“You can’t stop a river. It’s alive, it breathes, it’s got mood. If you stop a river, it dies.”
This statement by the Kayapó warrior Raoni Metuktire, from Pará state, well-known in Brazil and across the world for his struggle in defense of forests, rivers, and rights of Indigenous peoples, sums up well the thinking of traditional peoples about the rivers. These live beings are key characters in the origin myths, traditional stories, and daily lives of thousands of villages spread throughout the South American continent. In addition to the original peoples, thousands of other persons, such as riverbank dwellers, fishers, Quilombolas, and extractivists, have learned to live with respect for and in harmonious interaction with the rivers that provide them food, health, and joy.
Raoni is one of the Indigenous leaders who coordinated the great Altamira Meeting in 1989. This gathering mobilized hundreds of relatives from over 30 ethnic groups and thousands of people of the most varied origins – including the singer Sting – against the military government plans to build a complex of hydroelectric power plants on the Xingu River.
This movement resonated throughout the world and the Kayapó warrior chants helped to stop the megalomaniac plans for over 20 years. Until the monster again left its cave (or drawer), now under a democratic government that has ignored all opinions and facts against the program – that they claim to be “clean energy.”
The large dams are fantastic civil engineering works, increasingly larger and more impressive. They try to prove that human beings are really superior to nature that they can control and dominate for their own benefit.
Besides the human-versus-nature competition, economic interests of governments and large contractors mobilize huge amounts, moving the economy and political relations, and ignoring public interest and the planet’s well-being. This dangerous combination has been lately revealed by the Brazilian and international media covering the Federal Police’s anticorruption investigation.
Social control as an instrument
Since its foundation and even before its legal constitution, the CASA Socio-Environmental Fund has supported communities defending their rights, their traditional way of life, protection of the environment, and populations affected by hydroelectric power plant dams. These dams have multiplied across South America, often with funds from the BNDES, Brazil’s development bank, thus revealing the prevailing policy in the country.
For over ten years, the CASA Fund, together with important partners such as International Rivers, Amazon Watch, Instituto Centro de Vida (Center of Life Institute), Socioenvironmental Institute, Rainforest Action Network, AINDA, and many others, has supported organizations and communities resisting the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, in Pará state. This is one of the projects interrupted more than 20 years ago and now resumed by the current government.
A struggle that did not end
Antônia de Melo, coordinator of the Xingu Forever Alive movement, is an example of such support. She has struggled for over 30 years against developmentist projects in northern Brazil: “The CASA Fund has always understood our needs, they understand what many other organizations cannot see – the importance of funds for mobilization. This is done without any bureaucracy, in a way that fits into our working conditions. Without this support, we wouldn’t have been able to collect information about rights, and take it to faraway communities, listen to what they are thinking, and help them to come to the city for meetings and mobilizations.”
Despite all networking and resistance, despite many protests, reports by specialists proving the illegality of the dam construction, formal requests from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the problems caused by lack of mitigating actions, despite it all Belo Monte was built. And Antônia, who lived in Altamira, saw her house torn down, as were all the others, and the forest and a way of life that stood in the way of the project.
In a beautiful article by journalist Eliane Brum for the newspaper El País, published on September 14, 2015, Antônia talks about her disappointment, but also about the continuity of her struggle: “I’m losing my house, losing the river, losing everything. This loss is of a life that is now gone, a life that had an objective, a dream, a project. I don’t feel well when I go down to the river and see what is happening. The islands destroyed. No. My house is all this… or was: the free river, the beautiful green islands. For me, everything is connected. Such a great sadness.
“Every time I look and see what they are doing, destroying the houses, destroying the river, destroying lives, the more I get stronger in my resistance, I find more courage and strength to say ‘no’ and continue to resist. For me, Belo Monte is not a done deal. I struggle against this model of destruction and death to generate energy. I fight against this model of development at any cost. Belo Monte is a crime against humanity. I can’t change my position. I can’t, I must not. Never, not a wee bit. Even if one day I end up alone, I’d still resist.”
This same strength to resist gave visibility to the Ene River Ashaninka people in Peru, whose struggle the CASA Fund also supported. Led by Ruth Buendia, through CARE, their work achieved an important victory when they managed to stop the construction of the Pakitzapango hydroelectric power plant, also being built by Odebrecht with BNDES’ funding (read the story “Two countries, one people” on this site). This project would have affected over 17 Indigenous communities.
These are not isolated struggles. They exist in response to the global model of occupation and development that affects everyone. Protagonists in these resistance struggles get together, exchange experiences and information, share strategies. Ruth, Antônia, Raoni and so many other leaders are now united to renew hopes in the struggle of the Munduruku people. With a population of around 12,000 people, these warriors present to society and government solid arguments against the construction of seven hydroelectric power plants on the Tapajós River Basin. The CASA Fund and other partners also support this resistance.
A prize and many allies
Once again the dominant system tramples upon laws and rights of Indigenous peoples. FUNAI, the government agency supposedly in charge of protecting Indigenous peoples’ interests, does not assume its role and does not demarcate lands that were already identified as belonging to the Munduruku people. This opens the possibility of land invasion and usurpation of rights. However, the Munduruku got together to carry out their own territorial demarcation and have not been silenced by the threats.
For their struggle, Indigenous leaders Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku and Rozeninho Saw Munduruku received the UN Equator Prize 2015 at the Climate Conference (COP 21), held in Paris, in December 2015. This award is granted to communities that undertake initiatives to conserve and protect their territories, and the sustainable use of natural resources, thus reinforcing the importance of Indigenous and local communities’ role in mitigating climate change.
The Munduruku people show their indignation in one of the letters written and publicized by their leaders:
“We came here to speak to you about another tragedy we will fight to prevent: the loss of our territory and the loss of our lives. We did not come here to negotiate with you because you cannot negotiate territories or lives. We are against the construction of dams that kill the Indigenous lands because they kill the culture when they kill the fishes and drown the land. And this kills us, without a single shot. You continue to kill a lot. You have already killed too many in 513 years.” [June 4, 2013, Vitória do Xingu, Letter no. 9: Tragedies and Dams (the struggle does not end there or here)].
Betting on solutions
Across the border, in Chile, the resistance put up for almost ten years by the Patagonia Without Dams Campaign has finally managed to stop the construction of a complex of hydroelectric power plants on the Baker and Pascua Rivers, in the Aysén province (Patagonia).
A historic decision of Chile’s Council of Ministers in 2014 suspended the HidroAysén megaproject. This action followed the Campaign that involved many actions throughout a decade. They managed to mobilize thousands of people, providing information on the risks that megaproject posed to the environment, as well as to traditional societies and cultures.
The CASA Socio-Environmental Fund rejoices at the victories of these supported communities in Chile and Peru, and we continue to believe in effective social control in Brazil and across South America. The objective of our support is to make these communities and organizations stronger, so they can find their own solutions and ways for learning and sharing information and strategies.
At the same time, we support true clean energy programs, such as wind and solar energy, which are increasingly viable, pointing to solutions to the energy crises announced by governments. Popular mobilizations, technical contributions, and actual examples that we helped to spread across the country should help to build a future where rivers remain unblocked, flow freely, stay clean, and continue to generate life.
A few weeks after the text for The Blocked Rivers story was ready, the life of Berta Cáceres was taken. She was an indigenous leader who fought for the freedom of her people and rivers of Honduras. Like the “interrupted rivers,” her life was interrupted on March 3 with shots fired by unknown men inside her home in La Esperanza, 200 km from Tegucigalpa.
Berta Cáceres received the Goldman Environmental Award 2015, one of the most important international recognitions for environmental rights defenders, for her work in defense of the Lenca territory threatened by the construction of Água Zarca Hydro Dam Project, of the Chinese transnational Sinohydro and the Honduran company Desarrollo Energy SA (Desa).
Just like Chico Mendes, also winner of the Goldman prize for the defense of the Amazon forest and the traditional way of life of indigenous and extractivist peoples, Berta joins hundreds of men and women who have their life trajectories interrupted for defending the rights to a fairer, cleaner, and more dignified world.
Also in March, between 7 and 17, Brazil received the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur for indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz — a Philippine indigenous person of Kankanaey Igorot ethnicity. She met with representatives of government, civil society and hundreds of indigenous leaders from the states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Bahia, Pará and Brasilia. She visited villages and areas of large projects. In her preliminary statements she expressed concern about the setback in the protection of indigenous rights and the increase in the number of attacks, violations and murders of indigenous and campesino leaders. Her final report should be disclosed by September 2016 containing conclusions and recommendations to the Brazilian government and the UN Human Rights Council.
|Text by: Angela Pappiani – Journalist, cultural producer at Ikore and CASA’s advisor since its foundation.
English translation by Jones de Freitas.