Some 600 people, many of them Indigenous Peoples, fisherfolk and other residents of villages along Brazil’s Xingú River, halted construction of the Belo Monte dam on October 27, as they staged a day-long protest at the work site.

Hundreds of Indigenous Protest Belo Monte Dam, Brazilian Government Boycotts Talks

Barbara Fraser
11/10/11

UPDATED, NOVEMBER 10, 2011: A Brazilian court on November 9, ruled that indigenous communities do not have the right to free, prior and informed consultation in regards to the Belo Monte Dam because the infrastructure and reservoirs will not be located on tribal lands. The announcement about the dam that will flood some 40,000 hectares of rainforest, displace more than 10,000 people and block 80 percent of the Xingu river was immediately denounced by those who oppose the dam. “Today’s decision by Judge Cardoso proves that there is no independent judicial system in our country,” said Sheyla Juruna, a leader of the Juruna indigenous community located near the Belo Monte Dam site, referring to Federal Judge Maria do Carmo Cardoso, who cast the deciding vote in today's decision according to an article at mongabay.com. “With political pressure and money, the government gets anything it wants. We have no more illusions about the government and judiciary’s respect for the Brazilian Constitution when our rights are at stake. Judge Cardoso can be sure that we will never forget the harm she caused us today. This vote will weigh against her forever.”

Hundreds of indigenous people, fisherfolk and other residents of villages along Brazil’s Xingú River staged a day-long protest at the site of the huge Belo Monte dam on October 27, halting construction work for about 15 hours. Some 600 people were demonstrating against the hydroelectric project, which they say is already disrupting their lives, and which they fear will cause irreversible social and environmental harm. Destruction of the forest to build three camps housing more than 10,000 workers “is highly visible,” said Sheyla Juruna, a Juruna leader from the village of Boa Vista, who was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Brazilian government representatives and members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That meeting was scheduled for October 26, but the Brazilian government boycotted the session, a move Juruna said showed “a lack of responsibility.”

“The government does not want to dialogue with the communities affected by the Belo Monte dam. We don’t accept being treated this way,” Juruna said at a sidewalk press conference outside the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters, where the meeting was to be held. “Brazil is violating its own laws, international law, and indigenous rights.” The Brazilian government has been at odds with the OAS since April, when the international body criticized the 11,000-megawatt dam project. On October 17, a Brazilian judge ruled the licensing of the dam unconstitutional because of its impact on indigenous communities, which she said were not properly consulted about the plans. But Juruna and Jacob Kopas, a lawyer with the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), a non-profit environmental and human rights organization representing affected communities, said construction is continuing as the Brazilian suit works its way through the courts. Activists and celebrities like Avatar director James Cameron have taken up the Belo Monte cause, making it one of the highest-profile indigenous rights cases in the Amazon basin.

But it is far from the only conflict between national governments’ development plans and indigenous communities’ rights to their lands. Oil exploration, mining and dams also threaten indigenous territories in Ecuador, according to Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), that country’s largest indigenous umbrella organizations. Cholango was also in Washington for a hearing on a case involving the Armadillo oil lease in the southern part of the country, which indigenous leaders say will affect the Tagaeri and Taromenane people, who live in isolation, shunning contact with the outside world.

There is evidence that members of those tribes use land that is included in the lease. Similar warnings about the impact of oil drilling on isolated tribes have been sounded across the border in neighboring Peru. Ecuador is putting a dozen oil leases out for bid in October, mainly in the central and southern Amazon basin, on lands inhabited by seven Indigenous Peoples, Cholango said. The government has also approved major mining concessions totaling some 15 million acres. Two of the largest projects are in Shuar territory in the mountainous area known as the Cordillera del Condor, Cholango said. Besides the impact on the indigenous communities’ environment and lifestyle, Cholango expressed concern about crackdowns on and harassment of opponents of such projects, which he said reflect a government tendency to “criminalize protest.”

Cholango said about 200 grassroots and indigenous leaders, including the former president and current vice president of CONAIE, face legal charges of “sabotage and terrorism” stemming from their protests against oil and mining projects. “Many are in hiding,” he said.

Although Ecuador, like most of its neighbors in South America, has signed International Labor Organization Convention 169 on the rights of tribal and Indigenous Peoples, which calls for such groups to be consulted about any plans or projects that would affect their lands or lifestyles, Cholango and other activists say governments sidestep the requirement. Even countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, which specifically included indigenous rights in their recently approved constitutions, have been slow to put those provisions into practice.

“There is a systematic tendency to ignore the right to consultation,” said Mario Melo, program adviser to the Pachamama Foundation, which is supporting CONAIE in the Armadillo case.

In a region that has historically been rich in natural resources, but with large portions of the population living in poverty, countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil have been cashing in on oil, gas and minerals to increase their revenues. Leaders such as former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolivia’s Aymara President Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala were elected on platforms that pledged more equitable distribution of national wealth to their countries’ disenfranchised groups. But Cholango said the Ecuadorian government’s interest in oil and mining projects leads to foot-dragging on consultations of indigenous groups that will be affected.

“The government is supposed to consult, but because it is an interested party, it doesn’t want to consult,” said Cholango, who called for an independent form of consultation, possibly organized by the communities themselves.

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