Eye on the Amazon

Day 16: Reflections from the Belo Monte Occupation

Photo: Rafael Salazar

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The Indigenous-led occupation of Pimental Island on the Xingu River is now in its 16th day. I see this occupation of the main Belo Monte dam construction site as a key battleground for the future of the entire Amazon rainforest.

It is powerful to be here on the ground supporting Indigenous peoples in amplifying their voices.

Steadily growing groups of Indigenous inhabitants of the Xingu are continuing to denounce the failure by the dam builders to adhere to the so-called "safeguards" and "mitigation" programs designed to reduce the significant impacts of the project on local communities and their environment. They are demanding that construction of the Belo Monte dam be halted until the dam-building consortium Norte Energia and the government can put in place effective programs and measures to address the effects of the dam such as loss of fishing and hunting resources, loss of river navigation, and increased incidence of diseases.

In all, more than 300 people from 21 Indigenous villages and nine different ethnicities are represented at the occupation so far. I heard many tribal elders this week express outrage and deep sorrow seeing how the initial earthen dam is now blocking a large part of the flow of their mighty river. On one side of the coffer dam, the river comes to a sudden halt; on the other side, there is no flow, just pools of stagnant water resembling more of a draining lake than a river. While it is hard to imagine how several hundred people can impact the world's third largest dam, there are millions more in Brazil and around the world who have expressed their solidarity with this struggle. Their action feels significant, perhaps a turning point for justice and environmental sanity.

The Xinguanos gathered here spend some of their day analyzing their concerns, discussing their demands and writing pronouncements and letters to various government agencies summoning them here to discuss how exactly their concerns will be addressed. At other times throughout the day, the Indigenous "occupiers" take time to bathe in the Xingu river, fish, perform traditional songs and dances and visit with neighboring tribes who they seldom see. Every day, the Xikrin women make a special dye from the fruit of the Genipapa tree and draw intricate designs on their bodies and those of their relatives, and even some lucky visitors.

This convergence is historic, considering communities here have traditionally been disconnected or, in some cases, even enemies. Now they are uniting for a larger purpose: to save their critically important sacred river, their lifeline and their way of life. Josimar Arara, a young Arara leader whose community we visited with James Cameron in 2010 and 2011, put it this way: "We are here to reclaim our rights, which have to be respected. We are here to defend the future of our children, the future of our people because we depend on this river for our survival."

The occupation is evolving day by day, and I will be here until next week helping shine as much of an international spotlight on this battleground as possible. On Monday, the second in a series of talks between the tribes and Norte Energia will be held. Senior government officials will also be in attendance. But it is hard to imagine what the companies and government could possibly offer for the people here to feel that they have real guarantees that their lives will not be ruined.

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