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Protesters Call Dam Project a “Disaster” for Brazil’s Native Communities

Marguerite A. Suozzi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 28 2010 (IPS) - A modest protest gathered outside the Permanent Mission of Brazil in New York on Wednesday to oppose the controversial Belo Monte dam project in Brazil.

Actress Sigourney Weaver urged Brazil not to follow in the U.S.'s footsteps on its energy policy. Credit: Marguerite A. Suozzi/IPS

Actress Sigourney Weaver urged Brazil not to follow in the U.S.'s footsteps on its energy policy. Credit: Marguerite A. Suozzi/IPS

In the most recent developments, the Brazilian government successfully appealed and overturned a federal court decision to halt the bidding on the construction contract, which was subsequently awarded to the Norte Energia consortium for 10.9 billion dollars, according to media reports.

“The government dismisses claims that the project will have a negative impact on the environment or the local community,” said Mines and Energy Minister Marcio Zimmermann, according to media reports.

Outgoing President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has also thrown his support behind the project, saying Brazil needs to explore diesel-fueled power plants and hydroelectric resources to bring Brazil’s energy output into the 21st century.

But Joshua Cooper, a political science lecturer at the University of Hawaii, and an international coordinator in research and training at Land is Life, an organisation which represents indigenous communities from Kenya, Ecuador and Bolivia, told IPS the construction of the dam would be catastrophic for the indigenous communities along the Xingu River.

Indigenous communities fear that the Iriri river, which flows into the Xingu, will be forced to rise and carve out a new course because of the dam. The few fish still in the river will disappear, the small-scale agriculture practised during the dry season will decrease, and river transport to the main market in Altamira will be hampered.

“The government says they have scaled [the project] down, and said there would not be any impact, however there will be huge impacts on the indigenous culture, and way of life, and their current existence,” said Cooper.

Protesters from around the world, including indigenous peoples participating in the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, NGO representatives, and educators were joined by the star power of actress Sigourney Weaver, who spoke about her recent trip to Brazil and her opposition to the construction of the Belo Monte dam.

Weaver urged Brazil to lead the way for future energy projects, and not to repeat the mistakes of the United States, which is now deconstructing many of its dams due to energy inefficiency and their detrimental effects on the environment.

Weaver advocated instead for a “21st century energy model” that is both ethical and efficient, saying construction of the Belo Monte dam would be a “disaster” for the indigenous communities in the area.

“Lead the way Brazil,” said Weaver. “You were a pioneer in bio-fuels, so continue to be a pioneer and don’t put this dam that is going to be a disaster in so many ways for your people, and for the Amazon.”

“I would hate to see Brazil following in our footsteps,” Weaver told reporters, describing her most recent experiences in Brazil, meeting with indigenous leaders and their families. “This whole way of life would be displaced forever, and not to mention the huge damage to the communities all along the river.”

“I think this is one of many dams that various governments have planned, and they are just not energy efficient,” she said.

“We are calling on Brazil today to live up to Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” a document to which Brazil is a states party Joshua Cooper told IPS. “Predominantly the free, prior and informed consent in the declaration,” he said.

“That means indigenous peoples can participate in the decision-making process and be able to decide if they do and do not want something, and more importantly, be able to shape the process as it’s forming and not just be consulted as an afterthought.”

Manuela Ima, the president of the Association of the Waorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon (AMWAE), was vocal in her opposition to the dam, and told IPS about her own community’s experience in the Pastaza region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, where oil extracting companies from Argentina, Brazil, Japan and the United States have set up shop.

“We want to live with clean water, and in a clean forest, so that trees, animals, everything in the forest doesn’t die,” Ima told IPS. “It’s more important for us to maintain our territory, our language and our culture,” she said, adding, “We need support to strengthen our communities.”

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