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Indigenous leaders take fight over Amazon dams to Europe

Three indigenous Amazonian leaders spent this week touring Europe to raise awareness about the threat that a number of proposed monster dams pose to their people and the Amazon forest. Culminating in a press conference and protests in London, the international trip hopes to build pressure to stop three current hydroelectric projects, one in Peru, including six dams, and two in Brazil, the Madeira basin industrial complex and the massive Belo Monte dam. The indigenous leaders made the trip with the NGO Rainforest Foundation UK, including support from Amazon Watch, International Rivers, and Rainforest Concern.

“These projects will force my people from their land and end our way of life,” Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari, a leader of the tribe Asháninka from Peru, said, about a series of six dams planned in her tribe’s region. Peru has entered an agreement with Brazil to build the six massive hydroelectric dams, which will largely provide power to Brazil. One of the dams, the Pakitzapango, will be constructed on a gorge that is the mythological birthplace of the Asháninka people.

“The Brazilian Government is exporting a false development model to my people by pressuring the Peruvian Government to build dams on our lands and using its development bank and its companies to implement these projects that will only bring more poverty, not development,” added Mestoquiari. It is estimated that 10,000 Asháninka people will be impacted by the dam to be built on the Ene River, a headwater of the Amazon River.

Mist rising in the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mist rising in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

As massive as the Peruvian dams will be, none of them will top the Belo Monte dam. This monster dam, planned on the Xingu River, will be the world’s third largest.

“We are here to show the international community that we are not being heard and that the Brazilian Government is seriously violating our rights. It is also consistently violating its own laws. We need to take the mask off of the Brazilian Government to show what they are really doing to our people,” said Sheyla Yakarepi Juruna, a representative of the Juruna Tribe, which faces impacts from the proposed dam.

Indigenous groups have been fighting construction of the Belo Monte for decades. Most recently a judge suspended construction on the dam, citing that the contractor, Norte Energia, had pressured Brazil’s Environment Agency IBAMA for a go-ahead. However, it remains to be seen if the injunction will be overturned.

A hundred and forty-six large dam projects are currently planned in the Amazon. Critics say the staggering number of dams could turn the rainforest’s rivers into stagnant reservoirs. However, Brazil argues that the dams are necessary to power its growing economy.

“In order for the Brazilian economy to grow around 5 per cent per year in the next few years, Brazil needs to add 5,000 megawatts per year to its installed capacity,” Mauricio Tolmasquim, of the Brazilian government’s Energy Research Company, told the Financial Times.

The Brazilian government says such dams are ‘green’ and sustainable, yet studies have shown that dams in the tropics release massive amounts of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, due to rotting vegetation. In some cases hydroelectric dams in the tropics may release more greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent power plants run on coal. In 2007 Brazilian scientists announced they had found a way to extract methane from dam reservoirs, but it is unclear if this technology is available yet or will be used in the new projects. Carbon is also released when rainforest are destroyed by flood or construction.

“The government says it is concerned with green and sustainable development and the protection of human rights, but we see that their practice is quite different. I wonder how the Brazilian government feels; how can they promote projects that could force a people to extinction?” Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Suruí Tribe of the Madeira River basin, said in London.

Brazil is currently working to turn the Madeira basin into an industrial complex, including four dams, two of which are already under construction. The dams have forced communities to move and increased malaria outbreaks; they have also impacted the rivers by increasing erosion and threatening fish populations.

Each of these hydroelectric projects has received significant funding from the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES), the world’s second largest development bank. Critics say that without the funds from the bank, private industry would not have been interested in such financially risky projects.

“BNDES, by investing in the dams, is investing in the destruction of the Amazon. We are being treated like animals—all our rights are being violated,” said Sheyla Juruna at a protest yesterday outside BNDES headquarters in London.

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