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Brazil’s Largest Hydroelectric Dam Project Suspended by Indigenous Action

May 2016

April has been an exceptional month for Indigenous groups in Brazil.

On April 19, which happens to be Indigenous People’s Day in Brazil, Ibama, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, suspended the license of one of the biggest hydroelectric dam projects in Brazil, São Luiz do Tapajós in the Amazon, which was to be started this year. The company building the dam was planning on flooding about 7% of the Mundruku peoples land, which would be unconstitutional once the indigenous status of land is confirmed.

On the same day, Funai, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, published a federal report demarcating new Indigenous territories. After many years of waiting and unfulfilled government promises , the Indigenous land of Sawré Muybu, home to about 13,000 Mundruku people in the heart of the Amazon, is now one step closer to having constitutionally protected territory. The Mundruku have lived in the area for more than a thousand years.

Earlier in April, the movement for indigenous rights scored another victory when territory belonging to the Arara indigenous people in the neighboring Amazonian state of Pará gained official recognition by a presidential decree. Our partner, the Movement of People affected by Dams (MAB) has played a key role in all three of these victories.

“We are happy, but the fight is not over,” a MAB spokesperson stated. If the Mundruku people are able to get constitutionally protected status, it would have immense repercussions throughout the region. But this is a rather big if. The project itself has not been canceled yet, merely postponed. Activists such as Heidy Lima from MAB are well aware of this: “The struggle continues, because until now there has not been a definitive cancellation, so we will continue organizing and fighting for definitive cancellation.”  This last part is key: organizing and continuing the struggle against this mega-project is the only path towards complete cancelation, and the Mundruku people’s only defense if Funai’s report is denied and the plan is put into motion again.

The Mundruku communities are justifiably afraid of losing the land that their families have lived on for millenia. This is why they are getting organized and fighting against the corporations trying to take advantage of their lands. As Josefina Maria das Graças Oliveira, a retiree who has lived for 50 years in Pimental, a community also threatened by the Tapajos hydroelectric complex says, “Because of this hydro-dam project, people are worried that they have to leave and so they don’t want to plant their fields any more.  They are afraid that they could spend a lot of time and money planting their crops, and then lose everything. Many people are selling land. But I do not want to leave.”

The will to fight back is shared by many in the community.  The acknowledgement by both Funai and Ibama of their territories, and the subsequent postponing of major projects that would infringe on indigenous land, is seen by Indigenous communities as a major victory and giant step forward towards securing their lands.

“When I talk about the dam I always cry a lot, but today I’m happy knowing that Ibama suspended the construction of the dam,” exclaims Dona Teresa, resident of the Pimental community.

For more, read statements from MAB of people affected.

Robert A. Vigna is currently a Graduate student at Suffolk University getting his Masters degree in Political Science and International Relations. He also has a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Suffolk U. Robert is currently volunteering with Grassroots International.


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