Brazil Indians Occupy Belo Monte Dam Site

Lucy Jordan

Brasilia, Brazil – The federal government said Monday it would not negotiate with indigenous groups which on Tuesday entered their sixth day of occupying the controversial Belo Monte dam construction site. In the inflammatory statement, the Secretariat General of the Presidency accused some indigenous leaders of dishonesty and involvement in illegal gold mining.

Some two hundred native Indians from eight ethnic groups last Thursday entered a building site for Belo Monte, on the Xingu River in Pará state, demanding government-held consultations, the suspension of construction on the Xingu, Tapajos and Teles Pires rivers, and the withdrawal of troops from their land. The Belo Monte Construction Consortium (CCBM) said 3,000 of the 22,000 workers at the site were currently prevented from working.

In a strongly worded statement released Monday night, the Secretariat General of the Presidency, Minister Gilberto Carvalho, dismissed claims that consultations had been insufficient.

"Such a claim is surprising. In their relationship with the federal government these alleged Munduruku leaders have made contradictory proposals and conducted negotiations without necessary honesty," the statement read.

It claimed "self-styled leaders" had refused to attend meetings in Brasília. "Now, they invade Belo Monte and say they want prior consultation and suspension of studies. This is impossible."

The statement went on to accuse one ethnic group, the Munduruku, of having an ulterior motive for opposing development of the region. "In fact, some Munduruku want no development in their region because they are involved in illegal gold mining in the Tapajós River," it claimed.

Indigenous groups occupying Belo Monte responded Tuesday. "The government has lost its mind. Gilberto Carvalho is lying," they said in a statement. "We remain calm and peaceful. You do not…you banned journalists and lawyers from entering the construction site… You have sent the army to say that the government will not talk with us," the statement read, alluding to the ejection of journalists and lawyers from the protest site on Friday – International Press Freedom day.

"We understand that it's easier to call us thugs, treating us like criminals," the statement reads. "But we are not criminals … Our claims are based on constitutional rights."

Maíra Irigaray, Brazil Program Director for Amazon Watch, said she was "shocked" by the "offensive" statement, and called it a clear attempt to discredit a vulnerable group of people. "It's a shame as a Brazilian to see such disrespect and disregard," she added.

The rights of indigenous groups to be consulted over developments in or near their communities are constitutionally mandated. But there is significant disagreement over whether or not these consultations took place.

Fernando Santana, a spokesman for the Belo Monte Construction Consortium (CCBM), told The Rio Times that "many meetings" had been held.

Opponents of the dam insist otherwise. "There were four meetings carried out by Funai [the government agency responsible for protecting indigenous interests], way before construction and in those meetings Funai clearly said ‘this meeting is not a consultation," said Ms. Irigaray.

In August, a federal appeals court ordered construction to stop, citing insufficient consultation. Two weeks later the Supreme Court overturned the decision, to prevent damage to "economic order and the Brazilian energy policy." But it did not rule on whether or not there had been enough consultation, referring the case to the Attorney General’s office.

Opponents of the dam, which would be the third largest of its kind, say it will displace some 20,000 indigenous people and flood a vast area of pristine rainforest.

The government argues that new hydroelectric projects are essential to supply the country’s growing energy needs. Despite fierce opposition, it said in September that it was planning to build at least 23 new hydroelectric dams in the Amazon.

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