Eye on the Amazon

Voices of the Xingu: Antonia Melo, Amazon Warrior

"We won't let our rivers in the Amazon be sacrificed!"
– Antonia Melo

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If you're reading this it's quite likely that you know by now that the Brazilian government is planning to build what would be the world's third largest hydroelectric dam on one of the Amazon's major tributaries, the Xingu River. The Belo Monte dam would divert the flow of the Xingu and devastate an extensive area of the Brazilian rainforest, displacing over 20,000 people and threatening the survival of indigenous peoples. For the past 25 years, Antonia Melo da Silva has been at the forefront of this battle fighting for justice, rights, rivers and the rainforest.

Born in 1949 and mother of five, Melo (as we like to call her) is the coordinator and the heart of the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (Xingu Alive Forever Movement), a coalition of over 150 organizations and social movements fighting the Belo Monte dam. She has worked tirelessly since the dam was first proposed and stopped following the historic Altamira gathering of 1989 and a global campaign calling for cancellation of World Bank financing.

For more than two decades Melo has been a leader in the women's movement in Altamira, working in collaboration with churches, schools, indigenous communities and international NGOs to keep Belo Monte from being built. Her work has been particularly critical in the past five years since the Lula administration intensified efforts to push the project through as part of a plan to build 70 large dams across the Amazon by 2030.

Despite the more than two decades of successful resistance to Belo Monte, the dam is now 50% complete. When I met Antonia nearly four years ago resistance to the dam was very strong and construction was just beginning. She was determined, passionate and fascinating to be around. She would awake at 4 am everyday and work until 10 pm. While I would be exhausted, she seemed just fine with this and never complained. Antonia became my inspirational muse from the moment I met her.

Over the last few years construction of Belo Monte advanced, people were displaced and some people negotiated trades for support of the dam. Some simply got tired of fighting and gave up. Resources became scarce and organizations moved on to new causes, but Antonia's dedication never wavered. She kept the same smile, strength and energy. Working tirelessly day in and day out, Antonia is the living proof of what real commitment to justice means. Maybe that is why Norte Energia (the construction company) fears her so much and tries so hard to criminalize her work.

Antonia is not only strong and passionate, but humble and empathetic. She is like a mother to all who have felt injustice caused by the Belo Monte dam. I've never seen her cry because of the pain and suffering she witnesses everyday in Altamira. Instead, she is the one constantly giving her shoulder. She is also the one who continues to stand up fearlessly to demand justice. She is a visionary woman who sees what President Rousseff cannot seem to grasp: a sustainable future for Brazil that no longer harms the environment nor people's rights.

"We have so many cultures here in this part of the country, many diverse cultures but one shared objective – to defend a new model of development. Something that we take part in, not something that the government imposes on us," Melo recently told a reporter. "Brazil is so rich with other sources of energy – solar, biomass, wind power. That is the kind of development that would help the quality of life of rural people, of indigenous people. We need renewable energies that won't destroy the environment and won't privatize our waters. Many rivers have already been sacrificed. We won't let our rivers in the Amazon be sacrificed as well."

Amazon Watch couldn't agree more. Now, more than ever, Antonia and the Xingu Alive Forever Movement need our support to keep the movement alive and unified. Please join us today!

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