Canceled dam project marks progress for indigenous rights in Brazil

Munduruku protesters against the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on Brazil's Xingu River. (Credit: Ocupacao Munduruku/Flickr)

Brazil’s Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) has announced the cancellation of plans to build a giant hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

The decision to cancel the project, which cited concerns about the fate of the area’s indigenous communities and wildlife, is a significant step for a region where similar projects are still threatening the area’s ecological stability and livelihoods of local communities.

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) mega-dam was to be the largest hydroelectric project in the Amazon, covering 145 square miles of rainforest that is home to some 12,000 Munduruku Indians.

But following recommendations by the Federal Public Prosecutors (MPF), the Brazilian agency for indigenous affairs (FUNAI), and IBAMA’s own staff, the Ibama protection agency unexpectedly canceled development permits on Aug. 4. An environmental impact study had failed to present enough evidence to judge its social and ecological impacts, the announcement said.

Before the announcement, various indigenous rights groups and environmentalists had also warned of the negative impacts the dam would have on the region’s land and aquatic ecosystems, emission of greenhouse gases and indigenous communities.

The Munduruku people welcomed the decision.

“We, Munduruku people, are very happy with the news. This is very important for us. Now, we will continue to fight against other dams in our river,” said Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku, Munduruku General Chief, in a statement issued by the nonprofit group Amazon Watch, which works to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of its indigenous peoples.

A program director of the organization, Christian Poirier, said the decision to cancel the dam was long anticipated.

“We have been awaiting such a welcome announcement from the Brazilian government for more than a decade, while witnessing the tragic and unnecessary damming of the Madeira and Xingu rivers during this time,” said Poirier.

The Madeira and Xingu rivers are two other populated Amazon regions with mega-projects currently under way. The $15 billion Madeira River Complex is expected to promote the export of raw materials, such as soybeans, timber and minerals, to Asia and North America, but it also poses a significant threat to the local communities that surround it. Some uncontacted Indians live as close as 10km to one of the dams.

“If the dam is built, what will happen to the Indians’ way of life? Will anybody bring us food? No. Nobody will bring us anything. We are very worried,” said Valmir Parintintin, leader of the region’s Parintintin Indian community, in a statement from Survival International.

In the Xingu River basin, deforestation and industrial mining have already marginalized many of the region’s inhabitants, and the government is currently building the Belo Monte Dam – which will be the third largest dam of its kind in the world.

For now, a license for the canceled Tapajós dam can technically be requested again, but is unlikely considering the high cost of restarting impact studies as well as the country’s current economic crisis. Indigenous activists are now calling on Temer to formally recognize the Munduruku people’s rights, as well as the rights of other local people who are threatened by large-scale enterprises in the Amazon.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com