Amazon Indians rebel against dams

Posted: 28 April 2009

Brazil's Enawene Nawe Indians are demanding a halt to the construction of a series of dams along the Juruena River in the Amazon which they say could deprive them of the river resources which they depend on for their survival. Glenn Switkes reports.

Brazil's Enawene Nawe Indians have finally said 'enough is enough' to destructive development projects, and have demanded that dam construction on the Juruena River in the western Amazon come to a halt.

Enawene Nawe man, Amazon
Enawene Nawe man, Amazon
Enawene Nawe man, Amazon. Indigenous people opposing dam constrction have been attacked by dam builders. © Fiona Watson/Survival
On October 11 last year, about 120 Indians burned the Telegrafica Dam work site in Sapezal, Mato Grosso. The project is part of the Brazilian government's Growth Acceleration Plan, and is being built by a consortium that purchased the project from the Maggi Energy company. This company is linked to soy king Blairo Maggi, now governor of Mato Grosso state. Eight of the 11 projects being planned for the Jurena have received a go-ahead from Mato Grosso environmental authorities.

80 dam sites

No prior consultation took place with indigenous peoples who depend on the fish and other resources of the Juruena basin for their survival. The indigenous people became incensed when they learned at a meeting with indigenous protection officials that more than 80 prospective dam sites on the Juruena are being evaluated, including sites close to the Enawene Nawe reserve.

The projects are relatively small, ranging in size from seven to 24 metres in height, but their impact on fisheries could be large due to the number of obstructions the dams will pose, and the poor record of fish passage devices in the tropics.

After failed attempts to negotiate a compensation package with the companies, the Enawene Nawe blocked roads, occupied the dams' work sites, and called for independent studies on the dams' impacts. Daliaywace Enawene Nawe, a tribal leader, said there will be no more negotiations, since money won't bring back fish and clean water once the dams are built.

"The river is a very strong spirit that eats a lot of fish and drinks a lot of water in our rituals. If all these dams are built on the Juruena, he will be angry and hungry and will bring sickness to our people."

The Enawene Nawe only eat meat on special occasions. Fish is their most important food, and fundamental to their rituals. At the close of the rainy season, the men set off for collective fishing in preparation for the four-month Yakwa ritual. They catch and smoke large quantities of fish to be eaten during the ritual, which is intended to please the spirits and to keep their world in balance.

According to Chief Kawari, "If the destruction of the rivers continues, everyone will die - we, you, all of you non-Indians. The difference is that we already know this, but you do not..."

Serious flaws

The indigenous peoples have been helped by public attorneys, who filed suit to demand studies on the cumulative impacts of all the dams projected for the Juruena. Following a lower court decision suspending the projects, Brazil's Supreme Court reversed the decision, permitting dam construction to proceed. Since then, additional technical opinions have documented serious flaws in the project studies.

There has been an explosion of investments in small dams in Brazil in recent years, and particularly in Mato Grosso. The boom is driven by government policies providing easy credit, exemptions on requirements for royalties and taxes, and other public subsidies. The licensing process has also been streamlined to permit fast-tracking of projects.

Today, 39 small hydroelectric dams are in operation in the state, another 36 are in licensing or construction, and at least 80 more are being planned. While small dams usually cause less serious impacts than larger dams, the impacts of building multiple dams on a river system have not been assessed.

In November, Brazilian government officials signed an agreement with indigenous representatives who traveled to Brasilia, stipulating that no dams will be built until further studies are carried out. But since then, conflicts have continued, and indigenous people report that dam workers and security guards have beaten indigenous families fishing along the river.

Glenn Switkes is Latin American Program Director of the California-based International Rivers Network. This article first appeared in World Rivers Review, Volume 24, No. 1. It was distributed by Third World Network Features.