Eye on the Amazon

Accompanying Sheyla Juruna at Rio+20

Photo Credit: Mitch Anderson

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Imagine that your livelihood, your community, and your entire culture are facing imminent destruction. The world's largest dam currently under construction is in the process of decimating the magnificent river on which your people have depended from time immemorial. International bodies have repeatedly sounded the alarm about how your rights are at grave risk, yet the project advances with the force of a thousand bulldozers.

Within the Río+20 earth summit, ostensibly oriented to identifying sustainable solutions to the environmental and climate crisis, you are attending a side event organized by the company responsible for the dam's construction. The PowerPoint presentation, offered by a droll corporate executive, is emblematic of the efforts being taken to green-wash the many problems associated with big hydroelectric dams. With each passing exaggeration, half-truth, and outright falsehood about what's happening within and around your community, a rage wells up from deep within you.

What do you do?

Photo Credit: Mitch Anderson If you are Sheyla Juruna, Indigenous woman warrior, you don't take it sitting down. Throwing protocol to the wind, you rise in the middle of the presentation and raise your voice, overpowering the rote reading of bullet points. You denounce the lies. You "speak truth to power" – fully conscious that power knows the truth and willfully distorts it. And you implore the audience to take a look at what's happening on the ground with their own eyes.

Last week, during the Río+20 earth summit in Brazil, Amazon Watch accompanied Sheyla into the heart of the event. Faced with the imminent destruction of her community, she continues to embody the fierce spirit of resistance against seemingly insurmountable odds.

This latest round of collaboration actually started the week prior to the Río+20 earth summit. Amazon Watch fielded a human rights monitoring team along the Xingu river, nearly 100 miles of which is slated to be diverted by the dam's construction. The team observed as Sheyla joined hundreds of people to make yet another statement of defiance.

Sneaking past security in the early hours of the morning, the group occupied one of the earthen "coffer dams" that have been paved across the river to slow its course. Over the course of the morning, they hacked a canal through the compact dirt, eventually re-connecting the river where it had been obstructed. They also formed a human banner, spelling out the words "Pare Belo Monte" (Stop Belo Monte) with their bodies. The image, shot from a plane circling overhead, went viral on social media and has since been shared more than 10,000 times.

Terra Viva article on Sheyla This past week in Río, Sheyla brought the ground truth to the doorstep of the Brazilian policy makers who are pushing the dam. Beyond the heated exchange with the ElectroNorte rep, she participated in a clean energy symposium and a high-level panel discussion featuring powerful women from around the world, sharing the stage with Brazil's Marina Silva and India's Vandana Shiva. She also joined a dialogue between Indigenous leaders and Brazilian government ministers, including President Dilma Rousseff's Chief of Staff. There she was told to stop protesting because the dam would be built one way or another. Sheyla left the meeting early, in disgust.

Working to amplify Sheyla's powerful and outspoken voice, we brokered several media interviews with widely-read news agencies. One interview, with Interpress Service, resulted in a profile that was featured in the first edition of their TerraViva, the special newsletter distributed each of the Earth Summit's three days. 10,000 physical copies were handed out, divided between the official convention center (Río Centro) and the Peoples Summit, downtown along the beach.

In the midst of her trip, Indigenous activists from nearby Xikrin Kayapó communities invaded the dam construction site to launch what is now the longest occupation of Belo Monte. Sheyla returned to Altamira after a week in Río, ready to continue fighting.

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