By Iara Lee
In every corner of the world, we see unfathomably huge hydroelectric dams that destroy entire ecosystems and indigenous livelihoods. The notorious Three Gorges Dam in China has its rivals on all other continents, from the proposed Grand Inga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the James Bay Project in Canada. In these and many other examples, the results have been similar: thousands are displaced from their homes, species are going extinct, farmland is flooded and rendered useless, and water-borne diseases flourish. Despite the many alternatives to these projects and the potential for improving energy efficiency, the mega-dams of the 20th century are only growing bigger and more popular in the 21st.
The Belo Monte Dam and the Xingu River
A few years ago, my film crew had the opportunity to travel to the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, where the Brazilian government has for decades tried to build the Belo Monte, which would be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam. Our crew’s visit coincided with a summit in the city of Altamira, where 1,000 people from various indigenous communities joined national and international supporters to express their unequivocal opposition to the project. The broad mobilization was inspired in part by credible estimates that 20,000 people would be displaced from their traditional territory. Some experts say that 40,000 would be affected if the dam were built.
We produced a short film, “Battle for the Xingu,” in which we interview some participants in the summit and visit some of the affected communities. Advocacy groups have used the film to inform the international community about the project’s implications and it has screened at many short film festivals worldwide.
The film explores the tension between violent and nonviolent tactics in resisting this project. In particular. indigenous activists used a symbolic act of violence in which they cut a dam advocate’s arm to represent their commitment to preventing the dam’s construction. While we applaud the movement’s decision to overwhelmingly embrace nonviolent tactics, in this film we wanted to show the tensions that arise when communities feel they have few options in preventing the destruction of their homeland.
Since the Altamira gathering, the government and the opposition have traded blows. In April 2011 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Brazilian government to stop the dam. A couple months later the Brazilian government approved an installation license, which was reversed by another judge due to the lack of transparency.
Subsequently, in November, another court gave the project the go-ahead. Since then, local activists have occupied the work site, and the International Labor Organization charged the Brazilian government of violating Convention 169, which guarantees indigenous peoples’ right to consultation over projects that affect their lands and rights.
The Resistance Continues
The Belo Monte case is not unique. The Paquitzapango dam in Peru would forever change the Ashaninka people’s way of life. In Ethiopia, the Gibe 3 dam threatens the food security and local economies of nearly half a million people. The Tipaimukh High Dam in India threatens to flood 275 square kilometers of farmland and displace the indigenous Zeliangrong and Hmar communities.
In every case, the suffering to be unleashed on the affected communities will go to benefit the rich and well connected. After signing the installation license for the Belo Monte project, President Rousseff simply said, “I think this is a victory for Brazil’s energy sector.” Yet other major industries stand to make huge gains: a significant portion of the electricity would go to power heavy industrial projects like mining and mineral smelting, which have long been among the worst culprits in destroying indigenous communities.
It is hard not to be reminded of the European thrones and creditors that were enriched on the backs of indigenous populations hundreds of years ago. When Brazil’s energy minister referred to Belo Monte’s opposition as “demoniac forces,” he brought the colonial comparison to life.
The development of the Belo Monte project and other mega-dams is not a foregone conclusion. Resistance on the Xingu continues to prosper, with organizations such as International Rivers and Amazon Watch mobilizing international support. Having seen again and again the tragedies that come of these projects, indigenous communities are more unified and better equipped than ever to oppose these projects.
The Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, a local social movement on the Xingu River that includes indigenous, non-indigenous, rural, and urban affected people has made Belo Monte its prize-fight, and has drawn broad support from non-indigenous players throughout the country.
And while Brazilians stand up for indigenous and environmental rights, the international community is still watching to see if that government, and others around the world, are willing to forever destroy the lives of thousands simply for the enrichment of a few.
Iara Lee, a Brazilian of Korean decent, is an activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Cultures of Resistance Network, an organization that promotes global solidarity and supports peace with justice projects.
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