An indigenous man stands as riot police stand guard during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Brazil's indigenous are protesting the government's plan to construct the large Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.

Belo Monte Protests Continue in Brazil Despite Arrest Threats and Continued Construction

Rick Kearns
6/30/12

For more than two weeks indigenous activists and allies have shut down construction of part of the controversial Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, demanding an end to the project or for the compensation promised to the affected communities.

Brazilian government officials and representatives of the project builders Norte Energia are slated to meet with protestors on July 9 but until then the activists have stated that they intend to stay on the site.

Local leaders such as Sheyla Juruna of the Juruna indigenous community affected by the dam asserted one of the positions at a press event last week.

"The time is now! The Brazilian government is killing the Xingu River and destroying the lives of Indigenous Peoples. We need to send a message that we have not been silenced and that this is our territory. We vow to take action in our own way to stop the Belo Monte Dam. We will defend our river until the end!"

In another recent interview, leaders such as Bebok Xirin of the Xirin Tribe focused on what had been promised to the community by the government and the company but had not materialized.

"We would not be here today if the company and the government would have done what they promised to us," Xirin said. "In my community nothing has been done. There is no quality health post, no school, they have not built a road for us, and my road is the river and that is going to be dried up."

This latest action grew out of the Xingu +23 conference in Altamira, Brazil, a meeting of 300 indigenous activists that took place at the same time as the UN's Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro. Activists coined the name Xingu+23 in honor of the first time that communities were able to halt the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in 1989, created by the historic First Gathering of Indigenous People of the Xingu.

Xingu+23 participants came together on June 13 and four days later, activists from the Xirin, Juruna, Parakana and Araras communities and allies climbed on top of an earthen dam built to block the flow of the Xingu River on the Pimentel site and dug out a channel to allow the river to flow again into the area.

Since then the activists have danced, sang, and held various press events, attracting media from across the world.

While various officials have tried to have the protestors evicted, and in a separate legal action they want police to arrest several of the activists, accusing them of trashing offices of the construction consortium, none of the close to 200 people have been removed nor have the activists budged from the site.

Activists from Amazon Watch, one of at least 5 NGO's supporting the protest, stated that the builders’ judicial request to have the activists removed by force by police was rejected by a federal judge over the weekend of June 23. The charges listed in the separate criminal complaint against some of the protestors has motivated a large team of Brazilian and international lawyers to take this part of the struggle to an international forum.

In a report issued to the human rights arms of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), Brazilian and international groups detailed attempts to prosecute human rights and environmental activists and seek the arrests of 11 civil society leaders.

Among the accused are a local reporter, leaders of the Xingu Alive Forever Movement, a Catholic priest and nun who led a mass during the Xingu+23 protest, a documentary filmmaker and a fisherman whose house was recently demolished to make way for dam construction.

“The complaints filed by the dam consortium and the request for arrest warrants are based on fabricated information and gross distortions of the facts, with the clear intention of criminalizing leaders of a legitimate social movement opposed to the federal government’s obsession with the construction of Belo Monte, regardless of the project’s human and environmental costs and the rule of law,” said Marco Apolo, lawyer and co-director of SDDH, a renowned human rights NGO based in the state of Para.

As of press time, Brazilian officials have not taken any further steps against the accused protestors nor has their legal team announced whether the OAS has responded to their requests.

The famous Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam Project is owned by the government run Norte Energia consortium and will start operating in 2015 in the Amazonian state of Para, in the heart of the Rainforest approximately 2,000 miles north of the captial Rio de Janeiro. It would be the third largest dam in the world, and would have an installed capacity of 11 thousand megawatts.  Official estimates predict that the dam would flood 500 square kilometers (over 200 square miles) of land occupied mainly by indigenous communities and other small farmers and fishermen as well as dry out a 60 mile stretch of the river known as the Big Bend. From 20,000 to 50,000 people would be displaced to accommodate the project.

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