Eye on the Amazon

Looking Back at Rio+20 & the Xingu Occupation

Photo Credit: Mitch Anderson

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We had just arrived at an official event at Rio+20 in late June, where Vitor Cardeal, the head of the Brazilian power company Electrobras, was discussing the Belo Monte Dam complex. As a representative of Amazon Watch, I was accompanying Sheyla Juruna, a well-known warrior from the Juruna tribe in the Xingu River basin. Just two days earlier, Sheyla and I had joined some 200 others on the banks of the Xingu to free the river, plant trees and bring attention to the devastation Belo Monte will have the Xingu and on the lives of the area's indigenous peoples.

So you can imagine our surprise when we heard Cardeal tell the audience at Rio+20 how happy indigenous groups were with the dam project. Then he showed pictures of smiling indigenous children, pictures that reminded me of the kids I had just met who sang songs and told stories about how they wanted their river to flow free. I was in shock, and Sheyla was angry and upset. As a member of an affected community, she couldn't just sit there and let lies pass as truth, so she stood up and disrupted the meeting. At one point, Sheyla knelt down and cried and begged for help. It was a sad and intense moment for everyone in the room. It was also an important one. We had to get the truth out.

Photo Credit: Mitch Anderson

I remembered how a few days earlier, indigenous groups from around the Big Bend were able to stop thousands of workers from continuing construction as they protested on the coffer dam. It was clear that people weren't happy, yet their voices were ignored by the government, local and national media. It saddened me to realize that a protest by indigenous groups against the biggest most controversial project in Brazil received no coverage in the national press during Rio+20.

After the Cardeal event, we raced through many rooms to get Sheyla into a closed meeting between Brazilian ministers and a dozen leaders from the Xingu. After many hours, Sheyla came out of the room very frustrated and emotionally exhausted, and so I continued by myself on to another packed event focusing on sustainable development and investments lead by the Brazil's Environmental Minister, Izabella Teixeira, and the President of the National Development Bank, Luciano Coutinho.

Initially, my plan wasn't to disrupt the meeting, but I couldn't bite my tongue as claims were made about Brazil achieving "zero deforestation" with a great sustainable development plan while my country was proceeding to build the world's third biggest hydroelectric dam on indigenous territory and flood swaths of rainforest. So I stood up and told the audience the truth about my country's plans to destroy the Amazon which made Teixeira, the Environmental Minister, furious. She lost control, yelled and ended up cancelling the event. This was major news all over Brazil and internationally via social media.

As Rio+20 was wrapping up, and indigenous occupation began on the Big Bend of the Xingu. It continued for 21 days. I yearned to return to the region and support the action, but was advised not to as local activists were being put on black lists. I did what I could from afar, but it was extremely frustrating to not be on the ground.

After three weeks, the occupation came to a sad end with some indigenous leaders accepting an agreement with Norte Energia. Other indigenous groups are trying to recover and keep resisting, and we need to keep supporting them. We shall not forget that these people, who have every right to be on their land, have been massacred over the years. We also shall not forget that they are the gatekeepers of the Amazon rainforest that we all need to live and thrive.

For recent updates on our work in Brazil, check out "Let the River Run."

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