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Belo Monte dam-opposing Brazilian activist wins prestigious environmental award

  • Brazilian environmental and human rights activist Antônia Melo da Silva received the Alexander Soros Foundation Award earlier this month in recognition of her work organizing opposition to the Belo Monte dam and other infrastructure projects in the Amazon.
  • Melo founded the “Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre” two decades ago in order to bring together the numerous people, communities, and organizations in the Altamira region of Brazil who oppose the Belo Monte hydroelectric project on the Xingu River.
  • Alex Soros, founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, said of Melo: “She will not be deterred. She will not stop fighting. She will never give up. And she deserves recognition and appreciation for her work.”

Brazilian environmental and human rights activist Antônia Melo da Silva received the Alexander Soros Foundation Award earlier this month in recognition of her work organizing opposition to the Belo Monte dam and other infrastructure projects in the Amazon.

Melo founded the “Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre” two decades ago in order to bring together the numerous people, communities, and organizations in the Altamira region of Brazil who oppose the Belo Monte hydroelectric project on the Xingu River, a 1,200-mile tributary of the Amazon River that provides sustenance and livelihoods for thousands of indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples.

When it is completed in 2019, Belo Monte will be the third-largest hydroelectric dam complex in the world. Construction of the dam was completed in 2015, and its Calha do Xingu Reservoir flooded 200 square miles of the Amazon rainforest. The project is believed to have displaced tens of thousands of local people.

In March of this year, some of those displaced people began a “re-occupation” of the reservoir’s banks after the consortium behind the dam project, Norte Energia, allegedly failed to provide adequate compensation or listen to impacted people’s concerns.

“The dam brings death to the flora, the fauna, countless indigenous and traditional cultures that live in the Xingu basin,” Melo said in a statement. “Our people face increased violence, unemployment and misery because the government and a group of investors want to exploit our land and rivers for profit. I dedicated my life to campaigning against this project, and though it has gone ahead, I will keep on fighting against what Belo Monte represents: a destructive, unsustainable and unfeasible development model.”

Alex Soros presenting Antônia Melo da Silva with the Alexander Soros Foundation Award at a ceremony on October 10. Photo courtesy of the Alexander Soros Foundation.

Alex Soros, founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, said of Melo: “She will not be deterred. She will not stop fighting. She will never give up. And she deserves recognition and appreciation for her work.”

Melo is the sixth recipient of the annual Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism. Soros told Mongabay that Melo has greatly increased Brazilians’ awareness of the impacts of dams on lives, families, and communities. “The destruction caused by dams is often overlooked by the general public because most people equate dams with renewable energy in their minds, and renewable energy as being good for the environment,” he said. “Hydroelectric dams can be environmentally catastrophic on a larger scale than logging and mining operations — most people don’t realize this fact.”

Melo and the “Xingu Vivo Para Sempre” coalition have often partnered with other movements seeking to protect rivers in the Brazilian Amazon, such as the Munduruku indigenous peoples who have so far succeeded in halting plans for the São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam to be built on the Tapajós River, another major tributary of the Amazon.

Dams like Belo Monte also frequently pave the way for additional development projects that destroy even more of the Amazon — several of the 40 large hydroelectric dams that are slated for the Amazon basin over the next 20 years, for instance, will likely end up supplying electricity to the mining industry, which also has plans for major developments in the Amazon.

Alexander Soros wrote in an op-ed that a proposed gold mine, temporarily on hold due to “irregularities” in how the Canadian firm behind the mine acquired the land as well as violations of indigenous rights, would become the largest mine in Brazil if it was allowed to move forward. “Melo and her allies have pointed to the environmental havoc that gold mines have caused elsewhere in the country in defending this region from further deforestation and ruin,” Soros wrote.

Caio Borges, a lawyer with the NGO Conectas Human Rights, called Melo “one of the heroes of the environmental and human rights movement,” noting that “She has faced threats and losses and resistance of all kinds, and yet has remained undeterred in her fight for decades. As a result of the struggle led by Antônia against Belo Monte, there has been a major upsurge in public awareness and debate in Brazil on the disastrous social, environmental and economic consequences of large Amazonian dams — and enormous corruption schemes which have driven their construction.”

Borges added: “I can’t think of anyone who deserves the Alexander Soros Foundation Award more than she does.”

Antônia Melo da Silva speaks after receiving the Alexander Soros Foundation Award at a ceremony on October 10. Photo courtesy of the Alexander Soros Foundation.