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Hydropower Dams Hurt Amerindians in Brazil and Canada

Mario Osava

FOZ DO IGUAÇÚ, Brazil, Jun 20 2011 (IPS) - Michael Lawrenchuk, a Cree political activist from Canada, was given a standing ovation at the International Hydropower Association congress held in this Brazilian border town, after depicting the suffering of his people since dams began to be built on rivers across their land.

Island on the Xingu River.  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Island on the Xingu River. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Lawrenchuk also described the successful agreement forged with a power company, through which four indigenous communities will have a 25 percent stake in a local hydroelectricity station.

But representatives of Brazilian indigenous groups had no similar success stories to tell at the congress.

The Canadian activist, former chief and playwright told the participants in the Jun. 14-17 World Congress on Advancing Sustainable Hydropower moving accounts of what happened in his community, the Fox Lake Cree Nation in the central Canadian province of Manitoba, as a result of the construction of dams on local rivers.

He said that instead of sources of life, the rivers became sources of destruction, flooding indigenous communities since the 1960s.

Rape, sexual harassment of children “like me,” and violence of all kinds, including murder, have become common since thousands of workers, many of whom “do not have good intentions,” poured into the area to build dams that did not respect life, Lawrenchuk told the hundreds of engineers and representatives of business and industry, governments, multilateral and private banks, NGOs and research institutions involved in the hydropower sector who were gathered at the Congress.

The question of indigenous people affected by dams came up in many sessions of the Congress organised by the IHA in the southwestern Brazilian town of Foz do Iguaçu on the border with Argentina and Paraguay. The so-called tri-border region is home to the world’s second-largest hydroelectric dam, Itaipú.

At the meeting, IHA launched the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, developed by a multi-stakeholder group of representatives from social and environmental NGOs (Oxfam, The Nature Conservancy, Transparency International, WWF); governments (China, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Zambia); commercial and development banks (Equator Principles Financial Institutions Group, The World Bank); and the hydropower sector, represented by IHA.

The Protocol assesses the four main stages of hydropower development – early stage, preparation, implementation and operation – with regard to some 20 topics, using a consistent, globally-applicable method of assessing performance to gauge sustainability.

The topics, which cover the four principle pillars of sustainability – social, economic, environmental and technical – include poverty reduction, transparency, respect for human rights, indigenous peoples, biodiversity, infrastructure safety, resettlement, water quality, downstream flows, and economic viability.

Lawrenchuk addressed a session on social issues related to the development of hydroelectricity, such as the relocation of those displaced by dams, a major problem in emerging countries like China or Brazil.

After living on their land for thousands of years, the Cree Indians in Manitoba suddenly found themselves facing “artificial” development, and were moved to a reservation 50 km away and subjected to “adverse effects” like the loss of the family unit, Lawrenchuk said.

Young people no longer talk to their grandparents, because they do not speak the native language, and in the Cree nation today “there are many mothers, but few fathers,” he said.

He also talked about the personal tragedy he himself experienced when he lost his parents during the construction of the dams. He was raised by his grandparents, and grew up feeling anger and fear towards the world.

As he grew up, he said, the “hatred” began to wane, but not the disappointment and melancholy. As a young man, however, he went from blaming others to becoming a leader of his people.

He eventually negotiated an agreement with Manitoba Hydro, the company that had caused his people so much pain. The new partnership has brought the Cree communities benefits and a better life, and enabled them to start a process of recovering their ancestral traditions and culture.

In a detailed accord signed in May 2009, the company committed itself to financing, for example, the construction of a Cree community centre, as well as different programmes aimed at cultural recuperation, such as teaching the native language to youngsters.

In the past, indigenous people had no way to access information on the dam projects or the possible benefits available to them, but the Cree have gradually learned to become actors in the process, said Lawrenchuk, who is now Special Projects Advisor in the Fox Lake Cree Nation.

Under the partnership agreement with Manitoba Hydro, four Cree nations will have a 25 percent share in the Keeyask Generating Station, he explained to IPS.

But a partnership of this kind is unimaginable in Brazil, where indigenous people have joined with different social movements, such as the Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB), and numerous NGOs in an attempt to block construction of large hydroelectric dams in the Amazon jungle.

The biggest battle currently being raged is against the Belo Monte dam on one of the major Amazon basin rivers, the Xingu River. Construction of the 11,233 MW dam, which has the necessary environmental permits to go ahead, is an example of the many dam projects in Brazil that “do not respect the country’s laws and violate human rights,” Sheila Yakarepi Juruna told IPS during the IHA Congress.

“There will be a fight; we will not let Belo Monte be built,” said the leader of Boa Vista village, where eight families live on the banks of the Xingu River, near the spot where the dam is to be built.

The indigenous communities were not heard during the public hearings held on construction of the dam, as required by different national laws and international conventions, complain the leaders of the numerous groups living in the Xingu River basin, who will be directly or indirectly affected by the dam.

The groups took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which accepted the complaint and on Apr. 1 recommended that the Brazilian government suspend the project, drawing an angry reaction from Brasilia.

The government and the state-owned power company Eletrobrás, which forms part of the consortium that is building the Belo Monte dam, “refuse to engage in dialogue,” lamented Patxon Matutkire, another indigenous leader who took part in last week’s Congress in Foz do Iguaçu and who lives in the Xingu National Park, hundreds of km upriver from the projected dam.

Eletrobrás, Brazil’s environmental authorities, and even the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency responsible for protecting the country’s Amerindian population, do not recognise the direct effects of the dam on any native group, and claim that their lands will not be flooded.

But construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric station would divert part of the water away from the Volta Grande or Big Bend of the Xingu River, a 100-km sweeping curve in the river where two indigenous communities, the Juruna and Arara, live on the riverbank.

That would drastically reduce the flow of water in that part of the river, affecting species of fish, turtles and other animals that depend on the natural cycles of high and low water to breed, and on which the local indigenous people depend as staple foods.

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