Posts Tagged 'indigenous people'



Hydroelectric Dams: The Indians Unite

In response to the Brazilian government’s stated objective of issuing a license for the construction of the Belo Monte dam in 2009, the Indians of the Xingu have united once again to confront the threat to their lives.

They are planning a large gathering of the tribes, to run from the 19th to the 23rd May. Over a thousand Indians will join with as many local people in the frontier town of Altamira to press the government to refuse permission for the construction of the dam. They will also use the opportunity to voice their objections to other smaller but no less controversial proposals to build hydroelectric plants on the headwaters and tributaries.Small Riverside Community on the Xingu

The Indians will run the gauntlet of gunmen hired by local landowners who stand to see the value of their land shoot up as the area becomes commercialised.

But they will not be prevented from staging a spectacular display of solidarity, resplendent in feathers and warpaint, as they argue their case.

In 1989, after a similar gathering, the government was forced to climb down when the World bank withdrew funding because of the environmental and social problems the dam will cause.

That was at the peak of interest in the environment. The 1989 gathering brought together Brazilian organisations, international charities, and celebrities, including Sting and the late (and much missed) Anita Roddick. Under the watchful gaze of the international media, the gunmen held back.

Altamira, Brazil. Sting with Chief Raoni at the Altamira conference against dams in Brazil.

There were supporters from many other countries. It was a turning point for Brazil, which was emerging from decades of military rule. New Brazilian organisations were forming, and Brazilians were beginning to stand up to the powerful establishment and its nefarious outer fringes, which inhabited the lawless Amazon.

Today, there are many Brazilians active in the fight to prevent the destruction of the Amazon forest. The Indians have organisations of their own, and are better prepared to take on the government. Now they can speak the government’s language, and they understand more of how the Brazilian world which encompasses theirs operates.

Altamira, Brazil. Group of Indian tribesmen with spears and bordunas in a ceremonial dance. Para State.

But it will not be an easy battle. Finance for the dam will come from Brazilian banks, raised on the back of the Government’s Programme of Accelerated Growth. This means that the international money which will be used is one removed from the project, and the ultimate providers of the funding may not know (or care) that their money is being used for a project which has already been condemned as an environmental, social and human disaster.

For more information see our Press Release about the protest meeting.

© Patrick Cunningham

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Hydroelectricity in the Heart of Brazil

Hydroelectricity has been promoted as a ‘clean’ energy source, capable of providing huge amounts of electricity without adding to global warming. Brazil already obtains 80 percent of its electricity from this source.

But the reality is that large dams cause immense disruption to the local environment and produce huge amounts of powerful greenhouse gases. These include methane, which is 21 times more powerful in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, which is 310 times more potent.

Dams in tropical areas are especially polluting. In the early years, they produce many times more global warming than the equivalent amount of electricity obtained from burning fossil fuels. Even decades after they were constructed, dams in the Amazon continue to generate more global warming than equivalent natural gas power stations.

Dams begin to contribute to global warming before the ground is broken. Manufacture of steel and cement, the core materials used to build the dams, are both significant sources of greenhouse gases.

Once the dam begins to fill with water, greenhouse gas production reaches astronomical proportions because of the decaying vegetation from the trees and plants which are drowned as the water rises. These produce a surge of global warming in the early years, which reduces over time as the drowned organic matter decays, eventually reaching a more or less stable state.

But this stable state still produces high levels of greenhouse gases. Even taking into account natural processes of decay which occur in undisturbed tropical forests, these levels are high. They are several times higher than in a similar-sized natural lake. And they continue for the life of the dam.

Were the dam eventually to be decommissioned and drained, there would be yet another pulse of greenhouse gases, as organic matter trapped in sediment is exposed to oxygen and is attacked by
bacteria and other organic processes, releasing yet another raft of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

On a local level, dams interfere with the life cycles of tropical plants, insects, fish and land animals, destroying the ecological balance of the river basin. Fish can no longer reach their spawning grounds, mammal migration routes are blocked, the annual inundation of riverside land (which brings with it nutrients to feed crops and natural plants growing beside the river) is stopped, and insect populations are affected unpredictably. Aquatic life is damaged by changes in the chemistry of the water trapped in the reservoir, causing many fish species to decline dramatically. The dams create ideal conditions for malaria mosquitoes, and malaria becomes endemic in the areas surrounding dams.

This is but one of the social repercussions. People already living in the area will be displaced; the worst affected will, as ever, be the poorest. Few of the self-sufficient settlers who live along the banks of the Xingu have proper legal title to the land they occupy – and may have occupied for generations.

The experience of people in a similar situation who were affected by construction of the Tucurui dam, only 250 km to the southeast, is not encouraging; over twenty years after the dam was completed many people have not seen any compensation, and are forced to live a marginal existence in shanty towns.

Large construction projects inevitably attract thousands of migrant workers. They bring with them increased deforestation, increased demands on already inadequate local infrastructure, and increased social stress between the immigrant population and the people already living in the area. The problems worsen on completion of the construction, which leaves the new population largely unemployed. Neither the companies involved in the construction and operation of the dam nor the government are prepared to take responsibility for these problems.

Belo Monte, the latest scheme for the Xingu being promoted by the Brazilian government-owned electricity company Eletrobrás , promises to bring all of these problems to the Xingu, with very little benefit.

Further hydroelectric dams are proposed for all of the tributaries of the Xingu. These so-called ‘Small Hydroelectric Plants’ will have a far from small impact on the river and its people, affecting water quality and flow throughout the Xingu basin. The entire ecology of the river will be damaged, disrupting food sources and transportation.

For the indigenous people the dams will destroy their lifestlyes and their very cultures. We must support them in their fight to prevent this unwanted and unjustifiable destruction.

Further reading:

Philip Fearnside on Greenhouse Gas emmissions

International Rivers: Fizzy Science

© Patrick Cunningham

The Heart of Brazil in The Independent

Today’s Independent newspaper, published nationally in the UK, features a double page spread on the expedition. The online version can be seen at: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article3047638.ece but it has no photos.

Altamira to Porto De Moz; Hydroelectric Potential 27th July 2007

Click here: www.ipcst.org/LastLeg to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

Banner Protesting About the Proposed Belo Monte DamAltamira is one of the ten members of the Belo Monte Consortium, a group of municipalities supporting the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam close to Altamira by the national electricity generating company Eletronorte. At first glance, the dam seems to be a well-founded project which will bring benefits to the region, and to Brazil as a whole, while causing disruption only to a small number of people.

The project is part of the Brazilian government’s “Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento” (Accelerated Growth Programme), but has already run into a quagmire of legal challenges which threaten to derail the government’s stated target of completing the licensing procedure by the middle of 2008.

Core to the legal challenges is the mechanism for consulting the Indian communities which would be affected. According to a ruling of the Regional Federal Court (Tribunal Regional Federal), this is the direct responsibility of Congress, and cannot be carried out by IBAMA, the government environment agency which has already begun the process of defining the terms of the consultation, without an act of congress.

During the last part of the Heart of Brazil Expedition, all of the Indian villages and riverside communities (ribeirinhos) we visited, from before São Félix do Xingu to beyond Altamira, voiced strong opposition to the dam. They told us that they are planning a large protest meeting.

There are many questions hanging over the dam. Who exactly will benefit from the huge generating capacity which is proposed? There is no shortage of electricity in the region, and recent progress in solar panel technology promises to provide even rural properties with abundant power.

Reflected Clouds and RainforestThe nearby Tucurui dam generates abundant power during most of the year, and its capacity has recently been practically doubled by the completion of a second phase. But the main beneficiaries of Tucurui have been the private mining and metal corporations, which have negotiated very beneficial contracts which amount to the supply of subsidised electricity for their commercial activities.

The Tucurui site was recently occupied by people who were displaced by the construction of the dam over twenty years ago, who are still today fighting for adequate compensation.

Since the Xingu dries up substantially during the months from July to October each year, many question the technical viability of the project. A recently published book, titled Tenotã–mõ (which in the Arawete language means “What Has Started” (o que segue à frente, o que começa) explains that a second dam will be required to justify the existence of the first by keeping it supplied with water during the dry months, thereby allowing it to operate throughout the year. Eletronorte have not been straightforward in disclosing this. The second dam would flood fifteen times more land than the first, and affect many more of the indigenous and riverside (ribeirinho) people.

Questions remain about the amount of electricity which would be generated. Tucurui often operates at less than a third of its stated capacity. During the dry season, the dam may be unable to generate any electricity at all. Surely it would be more sensible to improve the operation of the existing generating capacity, rather than drowning so many more square kilometres of forest?

Even the environmental claims for this non-fossil fuel means of producing electricity are under question. The greenhouse gases produced by rotting vegetation will more than negate any benefits derived from not using fossil fuels to generate the same amount of electricity for at least the first 39 years!

The Coração do Brasil with ParrotFor the Indians, the effect of the two dams would be disastrous. Their entire lives would be disrupted, and they would have no alternative but to join the ‘money society’ to acquire everyday essentials including food, debasing and undermining the very core of their culture in the process, and making them dependent on outside assistance to maintain their lives.

Fishing in an open body of water is much more difficult than in a confined channel, and as fish is the main source of protein for the Indians, they would be unable to supply their basic dietary needs. They already have difficulty when the river is in full flood, and this would be drastically worsened by the dams.

The dams would transform the ecology of thousands of square kilometres of rain forest in unpredictable ways, changing the balance of species and even affecting the climate. The proponents of the dam use the uncertainty to mask the likely negative impacts. Even an independent social and environmental study is unlikely to identify all of the problems. Within the government’s stated time-scale, it is simply impossible to carry out an assessment which will do more than look at the most superficial effects of the proposal.

It is not clear from the very restricted amount of information available on the Eletronorte website whether the effects of climate change and the reduction in the flow of the river which will result from the proposed construction of six hydroelectric schemes on the headwaters of the Xingu river have been taken into account in the technical studies on which the proposal is based. All along the river, everybody, from Indians to fazendeiros, from caboclos to businesspeople in the towns, has been telling us about changes in the local climate.

There is now no room for doubt that the climate is changing, and changing very quickly. The local people report decreased rainfall during the months from October to December, and much hotter weather the whole year through. They report river levels much lower than before during the dry season, with the very low water levels which make river travel difficult arriving several weeks earlier.

Driving the Boat by Foot!It is possible that the Brazilian government may decide to override the rights of people living on the margins of the river and implement this proposal, claiming that it will benefit the people of Brazil as a whole. It seems that this claim is spurious, and that the only beneficiaries will be a small handful of powerful Brazilian and international corporations.

We passed the site of the first proposed dam on our way to Paquissamba. The village lies below the site, and the river at that point will be completely cut off, leaving the village high and dry, unable to fish and unable to use the river for transport.

Further downriver from the site of the dam we rejoined the river, having returned to Altamira to take the Coração do Brasil by road to Vitoria do Xingu for the last leg of the expedition.

The river here has the proportions of a lake. From Vitoria to Porto de Moz is a distance of 120 kilometres, and the river is over 10 kilometres wide for most of the distance. We encountered almost maritime conditions, our small boat repeatedly banging down on the waves, jarring our bones and blurring our vision.

This last journey in the Coração do Brasil was otherwise uneventful, so Sue and I had plenty of time to reflect on our experiences over the last four months. We have learned a huge amount during our travels, re-meeting old friends in some villages and making new ones in others.

Porto de MozAs we sped towards Porto de Moz, our final destination, we thought about the strength and vibrance of the indigenous cultures we had seen, and we reflected on the progress many ethnic groups have made towards self-determination.

We shed some tears for the villages where things are so much worse than they were, and we thought of the threats to the river and its people which are so powerful today, from the soya farms and hydroelectric schemes on the headwaters to the huge Belo Monte dam proposed so close to the mouth of the river.

We thought about what must be done to protect this river we have come to know so intimately, with its breathtaking vistas, its boiling rapids, its majestic curves, its vibrant forests and its remarkable people.

We realised that our journey, far from being over, is only just beginning.

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

LINKS:
Eletronorte: www.eln.gov.br
Eletronorte’s Belo Monte website: http://www.belomonte.gov.br/
International Rivers: http://www.internationalrivers.org/
Summary of Tenotã–mõ:
http://internationalrivers.org/en/latin-america/amazon-basin/xingu-river/tenot-m-executive-summary
– The full text of the book is available to download (in Portuguese) on this page (in six pdf files):
capa parte I parte II parte III parte IV parte V

Maps: vale do rio Xingu e barragens projetadas

© Patrick Cunningham

São Félix do Xingu to Paquissamba 20th July 2007

Avia Parakanã, of Aldeia XinguFrom São Félix do Xingu we moved on downriver. A long day in the Coração do Brasil took us to within a short distance of the Parakanã village of Xingu, where we made a short visit before moving on to Apyterewa, also of the Parakanã.

These villages lie in what is now the Apyterewa reserve. By the time the reserve was demarcated, a large part had been occupied by settlers and ranchers, and the teams doing the physical demarcation were harassed and threatened by gunmen from the ranches. The Indians today are not able to enter parts of the reserve, where they still encounter armed workers. Efforts by the authorities to remove the illegal occupants have so far been unsuccessful.

We moved on to visit the villages of the Araweté, Asurini and Arara, and the Kayapo village of Kararaô, before arriving in Altamira.

After overnighting in the town, we headed out to visit our last village, leaving Altamira at about 10 AM for a journey which our boatmen assured us would take three hours. Our plan was to return the same day.

Illegal Gold Dredger on the Xingu River.We passed crudely-constructed gold dredgers busily churning up the sediment of the river in their illegal quest for the yellow metal. We also saw the riverside remains of several garimpos at the side of the river.

The river here is treacherous, with stretch after stretch of rock-strewn rapids. More than once the bottom of the boat scraped worryingly over the rocks. Doto, our boatman, reacted quickly to lift the outboard motor clear of the water.

Rapids on the Xingu RiverIt gradually dawned on us that he was searching for the correct channel; we realised that his assurances that he knew the river were not based on fact. As more time passed, it became clear that not only did he not know the correct channel, but he didn’t have the faintest idea of the location of the village.

At this point the river is over 5 kilometres wide, a maze of islands, rocks, sandbanks and rapids. Our progress was slowed to a crawl. Eventually, we came across a local man in a boat, who was able to give Doto some directions; we were on the wrong side of a large island, and we had to re-trace our tracks for several kilometres – still at a crawl – and find the village from the other side.

We shot several rapids, ending up in a dead end. We returned through the swirling water, and I was ready to call a halt and return to Altamira. By now it was after 3 PM, so we were heading for an uncomfortable night somewhere, with no shelter; there was not enough time to make the return in daylight, and the rapids were too dangerous to attempt a night-time navigation.

We took one more turn, heading downstream, looking for a way to cross back to a larger channel we had left some time before. I realised that there was a full flow of water; this was still close to the bank of the river where the village lies. We followed the flow, rounded a bend – and there was the tell-tale collection of dugout canoes!

Aldeia Ipixuna. Arawete arrows.The village bears the same name as another we also visited in the Parque Indígena Xingu; Paquissamba. Like its namesake, it is occupied by Juruna Indians; but there the similarity ends.

These Juruna speak only Portuguese; there remain just a couple of elderly members of the community who are able to speak the Juruna language. They have lost their traditions of dance, body painting and pottery making, and they no longer keep up the tribal traditions of singing and celebrations. They live in houses more like those of their ribeirinho neighbours than those of their relatives in the Xingu Indigenous Park.

We came bearing a message from the cacique of Tuba Tuba, the largest of the traditional Juruna villages in the Parque Indígena Xingu. He sent with us a gourd vessel painted with traditional Juruna designs, the same ones they use in their body painting. He asked us to deliver an invitation to the Juruna of Pará to visit his village.

The invitation was received by Manoel, the cacique of Paquissamba, with a mixture of pleasure and shame; he was very happy to receive the invitation, but he was ashamed that he could not speak the Juruna language, that he knew none of the dances or songs. We assured him that he had no need to be ashamed, that the invitation was from the heart. He promised us that he would take up the invitation if he had the opportunity.

We stayed the night in the small village, which straggles up a hillside from the river bank, an untidy collection of wooden houses, some of which have been abandoned by inhabitants who have left to live elsewhere. The roof of the school is falling in, so the children have their lessons in an open-sided hut opposite the health post. During our visit, there was no water because of a problem with the pump from the well.

Inside the houses, the people had more material goods than we are accustomed to seeing; furniture, televisions, DVD players, sound systems, cookers, cutlery and crockery. The houses had more the feel of non-Indian houses than those found in most of the other villages we have visited.

We found the village keen to be involved in agricultural production; cacau, black pepper (pimenta do reino), and even cattle. But the village is isolated, and has little access to the materials and expertise needed to set these activities in action.

Patrick Cunningham at the helm of the Coração do BrasilIt was in a strange way fitting that the last village we visited should be the most aligned to mainstream Brazilian culture; this was our transition back to Brazilian life.

We returned to Altamira the next day, since there are impassable waterfalls just a little further downriver. The return journey took a little over four hours, and was much less eventful than the previous day.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: Altamira to Porto de Moz

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.