Halt in construction of Brazilian dam sign of progress on indigenous rights

river, Xingu National Park, Brazil

Aerial view of Xingu National Park in the Brazilian Amazon. Hydropower is a major source of electricity for Brazilian cities; dam construction is also a frequent source of conflict with local communities. (© Luana Luna)

Last week the Brazilian government suspended the licensing process for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, halting construction on the country’s second-largest hydroelectric facility over concerns that the dam may violate the rights of several Munduruku indigenous communities.

The Munduruku have spent years fighting to have the boundaries of their traditional lands in the Amazon Basin recognized by the government. As that process wore on, they took to demarcating the borders of their territories themselves and protesting the presence of dam technicians around the Tapajós River.

The new dam would flood almost 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) and require the relocation of several Munduruku communities without their consent — a violation of existing Brazilian legislation. A new report from Brazil’s agency on indigenous affairs defines around 1,700 square kilometers (656 square miles) as indigenous land belonging to the Munduruku, a move that could permanently suspend the dam’s construction.

“Hydropower is viewed as a cheap, plentiful source of power in Latin America, where it fuels more than 50% of electricity use,” said Leonardo Sáenz, Conservation International’s (CI) director of eco-hydrology. “Yet because dams often displace communities and disrupt iconic ecological systems that countless people rely on, their construction is a frequent source of conflict.”

This development isn’t just a victory for the Munduruku — it also could signal a shift for historically marginalized communities. Here’s what this news could mean on a larger scale.

For Brazil

“Although there is a chance this is only a temporary setback in the dam’s approval process, this decision has the merit of putting indigenous issues in the center of the debate about hydropower generation in the Brazilian Amazon,” said Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of CI Brazil. “According to the Brazilian environmental agency, the dam’s impacts would be irreversible for indigenous groups; the removal of indigenous villages would also violate the Federal Constitution.”

For dams

“This decision is a sign that preserving the culture and the way of life of indigenous communities is above sectarian economic interests that promote the building of massive dams in the Amazon,” said Sáenz, the eco-hydrologist. “These dams rarely provide electricity to the displaced communities and often discourage progress toward investment in other forms of renewable energy.”

For the world

This could be a watershed moment,” said Theresa Buppert, CI’s director of rights, governance and social policy. “By taking steps to demarcate their lands, the Munduruku community is making the case for their rightful ownership, and the Brazilian government is taking notice. If successful, efforts such as this one — on top of the 2015 declaration of an indigenous conservation corridor spanning 72,000 square kilometers in Suriname — could set a new precedent for indigenous peoples and their rights everywhere. This is how change gains momentum.”

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Not over yet

With as many as 150 new dams slated to be built in the Amazon region, this is only one of the clashes taking place between dam builders and affected communities.

“The country is going through difficult political times, which may represent a risk to the legal framework that currently addresses indigenous rights,” said Medeiros. “In this context, it is important to raise awareness about the need to properly include indigenous rights in the decision-making process, understanding their critical role as stewards of the forest.”

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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