Brazil tribes occupy contentious dam site

Cross Posted from Al Jazeera

A cluster of 12 men from the Xikrin tribe chant in their native language while marching together, arms interlocked, stomping their feet against the dry red dirt. They say this is their call of resistance from the Amazon.

The Xikrin are joined by about 150 indigenous people from three other tribes – the Arara, Juruna, and Parakana – that are occupying one of the work sites at the Belo Monte dam construction site in what is becoming a high-stakes standoff. The occupation, which is entering its second week, has halted a part of the construction on what will be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam.

At the site of the protest, visited by Al Jazeera on Wednesday, the tribesmen were carrying clubs and spears and had built rudimentary sleeping quarters in what has essentially become a non-violent sit-in. An anthropologist was with them, typing away at her laptop as the indigenous people articulated their demands.

The tribes are occupying a road, built by the dam builders, which cuts through part of the Xingu River’s waterways. The road blocks the natural flow of the waters.

The occupation of the site began at about 11 am on June 21 and played out like something from a fictional Hollywood movie. The indigenous people arrived at the work site in half a dozen small boats, charged the area, and announced that they were taking over. The construction workers, seeing the tribesmen with their faces painted for combat and armed with spears, immediately fled for safety.

“The workers were scared, so they immediately ran when we arrived,” said Bepumuiti, from the Juruna tribe. “They probably thought they were going to die.”

The tribesmen confiscated the keys to more than three dozen dump trucks and heavy machinery left behind.

What the indigenous people want

Last year, a series of conditions were agreed upon with the indigenous people to reduce the impact of the construction of the dam on their communities. Some of the conditions included the demarcation of indigenous lands, the construction of health facilities and schools, and means of transportation for the tribal people when the rivers dry up.

In exchange for their agreement, the indigenous said they would not forcefully oppose the dam construction.

The problem, the indigenous now say, is that while the construction of the dam steams ahead, the promises made by the consortium building the dam and by government-led Norte Energia – the energy company overseeing the dam – have yet to be fulfilled.

So the tribes decided to invade. This was a historic and significant move, because the decision was made without the assistance or knowledge of local or international NGOs or government rights bodies, who in the past often assisted tribes during protest movements.

“We would not be here today if the builders and the government would have done what they promised us,” Bebtok, a tribe elder from the Xikrin tribe, told Al Jazeera. “In my community, nothing has been done. There is no quality health post, there is no school, they have not built a road for us. My road is the river and that is going to be dried up.”

Since October, the tribes most affected by the construction of the dam have been receiving a budget of about $15,000 from the government, through which they can request anything they want, such as gasoline for their boats, food or construction material.

But the tribes have been told that the money – called “emergency assistance” in government parlance – will stop later this year, infuriating the tribal people at the very moment they are starting to feel the negative impacts of the dam, they say.

The indigenous people are now also starting to see the impact the construction is having on their lives. Surara, from the Parakana tribe, showed Al Jazeera how a road built on the construction site through a natural waterway of the Xingu river has already started to dry out one side of the river.

“We were always navigating this river because we know this river like the palm of our hands,” Surara said. “And today, as you can see, it’s very dry. That is sad for us.”

Surara predicted that, at the current pace of construction, in two years the tribe will no longer be able to reach their community by boat because of the changes in water levels. The tribes have a new list of demands they want fulfilled before they say they will end their occupation.

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