Brazil: Judge rules Teles Pires dam violates indigenous rights

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A judge in Brazil has suspended construction of the Teles Pires dam in the Amazon, citing violations of the rights of the indigenous peoples whose livelihoods are seriously threatened by the project.

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News Release
International Rivers, March 30, 2012

A federal judge in Brazil has suspended the construction license of the Teles Pires hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon, citing violations of the rights of the Kayabi, Apiaká and Mundurucu indigenous peoples whose livelihoods are seriously threatened by the project.

Célia Regina Ody Bernardes, a federal judge in the state of Mato Grosso, ordered the immediate suspension of all activities in dam construction, “especially explosions of boulders in the region of Sete Quedas (Seven Waterfalls)” cited as an area considered sacred for the Kayabi, Mundurucu and Apiaká peoples.

With an estimated installed capacity of 1,820 MW, the dam has been under construction since August 2011 on the Teles Pires River, a major tributary of the Tapajós River in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. The dam is one of six large hydro-projects planned for the Teles Pires River, bordering the states of Mato Grosso and Pará.

In her decision, Judge Bernardes concluded that prior to greenlighting dam construction, the federal environmental agency (IBAMA) failed to consult with affected indigenous communities, despite serious threats to their “socioeconomic and cultural well-being,” constituting a violation of the Brazilian Constitution and ILO Convention 169, which Brazil signed in 2004.

The decision to suspend dam construction was based on a lawsuit filed earlier this month by state and federal public prosecutors from Mato Grosso and Pará that argued the existence of “imminent and irreversible damage to the quality of life and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the region,” including flooding the series of rapids on the Teles Pires River known as Sete Quedas. “The rapids of Sete Quedas are the spawning grounds of fish that are very important to us, such as the pintado, pacú, pirarara and matrinxã.

In addition to its importance for the physical survival of indigenous peoples, Sete Quedas holds tremendous cultural significance. The lawsuit argues that the dam construction site is “a sacred area relevant for the beliefs, customs, traditions, symbolism and spirituality of indigenous peoples. As a cultural heritage site, it is protected by the Brazilian Constitution and international agreements”.

According to a recent declaration by indigenous peoples  cited in the lawsuit “Sete Quedas is a sacred place, where the Mãe dos Peixes (Mother of Fish) and other spirits of our ancestors live – a place known as Uel, meaning that it should not be messed with.”

Other threats to indigenous peoples provoked by dam construction, cited in the lawsuit, include conflicts associated with a massive influx of migrants to the region, land speculation, illegal deforestation, predatory fishing and illegal exploitation of mining resources.

The prosecutors argued that, given a delay of almost 20 years in the demarcation of the Kayabi territory, such threats are even more severe.

According to Taravy Kayabi, a leader of the Kayabi people,

“while the federal government stalls in implementing laws that protect the rights of indigenous peoples, it is pressuring us to accept the dams. But we know the compensation they are offering will never substitute places that are sacred to us, such as Sete Quedas, that hold the cemeteries of our ancestors and that should be preserved. Sete Quedas is also the spawning grounds of fish that are an important source of food. They talk about fish ladders, but where have these ever worked? The government needs to look for alternative ways to generate energy that don’t harm indigenous peoples and their territories.”

Civil society groups and leaders of the Kayabi community welcomed the news of the the suspension of dam construction, but warned against a possible overturning of Judge Bernardes’ restraining order.

“What we’ve seen over and over again, in cases such as Belo Monte, is that the President’s office politically intervenes in regional federal courts to overturn decisions against violations of human rights and environmental legislation, using false arguments, such as an impending blackout at the national level if  dams aren’t immediately constructed.

Of course, this is ludicrous. Indigenous peoples and human rights groups in Brazil and around the world are calling on the Dilma government to change course and respect the country’s constitution and rule of law,” stated Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director at International Rivers.