On Monday, 16th April 2013 a Federal Appeals Court determined that “Operação Tapajós” – an armed intervention by military and police forces to control indigenous protests over technical studies on their lands in preparation for the controversial São Luíz do Tapajós dam – be suspended. The judge ruled that indigenous and, significantly, other traditional communities whose territories would be affected, must be consulted before technical studies for dam construction are undertaken, in accordance with the ILO’s 169 Convention (to which Brazil is signatory) and Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution. The ruling also calls for a strategic environmental assessment of the cumulative impacts of the dams planned for the basin before studies can continue.
While the new conditions set out by the ruling potentially pave the way for an open, inclusive and transparent consultation process to assess the viability of the project, it remains to be seen whether the ruling will be upheld or whether the Federal Government will resort to legal devices to push ahead with its plans. The construction schedule is widely known and its existence indicates that the government has taken the political decision to build the dams.
Flowing down from the Brazilian Highlands, the Tapajós river – beside which lies one of the planet’s richest areas of biodiversity – has hardly been studied at all by scientists because its treacherous rapids make it extremely dangerous to navigate. As well as the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, two more dams are planned for the Tapajós itself and another four for the Jamanxim, five for the Teles Pires, and dozens for the Juruena, all within the Tapajós basin. The dams are part of Brazil's Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC), which also includes a rapid expansion of mining in the Amazon.
On 25th March, the Brazilian government launched Operation Tapajós, with the arrival of heavily armed personnel (some 250 men from the Federal Police, National Security Force, Federal Motorway Police and the Brazilian Air Force) in the town of Itaituba. According to reports from the area, local people were intimidated and harassed and a helicopter circled repeatedly over the Sawré Muybu village, on the right bank of the river. In a letter to the government dated 29th March, the Munduruku said that they felt betrayed by a government that had treated them like criminals.
Last October the Munduruku from the Sawré Muybu village expelled researchers contracted by the government’s energy company, Eletronorte, from a territory nearby, saying that they had not given permission for the research to be carried out. Government representatives responded by telling the Munduruku that they would be listened to but, if they did not cooperate, researchers would be brought in regardless, accompanied by armed guards.
Twenty days later, on the 7th November, the Federal Police and National Security Forces invaded a Kayabi and Munduruku indigenous village on the Teles Pires river in the north of Mato Grosso state, in a striking show of force filmed on mobile phones by witnesses. The authorities said that the motive for this “Operação Eldorado” was to combat an environmental crime - illegal gold mining - but, in fact, the police action resulted in further environmental damage, as gold dredges with all their contents were destroyed, contaminating the water. The carcasses of the dredges were abandoned on the river by the authorities and it has been alleged that gold prospectors have recently taken them over to refurbish them and reuse them.
The action also resulted in the death of Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku, who was shot in the legs and head by one of the policemen.
Also in November 2012 a deceptively named company, “Diálogos Tapajós”, began sending staff to meet with traditional communities in Pimental, Mangabal and other locations to inform them that their villages would disappear,. The inhabitants were also told that they had the “right” to register with the company and then choose one of three options: displacement, compensation, or a credit line. The impression is being given to some of the traditional communities that the dams are inevitable and that opposition to them is futile.
If the construction of of the series of planned dams goes ahead, thousands of workers will arrive along the Tapajós basin. The as yet untested model planned by officials envisages the installation of “construction platforms”, built like offshore oil platforms, in order to lessen the environmental impact. However, in contrast with deep sea areas, the Tapajós is home to a number of indigenous and peasant communities who have historically settled in the region – something which, less than a year ago, had not been acknowledged by Maurício Tomalsquin of the government’s Energy Research Company (EPE – Empresa de Energia Elétrica). By drying out or submerging the places where they live and have buried their ancestors, the dams threaten to disrupt irredeemably their lives and livelihoods.**
Surrounded by her family, Gabriela Maria Bibiana da Silva (105) is Pimental’s oldest inhabitant. She arrived on the Tapajós in 1917 with her parents, who came to tap rubber. The community now faces the prospect of being submerged under the reservoir of São Luiz do Tapajós dam.
Born and raised in Mangabal, a traditional community to be potentially impacted by the Jatobá dam, Odila Braga has also raised her children here. The idea of having to relocate to Itaituba is a constant source of anxiety.
Images: 1. Anon, Sawre Muybu community; 2./3. Teles Pires community; 4./5. Bruna Rocha
* Bruna Rocha is a LAB collaborator and Brent Millikan is Amazon Program Director at International Rivers
** Since this article was written, the Attorney General’s office (Advocacia Geral da União – AGU) has announced that it will appeal against Monday’s court ruling.