Brazil’s government charged with ethnocide in building of Amazon dam

The Brazilian government and Norte Energia company committed ethnocide against indigenous groups during Belo Monte dam construction according to charges filed by an independent Brazilian state ministry.

Brazil’s government charged with ethnocide in building of Amazon dam
  • Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has found the Brazilian federal government and the Norte Energia company guilty of ethnocide for the social and cultural destruction wrought on seven indigenous groups during the Belo Monte dam’s construction.
  • The MPF is demanding the courts set up an external commission to prevent future harm, even as the Brazilian government is granted an operational licence for the dam, whose reservoirs are now filling.
  • The MPF report states: “What is happening with the Belo Monte dam is a process of ethnic extermination by which the federal government is continuing with the colonial practice of integrating Indians into the hegemonic society”.
Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry charged the Brazilian federal government and the Norte Energia construction company with committing ethnocide against indigenous groups living along the Xingu River during the building of the Belo Monte dam. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry charged the Brazilian federal government and the Norte Energia construction company with committing ethnocide against indigenous groups living along the Xingu River during the building of the Belo Monte dam. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry (Ministério Público Federal, MPF), an independent state body, has started legal proceedings to have it recognised that the crime of “ethnocide” was committed on seven indigenous groups due to the severe detrimental impacts on their lives made by the building of the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric power station that will soon begin operating on the Xingu River in eastern Amazonia. The charges have been made against Brazil’s federal government and Norte Energia, the contractor that built the dam.

After carrying out a lengthy study that fills 50 books and includes contributions from a wide range of experts, the MPF has concluded that the “social organization, customs, languages and traditions” of the indigenous groups have been destroyed by the construction of the dam.

One of the actions undertaken by Norte Energia about which the MPF is most critical was a plan called “Plano Emergencial”. Under this plan the company set up a distribution center in Altamira, a town that has experienced explosive growth recently as a result of the dam’s construction. Goods and foodstuffs were available here each month for every indigenous village but the Indians had to travel to the town to pick them up. The money for the center came from a budget line for “ethno-development”, which was set up to help the villages become sustainable in food and to develop viable economic activities.

Indians, some of whom had never been to Altamira before, had to stop planting and fishing in order to travel to the town each month. The journey could take days and the whole procedure was very damaging to indigenous culture. The MPF says: “The villages became covered in garbage, with a proliferation of disease as a result, illnesses such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes became common because of the change in diet, child mortality surged, along with alcoholism, drug consumption and prostitution”.

The Belo Monte dam was completed at the cost of ethnocide to seven Amazon indigenous groups, according to the MPF. Photo by Pascalg622 licensed under under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
The Belo Monte dam was completed at the cost of ethnocide to seven Amazon indigenous groups, according to the MPF. Photo by Pascalg622 licensed under under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

At the same time Norte Energia began to build cheap houses in villages higher up the Xingu River, without taking into account indigenous culture. “Dozens of houses were built — wooden shacks with fiber cement roofs, like those in urban shanty-towns — with no consultation with Funai [the Indian Agency] or Ibama [the Environmental Agency]”. The building work itself was very harmful: unskilled workers without proper authorization entered the villages, disrupting village life and leaving construction waste behind; timber was illegally felled; a 17-year-old indigenous girl became pregnant from a construction worker.

Much of this damage to indigenous culture was predictable and the authorities had been warned. Thais Santi, an MPF prosecutor, said earlier this year that the environmental impact studies had shown that this part of the Amazon has a history of violent conflict and that the construction of Belo Monte would act as “an accelerator”, creating an insupportable level of tension. “In other words, it was recognised that Belo Monte represented an extremely serious threat to the ethnic survival of these indigenous groups”, she said.

In fact, the environmental licenses to build Belo Monte were only granted on condition that a whole series of mitigation measures to protect indigenous rights be adopted and carried out. The MPF has now levelled the very serious charge against the federal government and Norte Energia, the dam’s builder, of “deliberately failing to carry out” these measures.

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Indigenous village near the Xingu River in the Amazon. Indigenous lands will soon be flooded by the Belo Monte dam. Photo by Pedro Biondi/ABr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.

The MPF has made 16 demands as a result of its legal investigation and proceedings, calling for “immediate judicial intervention”, with the creation of an external commission, financed by Norte Energia and made up of representatives from Funai (the Indian Agency), ABA (Brazilian Association of Anthropology), SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science), CNDH (National Human Rights Council), indigenous bodies and civil society. Representatives of the affected indigenous groups should also take part as equal partners.

The newly formed commission would restructure current activities involving the Belo Monte dam, operating as an independent external auditor to promote a transition from the present situation of illegality and ethnocidal action to one in which public money would be used to benefit affected indigenous communities. The MPF would oversee the transition process.

The MPF investigation found that the federal government and Norte Energia acted to promote the assimilation of the indigenous groups into modern society, a clear violation of the nation’s progressive 1988 Constitution, drawn up after Brazil emerged from 21 years of military dictatorship. MPF states: “What is happening with the Belo Monte dam is a process of ethnic extermination by which the federal government is continuing with the colonial practice of integrating Indians into the hegemonic society”.

Thais Santi, an MPF prosecutor for Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry (Ministério Público Federal, MPF), an independent state body that has accused the federal government and Norte Energia of ethnocide in the Amazon during the building of the Belo Monte dam. Photo courtesy of Sue Branford.
Thais Santi, an MPF prosecutor for Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry (Ministério Público Federal, MPF), an independent state body that has accused the federal government and Norte Energia of ethnocide in the Amazon during the building of the Belo Monte dam. Photo courtesy of Sue Branford.

In other words, the motor launches and food parcels handed out by the authorities to the indigenous communities to compensate for the destruction of their livelihoods — now that they can no longer hunt or cultivate crops due to the dam — are equivalent to the mirrors and cooking pots distributed by the Portuguese bandeirantes (explorers) who arrived in the 17th century, intent on wiping out or integrating millions of Indians, disregarding their unique cultures.

The MPF action was taken on 10 December, shortly after the government issued Belo Monte an operational licence. One of the reservoirs is currently being filled and the dam is expected to begin operation early in 2016.

The MPF filed its action with the local court in the town of Altamira in the state of Pará. Even if the judge there decides in MPF’s favor, federal authorities can appeal and the local ruling would almost certainly be overruled in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital.

MPF prosecutor Santi, who is based in Altamira, was severe in her condemnation: “The company [Norte Energia] behaves as if it is a sovereign power. There is the feeling here that the dam is such a priority, that the government is so determined to get the dam finished at whatever cost, that the rule of law has been suspended”.

Rarely has the MPF taken such a tough position. Even if it fails in its immediate goals of redressing indigenous grievances, it has accumulated a mass of evidence that will be extremely useful in future if the federal government is ever held to account for the serious crimes it is accused of committing in the Amazon.

A Greenpeace protest against construction of the Belo Monte dam. Photo by Roosewelt Pinheiro/Agência Brasil licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License
A Greenpeace protest against construction of the Belo Monte dam. Photo by Roosewelt Pinheiro/Agência Brasil licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License

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