Amazon Indians Rebel Against Dams

Glenn Switkes
Monday, March 2, 2009

The Enawene Nawe are skilled fishers
The Enawene Nawe are skilled fishers
Fiona Watson/Survival
Brazil’s Enawene Nawe Indians have said enough is enough to destructive development projects, and have demanded that dam construction on the Juruena River in the western Amazon come to a halt. On October 11, about 120 Indians burned the Telegráfica Dam work site in Sapezal, Mato Grosso. The project is part of the Brazilian government's Growth Acceleration Plan, and is being built by a consortium that purchased the project from the Maggi Energy company. This company is linked to the soy king, Blairo Maggi, now governor of Mato Grosso state.  Eight of the 11 projects being planned for the Jurena have received a go-ahead from Mato Grosso environmental authorities.

No prior consultation took place with indigenous peoples who depend on the fish and other resources of the Juruena basin for their survival. The indigenous people became incensed when they learned at a meeting with indigenous protection officials that more than 80 prospective dam sites on the Juruena are being evaluated, including sites close to the Enawene Nawe reserve. The projects are relatively small, ranging in size from seven to 24 meters in height, but their impact on fisheries could be large due to the number of obstructions the dams will pose, and the poor record of fish passage devices in the tropics.

After failed attempts to negotiate a compensation package with the companies, the Enawene Nawe blocked roads, occupied the dams’ work sites, and called for independent studies on the dams' impacts. Daliaywacê Enawenê Nawê, a tribal leader, said there will be no more negotiations, since money won't bring back fish and clean water once the dams are built: "The river is a very strong spirit that eats a lot of fish and drinks a lot of water in our rituals.  If all these dams are built on the Juruena, he will be angry and hungry and will bring sickness to our people."

The Enawene Nawe only eat meat on special occasions. Fish is considered as their most important food, and fundamental to their rituals At the close of the rainy season, the Enawene Nawe men divide into groups and set off for collective fishing in preparation for the four-month Yãkwa ritual. The indigenous people catch and smoke large quantities of fish to be eaten during the ritual, which is intended to please the spirits and to keep their world in balance.

According to chief Kawari, "If the destruction of the rivers continues, everyone will die – we, you, all of you non-Indians. The difference is that we already know this, but you do not..."

The indigenous peoples have been helped by public attorneys, who filed suit to demand studies on the cumulative impacts of all the dams projected for the Juruena. Following a lower court decision suspending the projects, Brazil's Supreme Court reversed the decision, permitting dam construction to proceed. Since then, additional technical opinions have documented serious flaws in the project studies, particularly the overall study that justified the projects.

There has been an explosion of investments in small dams in Brazil in recent years, and particularly in Mato Grosso. The boom is driven by government policies providing easy credit, exemption on requirements for royalties and taxes, and other public subsidies. The licensing process has also been streamlined to permit fast-tracking of projects. Today, 39 small hydroelectric dams are in operation in the state, another 36 are in licensing or construction, and at least 80 more are being planned. While small dams usually cause less serious impacts than larger dams, the impacts of building multiple dams on a river system have not been assessed.

In November, Brazilian government officials signed an agreement with indigenous representatives who traveled to Brasilia, stipulating that no dams will be built until further studies are carried out. But since then, conflicts have continued, and indigenous people report that dam workers and security guards have beaten indigenous families fishing along the river.