Leading a River Revolution in Brazil

Celebrating World Water Day

The Tapajos River basin is one of the best preserved regions in Brazil, a mosaic of protected forest reserves and indigenous lands. This river is located in the heart of the Amazon and is the home of the Munduruku’s indigenous people and other riverine communities. It is the only river in the Amazon River basin currently free of dams. And a river revolution is happening there, led by Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), a Grassroots International partner working in solidarity with indigenous people to stop the government’s outrageous plan to build six dams along the Tapajos River.

Why is this river revolution necessary?

Because the Brazilian government is promoting the idea of dam construction as an economic growth model and as a “clean and green” solution to the climate and energy crisis, parading false promises of development, job opportunities and better quality of life as arguments to convince people to accept the hydroelectric construction. However, the reality of this economic model has already devastated communities in the Amazon Region. These communities have suffered from land grabs and displacement, deforestation, floods, and the fragmentation of important ecosystems. Even the food chain that communities depend on for survival has been affected. Now communities along the Tapajos River in Para State face similar threats.
 
The government’s insatiable appetite for dams is clear in its “ten-year plan of energy expansion 2021.” The government’s ambitious goal is the construction of 34 hydroelectric dams in the next decade, 15 of which will be located in the Amazon Region. Electrical energy generation is not the only component of this plan, however. These dams are part of a joint government and multinational corporate vision to create a transportation infrastructure for soy and other agribusiness products and for mining commodities such as gold and bauxite. After the completion of the dams, reservoirs will be formed allowing barge traffic along the river in areas that are not currently navigable.
 
What are the human and environmental costs of this vision? We just need to look at the nearby mega-project, Belo Monte dam, on the Xingu River to see the consequences. When completed, the Belo Monte dam will displace hundreds of thousands of people, four times more than government estimates. But that is not all: Norte Energía (the consortium behind the Belo Monte dam) and the federal government agencies have also failed to implement required mitigation measures. According to MAB, families affected by the construction of Belo Monte have yet to be relocated or properly compensated. Many live in areas without access to fresh water, electricity, health care, schools or other necessary infrastructure. Instead of promised compensation, the dam has left a trail of human rights violation and disrespect for traditional people and biodiversity. If Belo Monte is any example, the much larger Tapajos Complex will expel thousands of families with absolutely no compensation as well.
 
In fact, Tapajos could be even worse; this unprecedented mega- project involves the construction of six dams, with an estimated power potential of 10,700 MW – more than the largest hydroelectric dam in USA, Grand Coulee Dam, whose three power plants have a capacity of 6,809 MW. The dams will change the Tapajos River’s natural course, inundating an area as large as the city of São Paulo, slightly larger in size than the state of Rhode Island. Indigenous, riverine communities and others living along or near the river run the risk of being displaced.
 
But people are building resistance, and at the forefront is one of Grassroots International’s partners, the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB).
 
Leading the resistance
MAB has more than 20 years of experience organizing – and winning victories – around territory, water and energy sovereignty. A national movement, MAB defends the rights of women and men affected by hydroelectric dams. The movement also represents thousands of families throughout Brazil who have already been displaced or are being threatened with the loss of their homes and livelihoods. MAB is building a strong resistance movement, which seeks an alternative development model that integrates people in the decision-making process, where the sustainability of the environment, culture, and communities is at the center.
 
In June 2013, MAB gained a significant victory: all the technical and environmental studies required before dam construction along the Tapajos River could begin were suspended. This was a result of the organized resistance, including the action of the Mundurukus, who detained three biologists for invading their territory, without permission, to collect samples.
 
Although this was an important advance in the struggle, it was not the end of their journey. In the blink of an eye, in August, the government started the technical and environmental studies once again, without the required Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of affected communities. The FPIC established through the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 says governments must provide indigenous peoples with advance information about any proposed projects on their territories, and that those projects can only move forward if the indigenous communities consent.
 
And when it comes to the dams along the Tapajos River, the community doesn’t consent – at all. They are fighting back. During the International Day of Action Against Dams and for Rivers, Water and Life (March 14), MAB took to the streets all around the country, organizing massive mobilizations, blocking highways and occupying tolls, energy companies’ headquarters and other governmental agencies. They demanded a national policy of rights for populations affected by dams and the immediate cancelation of the Tapajos dam complex.
 
The Tapajos dam complex would be the death of one of the most spectacular rivers in Brazil and the destruction of immense ecological corridors. According to Yara Naí, an activist from MAB, this project is an environmental, economic, social and cultural crime which compromises human, animal and botanical life and disrespects the indigenous people’s territories and governmental and international agreements. Hydroelectric dams are not an innovative economic model for the Amazon region or Brazil, but rather an outdated idea that will destroy natural resources, pollute rivers, land and air and violate the rights of local and indigenous communities.
 
Photo by Joka Madruga, courtesy of MAB