Indigenous Leaders Call Attention to Destructive Amazon Dams During European Tour

Brent Millikan
Almir Narayamoga Surui and Sheyla Yakarepi at protest outside BNDES office in London
Almir Narayamoga Surui and Sheyla Yakarepi at protest outside BNDES office in London

Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of joining indigenous leaders from Brazil and Peru on a tour of four cities in Europe, aimed at raising public awareness and stepping up international support for their campaigns against socially and environmentally destructive dams in the Amazon. The indigenous delegation, also accompanied by colleagues from Amazon Watch and Rainforest Foundation-UK, had a busy and varied agenda in each of the cities we visited, including public seminars, street demonstrations, debates with officials from governments, corporations and multilateral agencies and meetings with partners – not to mention rushing through airports, metro and train stations in order to arrive on time at the next way station.

The Amazonian participants in the delegation included Sheyla Yakarepi Juruna (representative of indigenous peoples from the Xingu River Basin threatened by the Belo Monte dam complex), Almir Narayamoga Surui (representing indigenous populations affected by the Santo Antônio and Jirau dams on the Madeira River) and Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari (President of Central Asháninka of the Ene River in the Peruvian Amazon).

The indigenous leaders from the Amazon called on governments, corporations and financial institutions (including the Brazilian National Development Bank – BNDES) to urgently adopt safeguards to ensure full respect for human rights while promoting more integrated and sustainable approaches to energy and river basin planning.

One of the goals of the delegation was to challenge the fallacy that the construction of mega-dams in the Amazon is a strategy for promoting "clean" energy within sustainable development and national climate change strategies. The gross violations of indigenous peoples' rights typically associated with Amazonian dams are themselves grounds for such assumptions to be laid to rest. Of course, such projects have a variety of other devastating social and environmental impacts - including methane and other greenhouse gas emissions - that make them anything but "clean."

“We are here to denounce to the international community that the Brazilian government is gravely violating the rights of the indigenous peoples in its obsession to build the Belo Monte dam at any cost, including the right to free, prior and informed consent, as guaranteed by ILO Convention 169 , the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Brazilian Constitution,” said Sheyla Yakarepi Juruna. “The Brazilian Government talks about democracy, sustainable development and clean energy, while doing anything it can to shove the Belo Monte dam project down the throats of indigenous peoples and other local communities of the Xingu.”

Almir Surui called attention to the consequences of the Santo Antônio and Jirau dams on the Madeira River for indigenous peoples, including groups living in voluntary isolation that are especially vulnerable. "These dam projects bring immediate profits to some politicians and companies, and short-term employment for some workers, but what about their larger costs to people and nature? We need a new model of development that brings benefits to all, that respects indigenous peoples, their knowledge and their territories."

Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari criticized the series of large dams planned for construction in the Peruvian Amazon, including three dams on the Rio Ene that would flood indigenous lands (Pakitzapango, Tambo 40, Tambo 60) as part of a bilateral agreement with Brazil, masterminded by parastatal Eletrobras and private corporations such as Odebrecht. "We not against development, but we will not accept projects imposed from the outside, that displace our people and flood our territories. The Ashaninka people want to live in tranquility."

Some of the trip highlights included:

  • in Oslo, a series of debates on plans of the Norwegian government and private sector to upscale their involvement in dam-building and associated electro-intensive mining enterprises in Brazil;
  • a series of meetings on dams and indigenous rights, held at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva; 
  • in Paris, a public seminar and street demonstration in the Human Rights Square, focusing on the lack of social and environmental accountability of European multinationals GDF Suez, Alstom, Voith-Siemens and Andritz – all heavily involved in the Amazon dam industry. These followed meetings with GDF Suez officials (which continue to skirt their responsibilities on indigenous rights) and Green Party Senator Marie-Christine Blandin.
  • in London, a public seminar and press conference at Amnesty International and a meeting with the All Party Group Tribal Peoples Council of the British Parliament to call attention to indigenous rights related to Amazonian dams. The tour culminated in a major rally in front of the offices of BNDES London, where dozens of delegates, activists, celebrities and media joined in targeting the bank’s key role in funding destructive dams in the Amazon; and
  • in both Oslo and London, calling attention to the contradictions between the green discourse of BNDES and the socially and environmentally destructive projects that dominate its lending portfolio, such as Belo Monte.

Clearly, the delegation was a timely step in raising international awareness about the serious and irreversible human rights and environmental impacts being caused by mega-dams projects in the Amazon. Governments, financial institutions and corporations are increasingly receiving the message that they cannot operate outside the scrutiny of civil society and the rule of law.