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Big projects, big threat
José Pedro Martins
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Government gives the green light to ventures that affect indigenous territories.

Although the Brazilian Constitution guarantees indigenous peoples the right to prior consultation regarding projects and programs that potentially impact their land, large projects pushed by the government in recent years are not taking into account the indigenous communities’ full rights.

Article 231 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognizes the right of indigenous populations to “their social organization, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions, and the original rights to the lands they traditionally inhabited; it is the Union’s duty to demarcate them, and protect and ensure respect for all their properties”.

The same article indicates that the lands traditionally occupied by indigenous communities “are intended for their permanent ownership, taking into account the exclusive use of the riches of the soil, rivers and lakes existing therein”. Also, the use of water resources, including as potential energy, and the exploration and extraction of minerals on indigenous land “can only be carried out with the authorization of the National Congress, after listening to the affected communities, guaranteeing their participation in the results of extraction, in accordance with the law.”

However, there are sectors of Brazilian society, like the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, or CNBB, who are concerned about “the advancement of more than 400 ventures that will affect 182 [already demarcated indigenous] territories.”

“Of the more than 250 indigenous peoples of Brazil, about 90 remain voluntarily isolated. They live in the woods, but their lives are threatened by big government projects, many of them part of the National Program for Accelerated Growth, or PAC, which are encroaching on their traditional territories. This situation of vulnerability exposes them to a constant risk of extinction as a result of the severe damage caused by many of these projects, which also prove highly harmful to the environment.” So read an official statement by the CNBB at the end of its 49th General Assembly, held in the city of Aparecida, São Paulo, from May 4-13, 2011.

Projects do not benefit indigenous peoples
One of the ventures that constitutes a threat to indigenous peoples is a project to divert water from the São Francisco River, one of the country’s longest, which spans five Brazilian states, starting in Minas Gerais and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean after traveling over 2,800 km. The diversion project seeks to export the waters of the São Francisco to the states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba and Pernambuco, areas that are part of the so-called semi-arid Northeast, which is marked by severe droughts.

Nevertheless, environmental organizations and social movements have been very critical of the diversion project, which would not particularly benefit the communities, like the indigenous peoples living in the São Francisco River basin. This is the case of the communities of Truká, Xukuru, Pipipã (Pernambuco), Tuxá and Tumbalalá (Bahia), Xukuru-Kariri and Geripankó (Alagoas) and Xokó (Sergipe). Many of these communities with land in the São Francisco basin, known as Opará by the indigenous people, do not yet have fully delineated territories; therefore the recognition of ancient rights of indigenous communities is considered a relevant ethical issue when looking at a project of this scale.

It is estimated that at least 18 indigenous communities in the Northeast and in Minas Gerais could be affected in some way by the diversion project.

“There were meetings in the water diversion case but they were in sophisticated environments, and also the buses of many indigenous people who were to participate in them were stopped halfway there, preventing them from participating in an appropriate manner,” says Bishop Emeritus Tomás Balduíno, former president and a founder of the Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, an agency linked to the CNNB.

Another highly controversial project with government support is the construction of the hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte, in the Brazilian Amazon’s Xingú River basin. It will be one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world and is considered by the federal government as a strategic project to ensure power to a country that grows at least 4 percent in economic terms annually. It should generate about 11,000 megawatts.

However, from the outset the project has been in question regarding its environmental and social impacts, such as those related to indigenous peoples in the region. In the Xingú River basin there are 28 ethnicities — 12 in the state of Mato Grosso and 16 in Pará — in 29 indigenous territories, totaling about 20,000 indigenous people. There are three indigenous territories directly affected by the Belo Monte project, two by reducing the flow of the Xingú (Arara de Volta Grande and Paquiçamba) and one for the expected increase in road traffic across the region (Juruna Indigenous Area). There are about 230 inhabitants total in all three areas.

Seven other indigenous territories would be indirectly affected by the Belo Monte project, totaling 2,000 people. All of this information is reflected in the environmental impact study prepared by Eletrobras, the state company responsible for the project. The federal government has said it will guarantee all rights of indigenous peoples.

However, the indigenous people themselves are very concerned. On January 28, 2011, just days after taking office, President Dilma Rousseff received a letter from the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, or COIAB, which expressed its opposition to the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex.

Indigenous people demand to be heard
COIAB leaders say that “the Brazilian government has taken a negligent and disrespectful stance against indigenous peoples that not only fully violates the rights of indigenous communities as guaranteed in the existing Federal Constitution and international law [the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169] and the United Nations Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], which requires the free and informed prior consent of indigenous peoples in the case of projects that affect their lives, but the government has also allowed Eletronorte [principal shareholder of Consorcio Norte Energia, which will build the complex] try to co-opt the indigenous communities.”

COIAB asks of President Rousseff, in short, that the indigenous peoples be heard: “Rivers feed our culture. So that the Xingú does not drown in this valley of tears, so that the cemeteries of the Xingú families do not become construction sites, and so that these sites do not become other cemeteries, we ask once again that our voice be heard”.

The vice-coordinator of the COIAB, Sonia Bone Guajajara, notes that in addition to prior consultation, “it is also necessary to have consent, because it is very easy to consult and then, without the consent of indigenous peoples, continue with a project by ignoring them.” She adds that the Brazilian government’s position, in the case of Belo Monte project, has been questioned recently by the Organization of American States, or OAS.

In late March 2011, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or IACHR, asked the Brazilian government to suspend the licensing and construction of the Xingú Hydroelectric Complex. Among other reasons, the Commission defended the need for the Brazilian government to advocate for a consultation process that is “prior, free, informed, in good faith and culturally appropriate” for all communities affected by the project. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff decided to cut all relation with the IACHR.

“The consultation should take into consideration the language, customs and traditions of indigenous peoples,” Archbishop Balduíno maintained.

“The government is going above us. It is difficult for communities, but we are mobilized,” said the vice-coordinator of the COIAB, citing a public meeting in Brasília to criticize the Belo Monte project.

The project, which will be inaugurated in 2015, received approval on June 1 from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.

For Bishop Emeritus Pedro Casaldáliga of São Félix do Araguaia, Mato Grosso, indigenous peoples have yet to be heard on major projects because, in his opinion, they “are projects identified with agribusiness projects, which turn a quick profit, whereas Indians are identified with communal living, in communion with the earth, with giving things time.”

For Bishop Casaldáliga, the right to prior consultation will only be fully observed in Brazil and throughout Latin America after “the ever-growing alliance and strengthening of indigenous peoples as well as of the blacks, migrants, people affected by large dams, in prophetic movements that can really change things.”
—Latinamerica Press.


Leader Sonia Bone Guajajara with Chief Raoni Kayapó in a demonstration in Brasília. (Photo: COIAB Press Office)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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