Eye on the Amazon

The Unseen Truth: Mega-dams and Human Rights

The Unseen Truth: Mega-dams and Human Rights

Excerpted from Amazon in Focus

Every day you turn on at least one light. Have you ever stopped to think about where this energy comes from and how it gets there? As society begins to move away from fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future, there remain some common misperceptions about clean energy.

In Brazil, for example, over 70% of energy comes from hydropower created by mega-dams. Yet contrary to common belief, hydropower is not clean and cheap energy. Marketing messages created by hydropower promoters might lead you to mistakenly believe that mega-dams provide "clean energy,” yet such dams are in fact the start of greater ecosystem collapse, unleashing forces responsible for the devastation of forests, fisheries, biodiversity, global climate change and human rights abuses.

Mega-dams such as Belo Monte on the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon are much more than just an energy source. For Indigenous peoples, mega-dams can mean cultural ethnocide. For others mega-dams mean forced displacement, a spike in criminal activities, sexual abuse and even slavery. The construction of this type of industrial development also brings with it a collapse in health care, education, and sanitation infrastructure. Yet regular governmental protocol doesn't factor in these compound damages or the economic, social, cultural, and environmental losses that affect communities living near project construction sites.

Since the construction of the Belo Monte dam began, the city of Altamira has been in a state of chaos in all social and public policy areas, especially health, public safety, and housing. Additionally, there has been rampant population growth and a rise in drug abuse and child prostitution, among other forms of violence. As a result, a growing number of teenage girls within the city have become pregnant. While the Belo Monte dam nears completions, there is a feeling of desperation throughout the city, a place that will soon be entirely flooded. Over nine thousand people have been displaced and are now homeless. There is nowhere to go.

For the people who once lived within and relied upon the forest for survival, industrial development such as mega-dam construction greatly impacts the natural balance, automatically altering their right to live in a healthy environment. That's why talking about human rights abuses in the Amazon requires the acknowledgement that environmental rights abuses are directly linked to human rights abuses.

When a mega-dam is constructed, fishermen no longer have fish to catch, farmers have no land, Indigenous peoples no longer retain cultural protection. Indigenous and local citizens who have been displaced are left without houses, after having been abandoned by the government without any legal assistance. Sometimes within Indigenous communities, corporations deploy an unethical strategy of "buying off" people, which leads to an increase in cultural disintegration, internal divisions, alcoholism, and many cases of depression. Displaced communities often receive food packages as mitigation procedures, and so they stop producing their own food, only later to find it difficult to survive without relying on the government or the corporation once the food packages have been consumed. Additionally, Indigenous rights defenders receive many death threats by land invaders such as illegal loggers, migrant workers, and land speculators, should they decide to protect their home territory.

"The Belo Monte Dam is a major cancer on our Xingu [river], which consumes and slowly destroys our people,” says Sheyla Juruna, a former leader of the Juruna People. "There is nothing worse than killing a people while they are alive; killing them little by little."

The compound effects of destructive industrial development are far reaching and sadly too often overlooked when discussing the viability of energy sources. The disrespect and disregard for the people who live in Altamira and the Xingu's Big Bend region are great human rights and environmental violations.

But this is not just about Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river. More mega-dams are scheduled to be built across the Amazon rainforest. It's up to us to support the Indigenous communities defending their rights and their ancestral territories and working to stop such construction. So the next time you turn on your lights, think about where your energy comes from. And ask yourself, is the true cost worth it?

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