 July 2012

Imagine that your community, surrounding communities, your livelihoods, cultural practices and the habitat that sustain you are about to be destroyed. Imagine having screamed and fought for decades against the cause of this destruction, only to be met with deaf ears, and even with deafening murder of some of your most prominent activists. The largest dam under construction in the world is in the first stages of construction on the magnificent Xingu River in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

Still in Brazil following our attendance at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we have found ourselves captivated by the intense political situation continuing to unfold in the Brazilian Amazon - the indigenous indian occupation of the highly controversial Belo Monte dam site entering its 10th day. 

Up to 80% of the Xingu River will be diverted from its original course, causing a permanent drought in the river's "Big Bend" and directly affecting the Paquicamba and Arara territories of the Juruna and Arara indigenous peoples. The flooding will displace 20,000 people from their homes and destroy standing forest in the area, releasing dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the dam construction is that the dam will actually be one of the most inefficient in the history of Brazil - producing only 10% of its 11,233 megawatt capacity during the 3-5 month-long dry season, an average of only 4,462 MW throughout the year, or 39% of its normal capacity.

Protest on the Belo Monte dam site in the Amazon

The protest is calling attention to the failure of the dam consortium to address the impacts to the lives of the indigenous inhabitants and their environment. The dam construction will divert the majority of the flow from the Xingu River away from a large 62-mile stretch called the 'Big Bend', which will impact the indigenous peoples ability to use the river for travel, fishing, not to mention destroying sacred cultural landscapes that indigenous people have been custodians over for generations. 
Yes, dams provide hydroelectric power - but this does not mean it is a clean source of energy. Dams also divert rivers, destroy the surrounding environment and habitat of thousands of species, displace entire communities, destroy cultural practices and sacred sites of indigenous people through the flooding of large areas of land. There now exist over 7,000 large dams in the world, and Belo Monte is one of the largest 30.

Chillingly, several prominent environmental activists in the Amazon have been murdered, silenced from speaking out against the dam and other issues including illegal logging. Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo are two Amazon activists that were murdered less than 24 hours after Brazil's lower house of congress voted to roll back forest protections. Several other Amazonian activists have been murdered during the course of this campaign. But this violence and intimidation does not  matter to those occupying the dam site currently. It clear that the people of the Xingu are willing to die in this war between development, culture and the environment. They have got nothing left to lose. 

Environmental Action in Australia 

Last year, I protested outside of the Brazilian embassy in Canberra, Australia, on the International Day of Action for the Amazon campaign run by Amazon Watch around the world. In other cities around the world, hundreds - even thousands of people turned out to support the plight of the indigenous people in the Amazon whose cultures are threatened by this gigantic dam construction, not to mention the environmental damage that will be caused. However, in Australia, we had just a handful of people turn out to show their concern. In Australia, we sometimes tend to be very far removed, isolated and as a result, complacent about some of the very serious issues taking place abroad. We shouldn't be, because these issues also affect us in terms of the impact they have on the wellbeing of a World Heritage Area, as well as the impact on our own progress as a human race with the violation of human and indigenous rights. Being here in Brazil, meeting people involved and impacted by the dam, feeling the tension in the air over this issue and hearing it on the news and reading it in the news sites, we feel closer and more connected to the issue. With this comes a drive to let others know about it. As privileged, educated and informed young people, we feel an obligation to speak out. There should not be an 'opt-out' option, a choice not to care or listen, on issues that affect our global environment and issues that violate universal human rights. 

To pledge your support and find out more, visit Amazon Watch's website: 

International Day of Action for the Amazon 2011
 Australian Parliament House in Canberra
Links for more information: 

The Announcement of a War - a powerful documentary on the Belo Monte dam campaign
Norte Energia - consortium of companies behind the dam 
Belo Monte dam construction blog 
NY Times article 'The Dam Boom in the Amazon' June 30 2012

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