A Peruvian delegation of Indigenous leaders and fishing communities is in the United States right now, confronting investors on their rights to live free from the devastation caused by the oil company the investors are bankrolling, Petroperú.
Antonia Melo is standing on her front porch. Behind her sits a room full of memories and photos. Her grandchildren wrap their arms around her legs. She speaks with strength, energy and indignation. At first, I couldn’t really feel the sadness in her tone when I spoke with her, but now I can.
Today, five years later, I still remember my dear friend, inspiring leader and powerful activist who lives her own revolution in this way. Born in 1949 and mother of five, Antonia Melo 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 construction of the Belo Monte dam. She has worked tirelessly since the dam was first proposed, and participated in the historic Altamira gathering of 1989 and a global campaign calling for cancellation of financing from the World Bank.
For more than two decades Antonia 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. Now, a month before the Belo Monte reservoir is scheduled to flood the city of Altamira, Melo faces one of the most challenging moments throughout this campaign – her own displacement.
“I am suffering from the violence of having to leave my home where I have lived for the past 30 years, and where I raised my children and grandchildren. I never intended whatsoever to sell or rent my place, so there is no amount of compensation that could ever satisfy me. This forced process of violence, of having to leave my home to make space for Belo Monte is unacceptable. But Belo Monte will not destroy the life-memory of my home.”
Melo is not alone. Thousands of families are suffering due to government development projects in the Amazon (PAC). Indigenous people and traditional non-indigenous communities are especially impacted. “If people around the world don’t unite against these monstrous projects in the Amazon, soon there will be no Amazon,” says Melo.
For Antonia, what is happening in Belo Monte is a socio-environmental crime apparent for the world to see. Violations include closing the dam and blocking the river without a license, the non-fulfillment of the conditions outlined in the first license including proper preparation of the region for such a project, demarcation of indigenous lands, and the implementation of health and education services. All of these are fundamental human rights.
“Indigenous people were put in a difficult situation. Indigenous people have no clean water to drink, fishermen have no way to fish, and boatmen lost their means to survive. Families from the islands abandoned their traditional way of life and had to move to the city, distant from the river, transforming their lives into complete violence. In fact, over 460 islands once preserved and full of biodiversity were destroyed – burned to the ground – and thousands of animals were killed. Many families were forcibly displaced and did not receive compensation. Many had to move to resettlement houses far from the city – this is the reason why many kids are dropping out of school. What else can I say!? This is nothing but complete, structured violence planned and financed by the government and biggest companies that are now facing charges for corruption from the Lata Jato scandal. It’s an outrageous, corrupt project from a time of dictatorship where government consortium and a handful of judges are acting as if they are above any law. In fact, there is no law; there is only profit.”
What is a planet with only profit and no future? Can we eat money, breath coins and drink oil? “People need to think about what is behind the energy they consume. We need to become responsible for our participation on this devious plan to destroy life. Otherwise, what will we leave behind for future generations? One day our kids will look back and blame us for our irresponsibility. It is our duty to leave a healthy planet for them,” says Melo.
Despite her obvious frustration with the apathy of the Brazilian population during a time when many corruption scandals dominate the news, Antonia knows and loves her home. She has fought tirelessly for a better future for all.
“Some people might see our social movement as a drop of water, but know that this drop of water has been traveling from south to north, east to west, and all around the globe. Our work has no boundaries and we will keep fighting along with our partners. We are victorious because we never bent our heads, nor did we allow ourselves to be intimidated by oppressive violence from the PAC program. A river might be invisible to just a few people’s eyes, but it is not invisible, and it will never be.”