Survival Alert: Killer Dams Menace Brazilian Amazon

Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.

Despite a massive international outcry by indigenous people, campaigners and the general public, the Brazilian government insists on pushing forward its Accelerated Growth Program, which aims to stimulate the country’s economic growth by building a huge infrastructure of roads and dams, many in the Amazon region.

The size of these projects threatens to harm, and in some cases destroy, vast areas of land upon which numerous tribal peoples, including several groups of highly vulnerable uncontacted Indians, depend for their survival.



The hugely controversial Belo Monte dam is a prime example. The dam, which is under construction on the Xingu River in the Brazilian state of Pará, will be the third largest hydroelectric plant in the world and the second-largest hydroelectric dam in Brazil.

The impacts of the mega-dam can only be described as devastating: Vast areas of rainforest will be flooded, parts of the Xingu river will dry up and fish stocks will be significantly reduced. Nature and wildlife won’t be the only living things to suffer from the destructive consequences.

The dam will also displace thousands of local people. The area around the Xingu River is home to many indigenous communities, including the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã Indians. If the dam goes ahead, it will destroy the livelihoods of many tribal people who depend on the forest and river for food and water.

In the 1980s, the notorious Carajás mine in the eastern part of Amazonia and its 550-mile-long railway devastated the nearby Awá tribe by opening up their land to settlers, ranchers and loggers.

In violation of Brazilian and international law, the Indians have never been properly consulted about the dam. In a letter to ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula, the Kayapó stated, “We don’t want this dam to destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia and which we can still preserve.”

The construction of the dam is also attracting large numbers of migrant workers and colonists who are bringing life-threatening diseases to the Indians. Troubling reports by FUNAI, Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department, indicate that there may be uncontacted Indians living near the site of the dam. They are most at risk; they have little or no resistance to outside diseases and the impacts of the dam could be fatal for them.

The government is also embarking on technical studies for the first in a series of dams along the Tapajós river. The Munduruku tribe, many of whom live by the river, are deeply opposed to the project. When it protested, the government sent in heavily armed police and national security agents to intimidate the Indians.

Kayapó dance at an anti-dam protest. (Photo: © Terence Turner/Survival)

These dams are not the only industrial projects threating Brazil’s indigenous peoples. The Brazilian government is currently planning to allow large-scale mining in indigenous territories. One of the objectives of the government’s drive to build so many hydro-electric dams in the Amazon is to provide cheap energy to the mining companies which are poised to mine in indigenous lands.

History shows that such projects can bring great tragedy to indigenous communities.

In the 1980s, the notorious Carajás mine in the eastern part of Amazonia and its 550-mile-long railway devastated the nearby Awá tribe by opening up their land to settlers, ranchers and loggers.

The Carajás mine and railway signaled the start of migration to the Awá territories in northeastern Brazil. (Photo: © Peter Frey/Survival)

Although their lands have been demarcated, they continue to be heavily invaded. Uncontacted Awá are highly vulnerable to diseases transmitted by outsiders and to attack. In recent decades, gunmen have targeted and killed dozens of uncontacted Awá, who are now Earth’s most threatened tribe. Despite a federal judge ordering the eviction of all illegal settlers by the end of March, Brazilian authorities have done nothing to remove the invaders.

The indigenous leaders of the Kayapó tribe speak not only for the tribes affected by the Belo Monte dam, but for all threatened indigenous people of Brazil, when they say, “The world must know what is happening here; they must perceive how destroying forests and indigenous people destroys the entire world.”

If the construction of these mega dams goes ahead, thousands of people will lose their homes, their livelihoods and their lives. Indigenous peoples depend on their land in order to survive and, having lived there for generations, they have a deep, spiritual link to it. No amount of compensation or mitigation measures can replace their ancestral land.

Should the people who live in an area affected by construction of a dam, or other works of industrial progress, have veto power in that construction? Explain when and when not in COMMENTS.

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Sarah Shenker has been a campaigner with Survival International for three years and has worked on campaigns for the rights of the Guarani, Awá Guajá and Yanomami tribes of Brazil and is also involved in Survival’s campaign highlighting the threats to uncontacted tribes. Sarah has an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London, for which she conducted fieldwork with indigenous Tzotzil and Tojolabal communities in southern Mexico. Email Survival | @Survival