At dawn on Sunday, July 16th, 200 representatives of the indigenous Munduruku nation occupied the main work camp of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon, paralyzing the project. Led by Munduruku women warriors, the occupiers presented a series of demands to dam developers and Brazilian government authorities, including the right to consultation, land titling, and respect for their cultural and spiritual sites. They also demanded that developers repair the grave environmental destruction inflicted by dams on the Teles Pires.
In an open letter, the Munduruku state: “Our sacred places [such as the Sete Quedas waterfall and burial grounds] were violated and destroyed. Our ancestors are crying… The Teles Pires and Tapajós Rivers are dying. Our rights, guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, which came to exist after much indigenous blood was spilled, are being violated.”
The letter emphasizes that construction of the São Manoel and Teles Pires hydroelectric dams, both located in close proximity to indigenous territories occupied by the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaka tribes, constitute a gross violation of the right of indigenous peoples to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), guaranteed by International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, to which Brazil is a signatory. In an effort to support FPIC implementation, in 2014 the Munduruku published a ‘protocol’ in which they laid out guidelines for an appropriate process of prior consultation and consent for proposed projects that would affect their livelihoods and rights. Though they formally presented it to the Brazilian government in 2015, they have yet to receive a reply.
Together with the destruction of the Sete Quedas waterfalls – a site considered to be the center of cosmology for the region’s three indigenous peoples – dams on the Teles Pires River also led to the removal of funerary urns and archeological artefacts on Munduruku burial grounds. Long a major concern of Munduruku leadership, the return of these items is among the principal demands of the occupation.
“I am deeply saddened to be witnessing the destruction of our sacred sites,” said Maria Leusa Kabá Munduruku, one of the principal leaders of the occupation. “We women need to have great strength to cure the pains we are feeling here.”
Now entering its third day, the occupation of the São Manoel dam was conceived by Munduruku women who identified the need to take bold action to stop the ongoing destruction of indigenous rights and territories in the Tapajós River basin.
“After we heard the Munduruku women, it was decided that we would gather peacefully at the São Manoel work camp, motivated by our pain,” says the Munduruku statement. “We are not here to invade. The only invader is the government and the companies responsible for the dams being built on the Teles Pires…. We know that our struggle is legitimate… We ask that our demands be met and will not leave here until they are.”
In response to the indigenous mobilization and work stoppage at São Manoel, members of the dam’s consortium, EESM – composed of the Brazilian affiliate of the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG); Portugal’s EDP Energias do Brasil; and Furnas, a state-run energy company – filed suit in federal court to end the occupation. The Munduruku countered with a second statement, attesting to their determination to engage in dialogue and to remain on site, resisting efforts to intimidate them. “We only need for our demands to be attended to. Our protest is peaceful and therefore the intervention of the national guard or federal police is not necessary.”
In its only proactive response to Munduruku demands, the government agreed to send the president of the indigenous agency, FUNAI, to visit the occupation site. The Munduruku are skeptical, however, particularly given that FUNAI’s current president, Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, is a highly controversial appointee of Brazil’s right-wing Social Christian Party, which has proved antagonistic to indigenous rights. “It is not enough for him to come here with false promises,” read a Munduruku statement. “We want concrete responses to our needs.”
“Far from the limelight of high-profile, controversial projects like Belo Monte, the São Manoel and Teles Pires dams have involved a series of human rights violations and environmental illegalities since their inception,” said Brent Millikan of International Rivers – Brazil. “The consequences of this steamrolling of the rule of law have included the destruction of sacred sites and devastating downstream impacts on water quality, freshwater ecosystems and fisheries that are essential for the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.”
“The Munduruku occupation demonstrates the extent to which Brazil’s indigenous and traditional peoples must go to make themselves heard,” said Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch. “This a struggle for cultural survival in opposition to a disastrous pattern of environmental destruction and rights violations endemic to Brazil’s Amazon dam-building program.”
The São Manoel and Teles Pires dams are part of a complex of four large hydroelectric projects simultaneously under construction on the Teles Pires River, a major tributary of the Tapajós River in the Brazilian Amazon. The dams were planned by the state-run energy company Eletrobras and the Energy Planning Institute (EPE), both affiliated with the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy. The socio-environmental risks of this dam cascade in the Amazon, including violation of indigenous rights, were systematically underestimated or simply ignored. Environmental licenses and public funding from Brazil’s National Development Bank (BNDES) were approved under intense political pressure.
Investors such as CTG and Iberdrola, a Spanish pension fund, repeatedly ignored warning signs of the projects’ legal, financial and reputational risks. Recently, the CTG-led São Manoel consortium informed indigenous peoples of the Teles Pires River that the closing of floodgates and filling of the dam’s reservoir would begin in August, despite the fact that no such license has been issued by IBAMA, the federal environmental agency. Although dam construction began in 2014, a plan to mitigate and compensate impacts of the São Manoel dam, which should have preceded construction, has yet to receive final approval from FUNAI and indigenous tribes.