Indigenous peoples, local communities – and likely the earth itself – are breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating a major victory. After years of organizing and a series of major environmental studies, São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, the largest hydroelectric project planned for the Amazon, has been canceled.
According to our partner, the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), which has organized for years in opposition to the dam project, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) canceled the licensing of the São Luiz hydroelectric dam, citing an Environmental Impact Study.
The decision reflects an official recognition IBAMA, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI and the Federal Public Ministry that the São Luiz do Tapajós dam was bad for the impacted communities, biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. It was also plagued by insurmountable legal obstacles: the flooding of indigenous lands that would cause the forced removal of indigenous Munduruku people from the traditional Sawre Muybu territory – prohibited under Brazil’s Constitution – and a series of other adverse social and environmental consequences of immense proportions that made it impossible to confirm the project’s viability.
“This project is an environmental, economic, social and cultural crime which compromises human, animal and botanical life and disrespects indigenous peoples’ territories and governmental and international agreements.” -Yara Herrero de Freitas , MAB National Coordination.
Local families and activists agree. Thinking about the impact of the dam which would force their displacement, Juarez Saw Munduruku, Chief of Sawré Muybu Village, says, “What will happen to our children and grandchildren? The consequences of the changes in the river pose a threat to our survival.”
Rizonildo dos Santos, a resident of the Pimental community threatened by the construction of the dam of São Luiz do Tapajós, adds “For us workers, riverine and Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas and others, it has been a victory. But the struggle continues because the process is big.”
Victory for Grassroots Movements and the Environment
Since 2010, Grassroots has supported MAB’s efforts to organize families in the Amazon region threatened with a mega- project that involves the construction of six dams. A national movement, MAB provides legal and organizational support to families who have already been displaced or are being threatened with the loss of their homes and livelihoods. The threat from increasing numbers of mega-dams has risen dramatically as the climate and energy crises have fueled the growth of so-called “clean and green” energy sources like hydro power.
The Tapajós River basin is one of the best preserved regions in Brazil, with 19 protected forest reserves and indigenous lands. It is the only river in the Amazon River basin currently free of dams. The proposed dams would change the Tapajós River’s natural course, inundating large extensions of land, impacting Indigenous Peoples, riverine communities and others living along or near the river.
MAB’s work exposes how these projects like the proposed Tapajós dams actually increase deforestation and methane emissions, while devastating local ecosystems and the communities connected to them. Dams in Brazil account for 20 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas production and threaten to wipe out delicate ecosystems in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. MAB promotes an alternative model where the sustainability of the environment, culture, and communities is at the center.
“For us, [the ruling to cancel the dam construction] was a step forward in our struggle as an organized movement of community members, women, Indigenous People, because we know that the dam will not bring benefits to our communities and our region,” says Gelsiane Nascimento, MAB activist and resident of Pimental (a riverine community that would be displaced due to the construction of the dam).
The dam had had its license suspended in February this year, but now the process was filed. “The Movement however, will continue its work to organize the people to resist this development, because we know that at any moment can emerge new threats, especially at this political juncture where the attacks on people’s rights have increase,” said Gelsiane.
The dam would have 8,000 MW of power and it would be the fourth largest dam in the country, behind Itaipu, and Belo Monte and Tucuruí (both in the state of Pará, the same state as the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós dam).
“The region along the Tapajós River basin is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” says Jovanna Garcia Soto, Grassroots’ Program Coordinator for Latin America. “I had the privilege to travel the waters of the Tapajós River, and visit communities of riverine and Munduruku Indigenous Peoples working together to protect the sacred river that sustains their lives. MAB’s ability to create alliances among the different sectors, and their extraordinary organizing and movement building work is at the heart of this victory. We have been proud to support their work.”
The Struggle Continues
The Amazon region is in the center of the Brazilian government plans in its 10 Year National Energy Expansion Plan. That plan seeks to build 34 hydroelectric dams in the next decade, 15 of which will be located in the Amazon Region. Beyond electrical energy generation, the proposed dams are part of a joint government and corporate vision to develop a transportation infrastructure for soy and other agribusiness products and for mining commodities. After the completion of the dams, reservoirs will be formed allowing barge traffic along the river in areas that are not currently navigable.
Construction of mega-dams like Belo Monte and others continue to threaten communities and ecosystems throughout Brazil. While MAB considers the decision of IBAMA to deny the installation license for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam a significant victory for the people fighting against the construction of this hydroelectric dam, they realize the battle continues.
MAB tells us that the fight is far from over. This region and this river, like so many other regions and rivers in Brazil and throughout the world, face ongoing threats. They are targeted by corporations and investors interested in profit at any cost. MAB will continue its struggle in this region, organizing and fighting for the rights of those affected and threatened by dams.
But at least for the moment, it is a time to celebrate and appreciate the support of many grassroots organizations, trade unions, environmentalists, religious organizations and public officials who stood with those on the frontline of this struggle – the real protagonists of this victory – including peasants, Indigenous People, fisherpeople and artisanal gold prospectors. For at least today, the Tapajós River remains free.