Although the damaging impacts of hydroelectric development are widely known, the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy reportedly plans to construct 168 new dams by 2021, including the massive Belo Monte Dam. But that expansion will not proceed without organized opposition and mounting pressure to protect the rights of communities living along waterways, including small farmers and indigenous peoples.
Constructing the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon Basin of Brazil significantly impacts communities whose lives and cultures depend upon the Xingu River and surrounding lands. The scale of Belo Monte destines it to become the third largest mega-dam in the world and threatens to displace more than 20,000 people. Eighteen Xingu River indigenous groups rely on its waters to provide fertile soil, sustenance, and transport, while many small-scale farmers risk losing their land to inundation. And dam construction will inundate at least 2,500 square miles, roughly enough to drown the entire state of Delaware under water. It is essential to consider what this development means for families who live in areas impacted by dams. As the government forges ahead, Brazilian social movements coalesce to question the trajectory of development and fight for greater equity. But who are these movements and how do they lead the resistance? One of the leading forces in protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and small farmers is MAB (Movimento dos Antingidos por Barragens, orMovement of People Affected by Dams). MAB is a national popular movement in Brazil that represents and provides legal and logistical support to families displaced by dams. Since 1991, MAB has worked in 17 of 26 Brazilian states to advocate human rights to water and land. José Alves de Oliveira (Josivaldo) of MAB recently explained to Grassroots International that “the pursuit of profit has swelled and advanced in Brazilian and Latin American territories, affecting the extraordinary riches we have in water, energy, and biodiversity.” To meet these challenges, MAB mobilizes affected communities through training in leadership development, communications and media, and human rights advocacy. MAB also seeks to establish national and international alliances. In July, Josivaldo and Elisa Estronioli of MAB attended the Left Forum in New York City. Following the event, they reflected on the nature of popular resistance in Brazil and explained how MAB mobilizes and empowers its constituency. Elisa and Josivaldo explained that while social movements each have their own mobilizing struggles, organizations are united in their fight to protect rights to land, education, housing, and energy. They strive, Josivaldo says, to unify the political left to confront the coalition they see among the political right, United States imperialists, and large corporations. Josivaldo explained that by forming these alliances, social movements build collective power, which can manifest as demonstrations across states involving millions of participants. Elisa also described Brazilian social movements as highly democratically structured. MAB uses a decentralized system that provides for broad participation and enables the organization to organically build grassroots support. In essence, Elisa and Josivaldo see that people are able to participate in the movement because they live within it. The MAB also coordinates local, state, and national action, which enables members to be involved with discussions at all levels. This past year, Grassroots International supported MAB in their work with threatened communities along the Tapajos and Xingu Rivers.