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Brazil’s Proposed Mega-dam Auction Provokes Outrage, Indigenous Fight

When Brazil announced plans September 12 to build a new dam on the Tapajós River, they violated their own legal requirements.

When Brazil announced plans September 12 to build a new dam on the Tapajós River, they violated their own legal requirements to comply with a process of free, prior, and informed consultation with threatened indigenous and traditional communities.

Brazil's Ministry of Mines and Energy set December 15 to auction the construction of the massive São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric dam, the first in a series of large dams slated for construction on the Tapajós River, one of the Amazon's largest tributaries.

The announcement provoked condemnation by local Indigenous Peoples, who criticized the federal government's failure to ensure respect for their rights, as guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution and international human rights agreements.

The move enflamed tensions in the precarious and remote region. It promised conflict with the region's threatened Indigenous Peoples, particularly the Munduruku people, one of the largest surviving Amazonian tribes, whose territories and communities span much of the Tapajós basin – and Brazil got it.

“The auction that was scheduled created a huge outrage from Public Prosecutors, indigenous, traditional populations, and [the] civil society side,” Amazon Watch’ Brazil Program Coordinator Maira Irigaray told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Two days later it got postponed for next year because the Minister of Mines and Energy said that the indigenous component needed some work.

According to Irigaray, “All the dam complexes for the region being planned are a great disaster.”

Irigaray said that a press release had announced that technicians analyzing the project claimed it was not viable from indigenous perspectives. However the document itself does say that, Irigaray said.

“In fact it says the dam is viable if proper mitigation measures are in place,” Irigaray said. “They even propose that indigenous people be removed from their lands so the dam can be built, which is disrespecting completely the Brazilian Constitutional rights.”

Another issue is that the study was made without a single consultation nor was the presence of the anthropologist in any of the affected areas, Irigaray said.

“Right now, some of our NGO partners and Public Prosecutors are in Munduruku [territory] promoting a ‘consultation’ training, to support them to truly understand how consultation should take place and to help them build their own document, determining how they want to be consulted. There is definitely much more to come from that.

“The Munduruku are very well informed and won't go down without a fight,” Irigaray said.

The announcement of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam auction came after escalating controversy over the ambitious Amazon dam-building plans of President Dilma Rousseff’s government, according to an Amazon Watch statement.

Recent mega-dam projects - Belo Monte on the Xingu River, and Santo Antônio and Jirau on the Madeira river – have been plagued by major construction delays and massive cost overruns, as well as serious socio-environmental impacts that have been left largely unmitigated by dam-builders, according to Amazon Watch. Suspicions of corruption within the dam industry have been heightened by a recent scandal involving Minister of Mines and Energy Edison Lobão, accused with grafting kickbacks from the state oil company Petrobras, which he oversees.

"In cases such as São Luiz do Tapajós, political decisions regarding which new dams will be built are based solely on the criteria of maximizing energy generation, without consulting Indigenous Peoples and before studies on the socio-environmental impacts and economic viability of projects have been completed,” noted Brent Millikan from International Rivers in the statement. “Moreover, there’s a chronic tendency for technical studies commissioned by dam proponents to seriously underestimate or simply ignore major social and environmental impacts and risks.

“The São Luiz do Tapajós is the largest of seven large dams slated for construction on the mainstream of the Tapajós and one of its tributaries, Rio Jamanxim,” Millikan said. “Dozens of other large and medium-sized dams are also planned on the Teles Pires and Juruena rivers, major tributaries of the Tapajós, three of which are already under construction. The majority of the projects would directly affect Indigenous Peoples and their territories, as well as other protected areas, including national parks and national forests.”

Since mid-2012, bands of Munduruku warriors, together with women and children, occupied the Belo Monte dam site on two occasions, protesting the Brazilian government's plans to build similar destructive dam projects on the territories in the Tapajós, according to Amazon Watch.

Tensions intensified in late 2012 when the Brazilian federal police shot and killed a member of the Munduruku tribe during a raid on wildcat placer mining, perceived as a form of intimidation aimed at reducing indigenous resistance to the dam projects.

In mid-2013, when the Munduruku refused to allow technical teams conducting dam studies to enter their territories, Brazilian President Rousseff ordered the federal police and national guard to serve as their escorts, escalating tensions in this remote corner of the Amazon. Another source of tension has been the Brazilian government's refusal to demarcate areas occupied by the Munduruku people, such as Sawre Muybu, that would be directly flooded by the São Luiz do Tapajós dam.