Brazil's Kayapó Reject Amazon Dams, Refuse Millions

Indigenous leaders refuse government payoff, call for justice in Belo Monte case

Altamira, Brazil – Leaders of 26 Kayapó indigenous communities met in the Amazonian town of Tucuma last week to discuss a recent offer of US$9 million from Brazil's state-owned electricity agency Eletrobras, intended to fund development projects in their region over four years. The Kayapó leadership unanimously rejected the government funding, deeming it "dirty money" intended to placate indigenous resistance to Brazil's plans to dam the Xingu River while sowing disunity among their communities, ultimately undermining the Kayapó's historic struggle in defense of their lands and cultural integrity.

This decision will likely impede ElectroBras plans to build future dams on the Xingu River, flooding huge swaths of indigenous territory in order to supply water to the powerhouse of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Belo Monte is currently under construction 500 kilometers downstream of Kayapó communities and would be the world's 3rd largest dam if completed. The US$15.5 billion project is Brazil's most expensive infrastructure project underway with the capacity to generate 11,300 megawatts of electricity. However, major fluctuations in the Xingu River's flow would make it among Brazil's most inefficient dams, generating only 39% of this capacity on average. In order to guarantee a steady supply of water for its turbines the Brazilian government could build upstream storage dams with catastrophic consequences to the region's indigenous people and conserved forests.

During the assembly, Kayapó leaders questioned the 2009 resolution of Brazil's National Energy Board prohibiting additional dams upstream of Belo Monte, affirming that the resolution could be easily modified to suit the government's needs. In their letter to ElectroBras the Kayapó state: "We have decided that your word is worth nothing. The conversation is over. We, the Mebengôre Kayapó people have decided that we do not want a single penny of your dirty money. We do not accept Belo Monte or any other dam on the Xingu. Our river does not have a price, our fish that we eat does not have a price, and the happiness of our grandchildren does not have a price. We will never stop fighting: In Altamira, in Brasilia, or in the Supreme Court. The Xingu is our home and you are not welcome here."

In addition to their letter to ElectroBras, Kayapó leadership also sent a letter to Joaquim Barbosa, the President of Brazil's Supreme Court, requesting "the urgent ruling upon the lawsuit…referring to the lack of prior consultation of indigenous peoples affected by Belo Monte" stating that this ruling is necessary to guarantee their constitutional right. Should such a judgment follow Brazil's Constitution and national legislation, the mega-dam would be immediately suspended until such consultations are carried out.

Historically the Kayapó have presented the most significant obstacle to the Brazilian government's plans to dam the Xingu, having spearheaded a successful movement to stop the first attempts to build a major complex of hydroelectric dams in 1989. The Xingu flows northward from Brazil's savanna through Kayapó lands for 500 km and then continues for another 500 km until it reaches the city of Altamira where Belo Monte is under construction. A mega-dam on the river would have serious implications for the peoples who rely upon the entirety of this waterway and the abundant fish, animal, and plant life it sustains.

The letter to ElectroBras was sent from leaders of approximately 50% of Kayapó communities based in the eastern Xingu River basin who are represented by the NGO "Protected Forest Association." Legendary Chief Raoni Metuktire and his successor Megaron Txucarramãe, among Belo Monte's most emphatic and strident opponents, represent an additional 25% of the Kayapó people from the southern Xingu basin through the NGO "Raoni Institute." The remaining 25% of the Kayapó communities from the northwest of Kayapó lands are represented by the NGO "Kabu Institute" and have accepted funds from Eletrobras, as their lands fall within Altamira municipality and, therefore, should form part of the official government mitigation package for Belo Monte's impacts.

While the eastern Kayapó had previously accepted ElectroBras funding for a project-based partnership that ended in 2012, new offers of funding were rejected unanimously in an historic meeting that culminated in emotional speeches by each chief declaring his love for his culture and land while emphasizing the need to protect their rivers and forest for the future. At the root of this refutation was a shared perception that Eletrobras and the Brazilian government will not keep their promise to spare the Xingu of additional dams. By rejecting partnership with Eletrobras, the Kayapó have strengthened the fight to save the Xingu and the magnificent abundance of life it sustains.

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