The Battle for the Xingu in Brazil

Iara Lee
Thursday, September 29, 2011

Originally published on Huffington Post

This month, I would like to share a piece on the movement to prevent the construction of what would be the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam on Brazil's Xingu River. Our Cultures of Resistance film crew was there for a massive indigenous demonstration in 2008. Today, the Battle for the Xingu continues.

In every corner of the world today, we see unfathomably huge hydroelectric dams being built in places that destroy entire ecosystems and indigenous livelihoods. The notorious Three Gorges Dam in China has its rivals on all other continents, from the proposed Grand Inga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the James Bay Project in Canada. In these examples and many others, the same tragedies are recurring: thousands are displaced from their homes, fish species are going extinct, fertile farmland is flooded and rendered useless, and the artificial reservoirs serve as a place for water-borne diseases to flourish. Despite the many smaller-scale, less-destructive alternatives to these mega-projects, not to mention the enormous improvements in energy efficiency that we can make, dams from the 20th century are only growing bigger and more popular in the 21st.

A couple of years ago our film crew had the opportunity to travel to the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, where the Brazilian government has for decades pushed for the construction of the so-called Belo Monte. If built, it would be the world's third largest dam. Our crew's visit coincided with a summit in the city of Altamira, where 1,000 people from various indigenous communities joined national and international supporters to express their unequivocal opposition to the project. The broad mobilization came as a response, in part, to credible estimates that 20,000 people would be displaced from their traditional territory; some experts say that 40,000 would be affected if the dam were built.

Despite this firm resistance, and the diverse, respected voices that continue to point out the plan's economic, structural, and environmental infeasibility, in June 2011 the Brazilian government approved an installation license for a consortium of giant state-owned and private companies to build the dam. There are currently 12 lawsuits awaiting trial inside of Brazil, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the government to stop the dam because of a lack of consultation with the affected indigenous people.

Somehow, with the project's well-known technical and economic uncertainties and the guaranteed havoc it will wreak on indigenous communities and the Amazonian ecosystem, in the distorted minds of government and industry there is no other way forward. They refuse to acknowledge the cost-competitive, benign, truly renewable technologies -- like wind and solar projects -- that are growing more cost-effective every day, and never consider the enormous potential for improving energy efficiency.

As horrific as the Belo Monte case may be, it is not unique: we see these same things happening all over the world. The Paquitzapango dam in Peru would forever change the Ashaninka people's way of life (and would, like Belo Monte, be built by Brazilian companies and funded by the Brazilian National Development Bank). In Ethiopia, the Gibe 3 dam threatens the food security and local economies of nearly half a million people, and even the Kenyan government just recommended that Ethiopia refrain from building it. The Tipaimukh High Dam in India threatens to flood 275 square kilometers of farmland and displace the indigenous Zeliangrong and Hmar communities.

In every case, and in particular on the Xingu, the suffering to be unleashed on these communities will go to benefit the rich and -- well -- connected. After signing the Installation License for the Belo Monte project, President Dilma, with a completely straight face, announced, "I think this is a victory for Brazil's energy sector."

But it is not only the energy sector that benefits: in most cases, a huge portion of the electricity goes to power heavy industrial projects like mining and mineral smelting, which have long been some of the worst culprits in destroying indigenous communities. With all these dynamics in place, it is hard not to think of the colonial projects of centuries ago that enriched European thrones at the expense of indigenous populations. When Brazil's energy minister referred to Belo Monte's opposition as "demoniac forces," in 2009, he made the colonial image nearly unavoidable.

But the development of these disastrous mega-dams is not a foregone conclusion. Resistance to the Belo Monte project, which has been sustained for nearly two decades, continues to prosper. Indeed, on August 20th inside Brazil, there were massive protests in practically every major city in the country, and international protests took place in cities across the world on August 22nd. Having seen again and again the tragedies that come of these projects, indigenous communities are now more unified and better equipped than ever at opposing disruptive mega-dams.

The Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, a local social movement on the Xingu River that includes indigenous, non-indigenous, rural, and urban affected people has made Belo Monte its prize-fight, and has drawn broad support from non-indigenous players throughout the country. And while Brazilians stand up for indigenous and environmental rights, the international community is still watching to see if that government, and others around the world, are willing to forever destroy the lives of thousands simply for the enrichment of a few.

To find out how you can keep the pressure on, visit International Rivers and Amazon Watch for the latest action alerts.