Resisting Dams: Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Two indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are holding hostage three engineers working for the company building the contested Belo Monte dam, the latest trouble to hit the $13 billion project.  The engineers working for Norte Energia, a consortium of Brazilian firms and pension funds, were being held in a village close to where the 11,233-megawatt dam is being built on the Xingu River, Brazil’s national indigenous institute, called Funai, said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Juruna and Arara tribes say construction of the dam, which has been opposed by environmental groups and activists like Hollywood director James Cameron, is already preventing them from traveling freely along the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon River.  The dam would be the world’s third biggest, after China’s Three Gorges and Brazil’s Itaipu dam.

The three engineers, whose identities were not revealed, met with village leaders on Tuesday to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the dam, including a mechanism to allow boats to get around the construction site.  But the indigenous leaders were dissatisfied with the proposed solution and in protest prevented the engineers from leaving, environmental groups said. “The authorities report that the engineers are being prohibited from leaving the village but there is no use of force or violence,” Amazon Watch and International Rivers, two environmental groups opposed to the dam, said in a statement. Norte Energia declined to comment.

Funai said it did not know what the tribes were demanding in order to release the men. Funai representatives were with the Norte Energia employees to take part in talks with tribal leaders, the agency said.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists see the dam’s construction as the first step toward increased development of the Amazon basin, a hotly contested region that has seen violent and deadly conflicts between indigenous tribes and ranchers, miners and loggers.  The government of Brazil, a country which depends on hydroelectric power for more than 80% of its electricity, has said that it will build several dams in the Amazon to take advantage of the region’s ample hydroelectric potential, but has sought to minimize the impact of construction and operation of the dams.

In late June, members of several local tribes occupied the Belo Monte construction site to make similar demands, accusing Norte Energia of failing to carry out mitigation measures which the company is required to implement as part of its license to build the dam.  The company is required to invest about $1.6 billion in social programs such as building sanitation networks and relocating houses that occupy land to be flooded by the dam. In the past, the company has reiterated that it will carry out those investments, but that the investments will be completed as dam construction progresses…

Norte Energia is composed of government-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras, or Eletrobras, the pension funds of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro and government lender Caixa Economica; as well as utilities Neoenergia and Cemig and mining company Vale. Eletrobras is the biggest shareholder, with a 49.98% stake.

Excerpt,PAULO WINTERSTEIN, Tribes Hold Engineers of Dam in Brazil, Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2012

See also Amazon Watch, International Rivers

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