Eye on the Amazon

Bold Moves Block Tapajós Mega-dam and Uphold Indigenous Rights, for Now

Photo credit: Maira Irigaray / Amazon Watch

In the shadow of last week's contentious vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's Indigenous agency FUNAI and environmental agency IBAMA made unexpected, decisive rulings in defense of Indigenous rights and ecological protection in the Amazon. As if pouncing on the opportunity to finally do their jobs without the overbearing interference of an embattled executive, FUNAI moved to demarcate a besieged Indigenous territory while IBAMA took this cue to suspend approval of São Luiz do Tapajós, a mega-dam projected to flood it and displace its Munduruku inhabitants.

Marking Brazil's Indigenous Peoples' Day on April 19th, FUNAI's published a report confirming the Munduruku's 700 square mile territory known as Sawré Muybu should be demarcated and safeguarded in accordance with the Brazilian constitution. Confirmed as a "historic victory" by Munduruku leader Jairo Saw, FUNAI's move comes after years of efforts by his people to gain official recognition for their ancestral lands in the face of government intransigence.

The motivations for attempting to block Sawré Muybu's demarcation were clear: current plans to build São Luiz do Tapajós as the first of a series of large dams on the Tapajós hinge on the flooding of huge swaths of this territory, including Munduruku villages. For this reason, the Munduruku have carried out a tenacious resistance, mobilizing to "auto-demarcate" their lands in direct defiance of the government. Their resourceful and innovative strategy now appears to have paid off, as FUNAI's decision cleared a major hurdle toward the definitive protection of Sawré Muybu.

"This victory is the fruit of our people's unity, which grows stronger through the significant contributions of our partners," said Rozeninho Saw Munduruku, coordinator of the Aipariri Indigenous Association. "This is the first step toward victory, and we will continue our struggle. We know that next comes the challenges [to this decision], and we know that other projects continue to threaten our lives and our culture. We are fighting for our territory for the benefit of humanity. We call on people to join us because we are fighting for a better future for us all."

The day after FUNAI's move, Brazil's beleaguered environmental agency IBAMA followed suit, declaring the São Luiz do Tapajós dam unviable given its impact on the Indigenous communities in the region. With Sawré Muybu on track to be demarcated, IBAMA could now take an official stance on the mega-dam's violation of environmental law and Brazil's constitution, which explicitly prohibits the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples except in cases of war or epidemic.

It would appear that the political maelstrom now plaguing Brazil is currently benefitting the Amazon and its peoples. However, as the Instituto Socioambiental's Marcio Santilli told The Guardian: "We are living in a moment of great instability. Potentially, a new IBAMA president could reverse the decision." Indeed, a new "business-friendly" administration that replaces Dilma Rousseff could sweep aside FUNAI and IBAMA's enlightened moves, while pushing through a sinister package of pending laws that would strip Indigenous peoples of their land rights. Additionally, while last week's decisions constitute major setbacks to Brazil's national and international mining and energy corporation's objectives for the Tapajós. They also do not block plans to construct 42 other dams across the river basin, nor do they definitively protect Sawré Muybu and the region's other Indigenous territories from a set of corrupt, rapacious actors increasingly vying for access to protected lands and resources across the Amazon.

In recognizing the importance of last week's historic victory, the Munduruku and their partners also acknowledge the need to remain vigilant and steadfast in their resistance. As international support for their efforts grows and the climate movement increasingly recognizes the dangers of large dams, we remain hopeful more such victories lie ahead.

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