Brazil should consult natives on Amazon dam: panel

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

WASHINGTON — Brazil should suspend work on the massive Belo Monte dam project in the Amazon to consult the affected indigenous population, an intergovernmental human rights panel said Tuesday.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) "asks the government of Brazil to immediately suspend the licensing process" for the project, according to a statement from the autonomous unit of the Organization of American States.

The commission also called on Brazil, in a letter dated April 1, to take "protective measures" for a dozen indigenous peoples living in the Xingu River basin.

It said the huge hydroelectric project, which would be the world's third largest, threatens the "lives and physical integrity" of indigenous groups in the area.

The IACHR also urged Brazilian authorities "to ensure that indigenous communities... have access to environmental and social impact studies of the project, in an accessible format, including translation into the respective indigenous languages."

In Brasilia, the government said it was "perplexed" by the IACHR request, and called the recommendations "precipitous and unwarranted."

The Foreign Ministry said the project is "strictly adhering to all relevant standards for construction... taking into account social and environmental concerns."

In February, indigenous tribes and environmentalists delivered a petition calling for the scrapping of the $11 billion dam project in the Amazon jungle.

The Belo Monte dam is portrayed by Brazil's government as a key piece of its plan to boost national energy production needed for one of the world's fastest-growing emerging economies.

It recently gave the go-ahead for work to begin on the facility, which would be the third biggest dam in the world, after China's Three Gorges construction and the Itaipu dam on the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

But tribes, local residents, environmentalists and a few foreign celebrities -- including Sting and "Avatar" director James Cameron -- are calling for the Belo Monte project to be canceled, saying it would do harm to the world's biggest virgin rainforest region.

Reacting to the latest news, Brazilian indigenous leader Sheyla Juruna said she was "heartened" by the IACHR statement.

"Today more than ever, I have confidence that we were right to raise the issue of violation of the rights of indigenous peoples of the Xingu, and will continue strong and resilient in this fight," she said.

The government "can no longer use economic development as an excuse to ignore human rights and make us accept projects of destruction and death of our natural resources," said another indigenous leader, Antonia Melo of the Xingu Vivo Movement.