Latin America Inside Out Blog

Tapajos: Public consultation? --More of a PR exercise

Tapajos: Public consultation? --More of a PR exercise

Mike Gatehouse
Author: Sue Branford
Published on: Fri Oct 4, 2013

Government-sponsored 'public consultation' on hydro-electric dam projects falls woefully short.

Sue Branford and Nayana Fernandez in Brazil. Post 8. Jacareacanga, September 30 2013.

Main photo: Survival/Leticia Leite/ISA

LAB journalists, Sue Branford and Nayana Fernandez, arrived on 5 September in the town of Santarém, where the clear waters of the Tapajós meet the mighty Amazon’s muddy waters . Since then they have been looking at the impact on local communities of the big development projects that are being unrolled in the region. This is the last of Sue’s blogs from the region.

Rather at the last moment, we decided after our trip along the Trombetas river to rush back to Jacareacanga on the Tapajós river to be present at an ‘audiência pública’ (public meeting) in which the authorities would discuss with the local population one of the hydroelectric dams being planned for the region. We knew that the way these meetings are held is highly controversial and we wanted to see one of them for ourselves.

Because of delays caused first by a road accident and then by a breakdown in the bus we were travelling in, it took us almost 24 hours to get to Jacareacanga from Santarém. At moments, when for instance all the passengers were left for four hours by the side of the road in the hot sun in the middle of nowhere after the bus driver had gone off to fetch a spare part, I wondered whether it was really going to be worth the effort. My fears grew when we were told in Itaituba, halfway through the journey, that the public meeting had been cancelled.

However, luckily for us, the event turned out to be really interesting. Before we arrived, the meeting had, indeed, been cancelled by the federal justice system at the request of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) – an independent branch of the judiciary, set up to defend the interests of disadvantaged sectors of society. Quoting studies carried out by FUNAI (the indian agency), the MPF had pointed to numerous errors in the way in which the impact of the planned hydroelectric dam on the Munduruku indigenous communities was being assessed by the authorities.

The study of this “indigenous element”, as it is called, must, by law, be carried out before the public meetings are held, and three prosecutors from the MPF – Felipe Bogado and Manoel Antônio Gonçalves da Silva, in Mato Grosso, and Felício Pontes Jr., in Pará – had successfully argued that the meeting in Jacareacanga should be cancelled. On the very eve of the meeting, however, the federal court’s decision was itself overturned by a higher court, as indeed, everyone in Jacareacanga had assured us would happen. The meeting would he held.

This legal wrangling seems set to continue. Indeed, one lawyer told me that the hydroelectric dams would probably all be built before the Supreme Court finally decided who was right!

The dam under discussion – São Manoel – is one of four planned for the Teles Pires river, one of the main tributaries of the Tapajós. Although no indian villages will be flooded, it will directly affect their way of life by disrupting the river flow, encouraging new diseases, attracting migrants, destroying sacred sites, and so on (see earlier post, and the Mundukuru’s own appeal).

Reaching Jacareacanga, we found that many of the Munduruku Indians were angry at the confused legal situation, which made it difficult for them to organise effective protests, and with the fact that the MPF’s ban, which they supported, had been overturned. We went early to the sports stadium, attached to a secondary school, where the meeting was to be held, and found a group of indians, in war paint and armed with bows and arrows and clubs, already gathered at the entrance.

Children applying 'war-paint'. Photos: Sue Branford, LABAs we arrived, children were decorating their bodies with black paint, carefully copying the designs their parents had used (see picture). It soon became clear that the Indians, although a fairly small group, intended to try to prevent the meeting from happening, even though there the military police were out in strength and there was a large contingent of soldiers from the National Force gathered in a building nearby. The situation felt tense.

As it turned out, the protest was short-lived. It was not pressure from the police, who had clearly been instructed to behave with restraint, but internal divisions among the indians that brought the action to an end. A small group of Munduruku, most of whom live in Jacareacanga, has been convinced by the authorities that the dams are a fait accompli, and that any attempt to stop them will be counter-productive, in that the indians will lose the hefty compensation that they would otherwise be entitled to. A few of these Indians, accompanied by officials from the municipal government, arrived and forced their way through. The protesters felt unable to use violence against their parentes (relatives), so the barricade was breached. Indians and others poured into the stadium.

The new divisions between the Munduruku are a cause for serious concern, as until now these Indians have been leading indigenous resistance in the Amazon. They are a large group – about 13,000 – and, if they cannot regain their old unity, the outlook for the Tapajos basin is, indeed, bleak.

In the event, the public meeting was a sorry affair. It began with the singing of Brazil’s national anthem. Ten white men, sitting on the stage, sang lustily, with the support of the three front rows occupied by local businessmen, government officials, farmers, and one or two women. Behind them a mass of Munduruku and poorer inhabitants of the town, most of whom were of Munduruku descent, stood there with their mouths firmly shut, in a kind of mute defiance. I felt as if I was witnessing the takeover of the town by an occupying power.

The meeting was supposed to be a ‘consultation’ with the local population but it felt instead like a PR exercise. At the outset, the public was told firmly that no spontaneous contributions from the floor would be accepted. Only written questions would be allowed, but no instructions were given on when or how to hand over questions. As far as I could see, no one from the back of the stadium submitted a question, which was not surprising given that many of the Munduruku and the town’s poorer inhabitants are not at all used to this kind of procedure, and some may have difficulty expressing themselves in Portuguese.

Two documentaries were shown, both of them strongly ‘selling’ the dam. Information was carefully presented, at times dishonestly. For instance, it was stated that the São Manoel dam would provide enough energy for two million people – technically true, no doubt, but irrelevant, given that almost all of the energy is destined for industrial projects, particularly mining.

It got very hot, as the meeting dragged on. After a while, much-needed tumblers of cold water were handed out, along with a small snack of biscuits and cakes. Along with everyone else in the back of the stadium, we ate it hungrily. It was not offered to the people on the stage, presumably because they were going to be served a proper dinner later.

Only one question was read out that came from an indian, a man sitting with government officials in one of the front rows, who stood up after his name was called. Although the officials had stated many times already that no indigenous land would be flooded, it was precisely this that he asked. As one Munduruku complained to us on the following day, “no one asked real questions, like why they have already destroyed our sacred site at the Sete Quedas waterfall?”

In an open letter published earlier this year by Survival International, Munduruku leaders described this site in the following terms: “The Cachoeira de Sete Quedas (Paribixexe) are beautiful falls, containing seven stages in the shape of steps. It is where the dead live, the sky of the dead, in other words, the reign of the dead. It is a sacred place to the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká, where the fish procreate, where the mother of fish exists. On the rock face there is art left by the Muraycoko (father of writing), the writing left for the Munduruku through the surabudodot writings, in a very remote period. There are also funerary urns buried there, where our ancient warriors are buried. A portal also exists there which cannot be seen by common men, only by spiritual shaman leaders, who can travel to another unknown world without being seen.”

Today this site has been destroyed, as can be seen from this video,recently shot from a plane flying over the area.

Of course, if an Indian had managed to ask this question, it would have been ruled unprocedural as the Sete Quedas site has been destroyed to pave the way for another of the dams, not São Manoel, the one under discussion. I decided not to point this out to the Munduruku indian, who was already feeling bewildered and battered by what was happening.

The organisers of the meeting had arrived by plane, landing on the military base at Jacareacanga on the day of the meeting. Early the following morning we heard the planes leave. Was it an ‘audiência pública’? Perhaps. But it was very far from being the truly popular and participatory consultation to which people have a legal right.


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