Court Suspends Military Operation For São Luiz do Tapajós Dam Studies

International Rivers
Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Judge Calls for Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of Affected Munduruku Indigenous People

Brasilia, Brazil: A federal appeals court (TRF-1) in Brazil has ordered the suspension of “Operation Tapajós,” a military and police intervention organized to control indigenous protests over technical studies on their lands in preparation for the controversial São Luíz do Tapajós Dam in the Amazonian state of Pará. Judge João Batista Moreira ruled that federal law and ILO Convention 169, to which Brazil is a part, require that indigenous Munduruku communities and other traditional populations threatened by the proposed dam be guaranteed a process of free, prior, and informed consultation and consent prior to further technical studies for dam construction. Although the dams are still officially in a phase of environmental assessment, the Brazilian government has made a political decision to build up to seven large dams on the Tapajós River and one of its major tributaries, the Jamanxim River.

The appeals court decision overturns an authorization granted in March from a federal judge in Santarém to allow the military operation and environmental studies to continue, and bans any further activity related to São Luiz do Tapajós Dam. The ruling also calls for a strategic environmental assessment of the cumulative impacts of the dams planned for the basin before studies continue.

"This is a landmark decision for establishing that prior consultations with indigenous communities and other traditional populations, as well as the analysis of cumulative impacts of dam cascades, must be taken seriously by the Brazilian government from the earliest phases of planning at the river basin level,” stated Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director of International Rivers. Munduruku indigenous leader Maria Kaba celebrated the decision, stating "this is good news for us, we're very happy to receive this news."

Munduruku indigenous communities warned of tensions upon the arrival of the military and scientists to the nearby town of Itaituba in March, saying that the tribe would “declare war” if the military incurred into their lands.

Armed forces arrived to Itaituba in March
Armed forces arrived to Itaituba in March
Photo courtesy of Indigenous Brazil

In November 2012, one Munduruku indigenous leader was shot and killed by federal police and several people were hit by police gunfire as a result of “Operation Eldorado” further upstream in the Tapajós Basin. “Operation Eldorado” was meant to clear illegal miners from a government-operated mining district, but resulted in clashes with indigenous people who claimed that the true aim of the military operation was to protect construction of a dam on the Teles Pires River against protests by affected indigenous people. 

The suspension will likely be appealed to Brazil's Superior Court of Justice or its Federal Supreme Court. A similar decision from the federal appeals court suspended the controversial Belo Monte Dam in August of 2012, when judges argued that government developer Eletrobras had failed to consult affected indigenous Juruna and Arara tribes prior to congressional approval of that dam in 2005.

Brazil is a party to Article 6 of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which requires states to obtain the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of indigenous people who would be affected by development projects.

São Luiz do Tapajós is one of three dams planned for the Tapajós mainstem which would flood a total of 198,400 hectares, including 11,000 hectares of two national parks and over 23,000 hectares of national forests. The dams would cause significant impacts on indigenous lands of the Munduruku, Apiaká de Pimental, Akaybãe, Remédio, Sai Cinza, São Martinho and Boca do Igarapé Pacu.  Three indigenous lands are located directly behind the site of São Luiz do Tapajós, currently awaiting federal demarcation.

Four more dams are slated for the Jamanxim River, five dams for the Teles Pires, and dozens of dams for the nearby Juruena River, all in the Tapajós Basin. The dams are part of Brazil's plan for public spending, the Program to Accelerate Growth, which also includes widespread expansion of mining in the Amazon.

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