Another Standoff in the Amazon

By Gabriel Elizondo of Al Jazeera
Thursday, May 30, 2013

Indigenous people occupy the controversial Belo Monte dam construction site saying they were not properly consulted.

It’s another standoff in the Amazon, and it could get very ugly very fast.

A lone warrior in a standoff with government forces during an indigenous occupation of the Belo Monte Dam site in the Brazilian Amazon, May 2013.
A lone warrior in a standoff with government forces during an indigenous occupation of the Belo Monte Dam site in the Brazilian Amazon, May 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ruy Sposati via mundurukudenuncia on Flickr

On Monday, 170 indigenous people armed with bows and arrows from the Xingu river region again occupied a work site at the controversial Belo Monte dam construction site, grinding to a halt work on one of the world’s largest construction projects.

Dump trucks and bulldozers sit idle.

The indigenous say they were not properly consulted on the building of the dam, and promises by the government to help their tribes minimize harmful side effects of the construction have fallen flat.

A local judge quickly issued a ruling on Tuesday compelling the police to forcefully evict the indigenous from the work site.

Dozens of police are standing by at this hour ready to execute the judge’s order.

On Wednesday the indigenous people issued a powerful statement saying they would not leave, and are prepared to die in the face of the police pressure unless they receive a personal meeting to voice their concerns with one of President Dilma Rousseff’s top ministers, something Brasilia has been reluctant to do so far.

With tensions escalating, the regional federal public prosecutors office appealed for calm and a delay in any police action, but that office has no power to stop it.

The real fear is that heavily armed police storming head first into over a hundred indigenous people could result in blood being spilled.

It could happen at any moment, as events are moving fast at the location, just north of the Amazon city of Altamira.

This isn’t the first time: Almost exactly a year ago 150 indigenous from eight tribes occupied the work site for over two weeks. They eventually backed down after delicate talks with the government and promises to meet some of the Indians demands.

It ended peacefully that time, but this go around the indigenous seem more determined than ever in their resistance.

In the past year the builders said they have lost more than 90 work days on the dam project because of sporadic indigenous protests.

But now the situation is more fraught with the possibility of violence than ever before.

All sides seem to be losing patience with each other.

After the last Indian occupation, Brasilia sent a troop of National Force federal police to the nearby town of Altamira to quell any future disturbances at the work site. Those officers remain there, ready to participate in any police action now.

The indigenous see this as heavy handed tactics.

The consortium building the dam is saying they have lost 90 days of work over the past year because of these protests.

Meanwhile, the 170 indigenous say this is their land, and they are not the occupiers, but the liberators of the gigantic construction project in the jungle they claim as their home.

Something has to give. The indigenous say it won’t be them. Not this time.

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  • Gabriel Elizondo is an Al Jazeera staff correspondent based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
  • Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel