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Casualty of conscience

Brazilian official wounded at protest over destruction of indigenous territory

ALTAMIRA, Brazil - In the presence of more than 1,000 indigenous, environmental and human rights activists gathered in the northern Brazilian town of Altamira to protest the building of a huge hydroelectric dam, a brief but sensational scuffle broke out between an engineer from the construction company and a group of indigenous men, several of them carrying machetes.

While headlines have focused on this incident, Native people and their allies are trying to publicize other issues, such as how the dam would push them off of their land, as well as the sustained violence against them.

The mainstream focus of attention, however, was on the May 20 fracas in Altamira, a town on the Xingu River in the northern state of Para.

Electrobras engineer Paulo Fernando Rezende was, according to several sources, making an impassioned speech on the country's need for new power sources. He was also attacking a book by scientist and professor Osvaldo Seva in which Seva argued against the project, saying it would damage the environment and the communities in the region.

Local indigenous people such as the Kayapos strongly support Seva, whom they see as an ally in their struggle to protect their land. They, Seva, and no fewer than 50 Brazilian indigenous, environmental, human rights and professional groups are expressing opposition to the massive project that would immediately displace 15,000 people - mainly indigenous - and destroy various habitats, including traditional fishing grounds.

Tension over these issues was seen as part of the context of the event. By the time Rezende was finishing his argument, a group of Kayapo men surrounded him and began dancing around him and shouting at him. At some point, Rezende was pushed to the ground; a colleague of his rushed in to the scene and Rezende's arm was cut by a machete. Colleagues rushed him to a local hospital; before leaving, he was quoted as saying, ''I'm OK, I'm OK.'' While his wound required some stitches, he was allowed to leave a few hours later.

Local police are investigating the incident, and no one was taken into custody as of press time. In the meantime, the consequences of the massive dam and the other issues affecting indigenous communities remain unresolved. The hydroelectric project, however, has renewed public debate over the issue, which is not a new one in Brazil.

The first attempt at a similar project was stopped in 1989 due to a variety of factors, and it was just a few months ago that the Brazilian government announced plans to build a $6.7 billion hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, which flows into the Amazon. The new energy source would provide approximately 11,000 megawatts of power to Brazil, whose economy and economic power has been on the rise in the last few years while at the same time, environmental activists are showing that the deforestation of the Amazon - which had been declining - was increasing again and causing severe problems.

Since they had been fighting these trends for years already, indigenous and environmental advocates quickly gathered evidence showing how this latest project would hurt the people and the many habitats in the region. They also emphasized how the views of indigenous people were being ignored, even though the government had promised to consult them as being an integral part of the decisions to implement or discontinue whichever project.

Spokesmen for two of the main organizers of the Altamira protest emphasized the context of the situation in a press statement issued the day after the incident with the engineer.

''We do not endorse, in any way, and we lament, the aggression committed against the Electrobras official,'' said Andre Villas-Boas, coordinator of the Xingu Program of the Socio-Environmental Institute, an advocacy organization. ''Nevertheless, the Indians see that their constitutional rights are being systematically disrespected by the government, and that they will be forgotten when the next project comes and this has been causing great indignation in the communities for many years.''

He added that the government's decision to suspend an officially sponsored study on the dam's impact made these feelings of resentment even worse.

''There exists an accumulation of violence against these populations,'' asserted Ana Paula de Souza, general coordinator of the Live, Produce and Preserve Foundation. ''And what we saw here was a demonstration of the revolt against this and against official negligence over health, education and environmental issues.''

She also noted that the government had already put the construction of the project up for bid, and had insisted on not having a dialogue with the communities - which include small farmers and fisherman of indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds - and then, the groups requested the presence of various federal officials at their gathering May 20.

''The absence of these representatives offends the indigenous leaders ... the government ignores an event like this one, that features the participation of many sectors of Brazilian society and the 24 indigenous ethnicities that reside in the Xingu Basin. This attitude adds another dimension to the conflict that exists in relation to this theme.''

After the incident in Altamira, Brazilian officials have not made any commitments regarding the future of the hydroelectric dam. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, however, has been busy reacting to a scientific study just issued by a Brazilian researcher. Gilberto Camara's work demonstrates that the deforestation of the Amazon is again increasing. This finding is placing more pressure on Lula, who is also being pressured by international allies around the world to slow the destruction of the greater Amazon region. Lula has recently created a national environmental police agency, tasked with finding and apprehending illegal logging, ranching and mining operations.

These latest environmental developments have not yet had a direct effect on the many thousands of indigenous people in Para and other forest states; but a majority of local residents are clear about their opposition to the hydroelectric dam. Among the protesters in Altamira were leaders of the Kayapo people, one of whom stepped forward after the wounding of the Electrobras engineer.

''He's lucky he's still alive,'' said Partyk Kayapo immediately after the incident. ''They want to make a dam, and now they know they shouldn't.''