Another Indigenous Tragedy Highlights the Inviability of Amazonian Dams

Zachary Hurwitz
Cinta-larga tribe
Cinta-larga tribe

Headlines around the world this week again brought attention to the impacts of dams in the Amazon on indigenous people. But this time the culprit wasn’t the monstrous Belo Monte Dam planned for the Xingu River, but a smaller dam being built on the Aripuanã River in the state of Mato Grosso. The issue highlights the heightened tensions between indigenous people in the Amazon and those who seek to exploit the area’s natural resources.

Last week, energy company Aguas da Pedra, builders of Dardanelos Dam (261 MW) in the state of Mato Grosso, dynamited a cemetery belonging to the Arara indigenous tribe. The location of the cemetery had not been included in the dam's environmental impact assessment.  

Spanish electric utility Iberdrola, which recently announced its intention to participate in funding Belo Monte, has a 51% stake in Dardanelos, while Eletrobras controls the remaining 49% through regional subsidiaries Eletronorte and CHESF. 

"We have been waiting since 2005. We’re tired. This was a big cemetery, with all our ancestors, many generations of our tribe, which is right in the construction site. It is a sacred place for us"  said tribal leader Aldeci Arara.

In response, 11 tribes led by the Arara, Cinta-Larga and Rikbaktsa invaded the construction site. Dressed and armed for war, they held close to 100 Aguas da Pedra employees hostage, demanding that construction be halted and $10 million reais (about US$5.7 million) be paid in compensation for the invaluable loss of their ancestors and the damage to the Aripuanã River, whose fish species have disappeared and whose waters have become polluted since construction began.

Rikbaktsa indigenous leader Jair Tsaidatase told reporters that "if they don't accept our negotiations, we will set the dam on fire."  

One day after taking the construction workers hostage, the members of the 11 tribes took five project engineers and managers in exchange for releasing the 26 construction workers. The five hostages were later released and an agreement struck between the dam company and the indigenous groups.

Salto Dardanelos (Dardanelos Leap), Mato Grosso, Brasil
Salto Dardanelos (Dardanelos Leap), Mato Grosso, Brasil

Dardanelos is one of a series of hydro projects on the Aripuanã that includes the Juína, Faxinal I, and Faxinal II dams. Construction plans for Dardanelos also include destroying the "Dardanelos Leap" (Salto de Dardanelos), a world-famous ecotourism site known for its spectacular waterfall and incredible biodiversity. Similar to the Belo Monte Dam, the project would divert the Aripuanã River through a water diversion canal, leaving indigenous people living downstream from the dam high and dry. 

The tragedy highlights the fragile state of relations between the region’s indigenous people and dam companies. In 2007, hundreds of the Enawenê Nawê led an occupation of the Telegráfica Dam and set fire to it, one of nine smaller dams on the nearby Juruena River, five of which are owned by agribusiness giant Grupo Amaggi. In 2008, further east on the magnificent headwaters of the Xingu, hundreds of Kamaiurá and Ikpeng held hostage workers of the Paranatinga II Dam, which diverted the Culuene River. Paranatinga II was one of the original six dams proposed as part of the Belo Monte complex in 1980, the only part of the complex to have already been constructed.

Odebrecht workers at Dardanelos Dam site
Odebrecht workers at Dardanelos Dam site
Credit: Odebrecht

The dam occupations point to the saliency of bad practices currently at the heart of the Brazilian hydroelectric industry and in the granting of environmental licenses. Brazil's dam industry regularly omits crucial data from impact studies due to internal pressure to meet political timelines and the promissory expectations of investors, rather than fulfilling legal obligations to perform comprehensive studies of a given project's impacts.  

Frequently, impact assessments consider flooding to be the only direct impact on indigenous people, leading to such engineering designs as river diversion canals. Yet the impacts that such engineering “fixes” leave, such as downstream river desiccation, or the discharge of pollutants and the transformation of water chemistry and quality, are not considered to directly affect indigenous people.  

"Important aspects in the lives of these indigenous people were not considered by the company.  The construction is not located inside of the indigenous reserve, but is right on top of an indigenous cemetery. The company dynamited something of inestimable value for them," said Antônio Carlos Ferreira Aquino, the regional Funai coordinator.

"They don't want money in their hands, what they want is a sustainable program in the area that will recover the loss they have suffered," he continued.

For now, the occupation is over and the Arara and others have gone home. But with so many dams proposed and under construction in the Amazon, the next confrontation is only a matter of time.