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Ribeirinhos win right to waterside Amazon homeland lost to Belo Monte dam

  • Some 40,000 people — mostly peasant farmers, fisherfolk, traditional families (living from the collection of forest products), Indigenous people, and ribeirinhos — were evicted to make way for the Belo Monte dam, constructed between June 2011 and November 2019.
  • The ribeirinhos (traditional riverine people) were not politically well organized at the time, and along with many others, were forced out of their traditional riverside homes and livelihoods. Most moved into urban housing developments away from the Xingu River, where they were forced to pay rent and acclimate themselves to urban life.
  • But over the years the ribeirinhos gained political savvy. Negotiating with Norte Energia, the consortium that built and runs Belo Monte, they gained the right to establish a collectively owned Ribeirinho Territory beside the Belo Monte reservoir.
  • Under the agreement, 315 families are each to be provided with 14 hectares (34 acres) for individual use. Added to that are areas for collective use and a forest reserve — a combined total of 20,341 hectares (50,263 acres). However, with the deal now seemingly sealed, Norte Energia has backpedaled, wanting to propose a different agreement.
The Pimental dam and reservoir, part of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. Belo Monte’s reservoirs drowned the traditional lands of the ribeirinhos. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto on Visual hunt / CC BY.

The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, Brazil’s largest infrastructure project in recent decades, has now been operating five years (though its final turbine wasn’t fully installed until 2019). Today, it is regarded by many as an economic and socio-environmental disaster, as it is generating less energy and profits than promised, was at the center of mass corruption while being built, and has caused enormous damage to the Xingu River, disrupting the lives of thousands of people living beside it.

But some members of one of the severely impacted groups, the ribeirinhos, traditional riverine people, are fighting back. And in so doing, they are strengthening their­­ sense of identity.

The ribeirinhos may have also just won the right to go home, or nearly so: they are on the verge of setting up a permanent, collectively owned Ribeirinho Territory beside the Belo Monte reservoir, an area of unflooded land close to the riverside locale where their families lived before the mega-dam was built.

Their artful negotiation of an innovative agreement, if finalized, will mark the first time ever that a resettlement has been drawn up to accommodate the ribeirnhos’ traditional way of life. “The territory will give us what we need. [The forest lands there] are our bank, our pharmacy, our supermarket,” Rita Cavalcante, a ribeirinha, told Mongabay.

Rita Cavalcante on the Xingu River. Image courtesy of Ana de Francesco.

In November 2019 the group’s proposal (the result of a long negotiation with Norte Energia, the consortium of companies that built and runs Belo Monte) was approved by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency. Now, with the IBAMA stamp of approval, it is Norte Energia’s legal obligation to implement the relocation project, which involves the resettlement of 315 families.

But the ribeirinho victory is not yet secure. Some 194 families who have temporarily camped out within the new Ribeirinho Territory, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, are still waiting to be officially allocated their property. That’s because Norte Energia — in what the ribeirinhos see as a betrayal of the original approved agreement — has come up with another proposal, which the consortium has submitted to IBAMA. The new plan would reduce both the size of the Ribeirinho Territory and the number of families benefitting.

When this article went to press, Norte Energia had not replied to Mongabay’s questions as to why the company agreed to one plan, then offered an alternative, less generous proposal.

Ribeirinhos discuss the proposed area for their territory at a 2018 meeting. Image courtesy of ISA.
The ribeirinho Sebastião and his family, waiting to be settled on their land by Norte Energia, December 3, 2020. Image by Ana de Francesco courtesy of Mauricio Torres.

A long struggle, now nearly won

Though their victory is not yet complete, the ribeirinhos have already achieved a lot. “The ribeirinhos managed to obtain recognition for a social group that in the beginning wasn’t even being considered as impacted by the project,” Ana de Francesco, an anthropologist who wrote her doctorate about the struggle, told Mongabay. “They constructed a territorial proposal which it is now Norte Energia’s legal obligation to implement. They have inverted the consortium’s predatory logic, so that now they can live their old life, according to its own logic.”

Some 40,000 people — mostly peasant farmers, fisherfolk, traditional families (living from the collection of forest products), Indigenous people, and ribeirinhos — were evicted to make way for the Belo Monte dam, constructed between June 2011 and 2019.

From the beginning, concern was expressed about the way Norte Energia was carrying out the evictions. In 2015, the Federal Public Ministry, a governmental group of independent litigators, organized a trip to the Xingu region along with representatives of various environmental bodies, government institutions and universities. They discovered that Norte Energia was not respecting the government’s guidelines regarding the evictions, rules that the consortium had agreed to as a condition for building the dam.

Under that agreement, the evicted families were to be equipped with all they required to rebuild their lives in a similar ecosystem. Instead, the trip’s report concluded, “75% of them received cash compensation, which demonstrated that what should have been the main option, resettlement, was practically nonexistent.”

The ribeirinho way of life is profoundly rooted in the changing rhythms of forest and river life. But instead of meeting that lifestyle criteria, Norte Energia rehoused the families away from the rainforest and the river they knew, often placing families in bleak urban housing developments — monotonous look-alike buildings cut off from sustainable livelihoods — located on the outskirts of Altamira, Brazil’s most violent city. There, they were forced to pay rent, travel long distances to shop, often went hungry, and lacking shade trees, had to endure suffocating summer heat, with temperatures sometimes soaring to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Leonardo Batista and Dona Antônia in front of their current house in a housing development on the outskirts of the city of Altamira, 2017. Image by Fabio Nascimento courtesy of ISA.

Cavalcante told Mongabay: “I have members of my family who have never got over this brutal removal from their homes. They have become ill, lost hope. They had a future and it was violently taken away from them.”

From the start, the families were homesick and wanted to get back to their land, but they faced daunting odds. One challenge: the mobilization of the ribeirinhos. While there are hundreds of thousands of them across the Amazon basin, they are not very visible to the outside world. As a result, Brazil’s riverine people have often suffered from more violent violations of their rights than the degradations suffered by Indigenous people and the quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves).

Before they could organize, the ribeirinhos even found that they first had to decide who qualified as a ribeirinho. When Norte Energia produced a document classifying some evicted families as “non-ribeirinho,” the families determined that they alone should decide on their own identity. So they set up a Ribeirinho Council to carry out the task. According to De Francesco, those evicted see it as a great victory that “all the ribeirinho families recognized by the Ribeirinho Council have been included in the return to [forest and waterside] land.

A 2019 meeting of the Ribeirinho Council. Image by Gil Ferreira-Nesa courtesy of ISA.

The Council has 22 members (each representing an area formerly inhabited by ribeirinhos but now flooded). It became the group’s main representative body. Rita Cavalcante is a member of this council.

After many years of invisibility, the ribeirinhos realized in 2016 that they finally had a chance to be heard. “They acted at a moment in which public bodies and private companies hadn’t the faintest idea over how to resolve the serious situation in which the ribeirinhos were placed after being evicted from Belo Monte,” said De Francesco.

Renowned cultural and legal experts weighed in on the side of the riverine people. “The ribeirinhos have the right to their land,” declared the prestigious lawyer Carlos Frederico Marés, lecturer at the Catholic University of Paraná. “They already had this right before anyone had even imagined damming the Xingu River to generate hydroelectricity.”

The ribeirinhos further mobilized and began to win a few legal battles. For instance, in 2017 a judge brought Belo Monte construction temporarily to a standstill after ruling that Norte Energia had violated some of its legally binding resettlement commitments.

“We are not asking for our rights, we are demanding them,” announced a member of the council, Leonardo Batista, known as Aranô, at a public meeting in Brasilia in February 2018. The council drew up maps, which they gave to Norte Energia and IBAMA, on which they marked out the minimum area needed to recreate their traditional ribeirinho way of life.

Leonardo Batista, known as Aranô. Image courtesy of Mônica Lizardo / ISA.

Norte Energia began seriously seeking a settlement. In 2018, José Hilário Portes, superintendent for socio-environmental and Indigenous affairs at the consortium, announced at the conclusion of a meeting that “We are leaving with a commitment to make acceptable what is not acceptable. Our intention is to make fewer mistakes.”

Norte Energia’s first proposal was to set up a traditional land settlement, offering 121 families small land plots — a solution the families found unacceptable. De Fransesco explains that the plots didn’t permit the families to go back to their traditional ways of life which is based on the free use of the river and forest, subsistence agriculture, fishing, the collection of forest products, and intense collaboration between families.

In a clear demonstration of their growing confidence and empowerment, the riverine people began to think outside the box. “The ribeirinhos came up with a new model, providing everything from the most general guidelines to the smallest details,” said De Francesco. They made sure that their proposal, dubbed the Ribeirinho Territory, would enable them to carry on with their traditional way of life.

The final version was approved by IBAMA at the end of 2019. Under the agreement, the families each were provided with 14 hectares (34 acres) for individual use. Added to that were areas for collective use and a forest reserve. All together, their territory is to cover 20,341 hectares (50,263 acres).

Rita Cavalcante, in Cotovelo near the Belo Monte reservoir, 2018. Image courtesy of Mônica Lizardo / ISA.

Now, that promise may be under threat. However, even if the current dispute with Norte Energia is resolved to the families’ full advantage, the ribeirinhos will still struggle. “When we left, it was a [free flowing] river. Now there are places we can’t recognize any more [inside the reservoir],” said Cavalcante. “I used to catch acari [an armored catfish].… I knew where it was deep, where it was shallow, where there were stones, where there was sand. The river lived, but today the lake is dead. The flooded vegetation at the bottom of the lake is rotting and it has a bad smell.”

Still, the ribeirinhos believe they can adapt to this new forest and waterside reality. “Our main concern is that it is taking so long to set up the territory. Norte Energia is always going back on what it says,” worries Cavalcante. As yet, no timeframe has been set for the resolution of Norte Energia’s reneging on its agreement.

Banner image: Rita Cavalcante and her brother Antonio. Image courtesy of Ana de Francesco.

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