Brazil's Dispossessed: Belo Monte Dam Ruinous for Indigenous Cultures

The builders of Brazil’s mega-dam on the Xingu River are accused with ethnocide – the ruin of native cultures, lifestyles and livelihoods. Displaced families are vigorously seeking justice.

The Xingu River at Altamira. Rural indigenous people living on the river were uprooted by the construction of the Belo Monte dam. Photo credit: Analita Freitas Duarte. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Late in 2015, Brazil's Public Federal Ministry (Ministério Público Federal, MPF), launched legal proceedings against the government's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), and Norte Energia, the consortium that built the Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu River in Pará state. The MPF accused both of the crime of "ethnocide," committed against seven indigenous groups displaced and/or heavily disrupted by the hydroelectric dam, a construction project that, investigators say, wrecked indigenous homes, lives, livelihoods, communities and cultures.

After carrying out a lengthy study which included testimony from numerous experts and filled 50 books, the MPF concluded that the "social organization, customs, languages and traditions" of the indigenous groups had been destroyed by the building of the dam.

This cultural devastation is something Tamawaerw Paracana, an indigenous woman from the Paracanã tribe, witnessed firsthand. Until 2014, Tamawaerw, 23, lived with her husband and their children in the indigenous village of Paracanã on the shores of the Xingu River. As part of their extended family, they shared that home with Tamawaerw's brother-in-law.

When the Belo Monte project got underway, Norte Energia forced the family out of their rural home, but gave them no new place to live as had been promised in a pre-construction agreement made between the consortium and government. When the company registered indigenous people who had lost their homes, and so were deserving of resettlement on the outskirts of the nearby city of Altamira, it fully recognized the brother-in-law's claim, but refused to acknowledge Tamawaerw and her family leaving them homeless.

They landed in her brother-in-law's backyard in Jatobá, one of three resettlement communities built by Norte Energia for those displaced by the dam.

"[Norte Energia] said to us that we had no way to get a home. We didn't have the right to a home. We fought and fought hard to get into a home there in Jatobá," said Tamawaerw. The company "told us: ‘No, you can't have a home in Jatobá.'" Norte Energia did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay.

Killing without killing

Hydropower is often touted as a climate-friendly source of energy, and Brazil has the potential to be one of the world's greatest producers. Yet the human consequences of damming rivers have proven devastating. A prime example is seen in the charge of ethnocide lodged against the parties responsible for building the Belo Monte Dam.

Genocide and ethnocide are different. The first is the mass slaughter of a people. The second is defined not by outright killing, but rather the destruction of a culture and a way of life. The difference, according to French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, is between killing a people's bodies, versus killing their spirit, what the ancient Celts called a "soul crime."

The Belo Monte ethnocide lawsuit addresses the impacts on the indigenous people who lived in the area surrounding the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. It describes significant impacts on health, the environment, traditional livelihoods, and indigenous social organization.

That wasn't how the project was originally seen. The dam was pitched as having tremendous benefits for Brazil's people. It was supposed to create 18,000 direct jobs and 23,000 indirect ones. It was also supposed to serve Brazil's energy needs for decades to come, as it was designed to have the third largest hydroelectric generating capacity in the world, at 11,233 megawatts (MGW). All this came at a huge cost, with the BNDES, Brazil's national development bank, making its largest loan ever for the project – $22.5 billion Reals (US $10.8 billion).

Critics outside government say that the dam proponents exaggerated the project's promise from the start. For example, while the government asserted that Belo Monte would supply 40 percent of Brazil´s household energy needs, a 2009 report by a panel of specialists, well before construction began, found that the dam's Environmental Impact Study (EIS) omitted substantial seasonal changes in the Xingu river´s flow, resulting in a more than 60 percent difference between the dam´s estimated 11,233 MGW production capacity and its average estimated output, around 4,500 MGW. The Economist reported that output during low-flow periods could drop as low as 800 to 1000 MGW.

The 2009 study also criticized the exclusion of indigenous groups who would be affected by the dam. It argued that the Juruna, Arara, Xipaya, Kuruaya, and Kayapó tribes had lived for centuries along the Xingu River´s Big Bend (Volta Grande), and depended on it for their livelihoods. But according to the dam's builders, the Big Bend would see an 80 percent reduction in the river´s flow after construction. Such a dramatic decrease in volume along a 100-kilometer (approximately 62-mile) portion of the river, the experts said, would likely destroy the area's vibrant fishery. Huge fish kills on the Volta Grande, occurring since the dam became operational in 2016, seem to point toward that forecast becoming a reality.

Additionally, the report condemned the violation of indigenous people´s constitutional rights and of ILO International Labor Organization Convention 169. The latter guarantees indigenous and traditional people the right to prior consultation on projects that affect their communities. While the original plans for the dam date back to the mid-1970s when Brazil was a dictatorship, the country's Congress approved new plans for the Belo Monte Dam in March 2005 without ever consulting affected communities.

Some of Belo Monte's daily impacts are evident in the difficult life that Tamawaerw Paracanã and her family are now leading. They have moved on from their brother-in-law's backyard, and are now living in the Agua Azul resettlement community on the edge of the city of Altamira, but they continue to struggle with the traumatic, daunting shifts in lifestyle and livelihoods.

Tamawaerw and her family, and other families forcibly resettled due to the mega-dam, are finding it very hard to get jobs – a necessity now that the indigenous and traditional people live not on the river, where food was plentiful and could be gotten for free, but in an urban area where food must be bought.

The dam's completion this year exacerbated that problem, causing a local economic crash, as the many men who worked on Belo Monte's construction were laid off and began competing with relocated indigenous people in a shrinking job market. Add to this the fact that Brazil's economy has gone bust since its boom of a decade ago.

It also appears now that the reasons for building the dam in the first place may have been misrepresented to Brazil's people. Earlier this year, the country´s federal "Car Wash" (Lava Jato) scandal investigation uncovered information showing that the dam provided a vehicle for corruption. Two of Brazil's main political parties, the Workers' Party (PT) and the Democratic Movement Party of Brazil (PMDB) – who held the presidency and vice-presidency respectively during Belo Monte's construction – are alleged to have received roughly 150 million Reals (US $46.5 million) in bribes and kickbacks related to the award of dam contracts.

The harm that has been done

Edizangela Alves Barros is an indigenous activist with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens, MAB). She moved with her family to Altamira 15 years ago when she was an adolescent. For Barros, working with MAB is a way of advocating for Tamawaerw's family and other indigenous families, and for improving life in their community.

MAB estimates that 40,000 people were displaced by the Belo Monte Dam, but the Environmental Impact Study commissioned by Norte Energia predicted approximately half that number. This discrepancy represents an ongoing conflict that has not been resolved, even with completion of the dam this year.

"These are families with a low income, a very low income, but there is also a cultural issue in traditional, indigenous [and] riverside communities," Barros told Mongabay. "There is a culture of living in the village, everyone altogether in the same home. For them, this [urban relocation] is also a cultural issue, and the company denied this," Barros said.

The dam builders' mitigation plan included a variety of elements supposedly aimed at lessening Belo Monte's impact, such as the building of schools for indigenous communities and providing technical assistance for small-scale farmers. The prosecutors' ethnocide suit argues that, on the contrary, the builders actually exacerbated these problems. Schools, for example, were built in rural areas where entire communities had been removed. And indigenous communities, instead of being given farming assistance, received handouts of consumer goods and processed food, which created internal conflicts and undermined traditional subsistence patterns.

When originally displaced, Tamawaerw and her family built a wooden shack with a tile roof in her brother-in-law's backyard. The structure had no bathroom; no sewer system. "We slept with rain all the time. The water would come and get everything wet. There was no way to sleep. Whenever it rained, the whole house got soaked," she said.

Local activists took up the family's case and brought it to the attention of authorities in Brasilia, winning a home for them in the Belo Monte resettlement community of Agua Azul in 2015. Living there means that Tamawaerw's children can now go to school, but she doesn't like her urban surroundings: "I want to live on my land again," she told Mongabay.

There is no public transportation, so reaching Altamira's city center is difficult and costly – a motorbike taxi from Agua Azul costs 10 Reals. Meanwhile, Tamawaerw says, her husband continues having trouble finding work. That leaves them with just 200 Reals (approximately US $59) a month from the government "family bag" (bolsa familia) subsidy program to live on. "How am I going to buy things for my daughter?" she asked. "Norte Energia has never given me a cent."

Tamawaerw's new home contrasts starkly with the river life she was forced to leave. The ground around her house now is parched and brown, and there are no trees on the street to provide shade from the tropical sun and heat. On the river, she and her family spent all their days surrounded by nature, pursuing a sustainable lifestyle where fishing, hunting and light farming provided sufficient sustenance.

Tamawaerw described the challenges of living in Agua Azul: "I don't have the means to live here. I don't have the money for food. Here you have to have a job to [get] food to eat. Because here you just have to work to eat. People who don't work, can't eat. There's no food."

According to Barros, Tamawaerw's current housing situation still doesn't meet the government licensing requirements imposed on Norte Energia. "In reality, [indigenous families were supposed to] have an option of [being moved] to a traditional riverside community, but the company denied this from the beginning. [Norte Energia] never built a resettlement community for traditional communities – indigenous, river folk, fisher folk – [so these populations] could be near the river. They didn't do it." Approximately 1,000 people attended a mid-November public hearing with a representative from Norte Energia concerning a return to life near the river.

Last February, the Getulio Vargas Foundation and the Regional Sustainable Development Program in the Xingu region published a report examining Norte Energia's compliance with its federal licensing agreement. It noted that while 119,000 hectares (approximately 294,000 acres) were designated for resettling rural populations, "the process has fallen far short of fulfilling its goal in the Basic Environmental Plan [Plano Basico Ambiental – PBA] of resettling at least 40 percent of the families."

Disrupting indigenous cultures with a rain of money

Carolina Reis, an attorney based in Altamira with the Instituto SocioAmbiental (ISA), said that Norte Energia's action plan was poorly executed. The dam's Environmental Impact Study addressing indigenous communities resulted in the drafting of a 35-year Basic Environmental Plan. Before those recommendations could be implemented, Reis said, the money was spent.

"Norte Energia allocated sums of 35,000 Reals per month per village for a period of two years, between 2010 and 2012. This [money] ended up [being used for] indigenous shopping lists" Reis says that these "shopping lists" took the place of a serious plan to "[strengthen] the villages and indigenous lands to cope with the various kinds of impacts from the dam."

Boats, motors for boats, perfume, pasta, sugar, beans, crackers. These and many other items were delivered to indigenous villages. Often the men in the settlements were so occupied with meetings about the "shopping lists" along with the doling out of consumer goods, that they neglected to cultivate their fields. ISA reported that as of March 2015, the Norte Energia money had been used to purchase 578 outboard motors, 322 boats and fast launches, and 2.1 million liters of gasoline.

According to one FUNAI report, this so-called Emergency Plan "had a devastating impact on the Arara indigenous group's social and cultural organization." The preoccupation with material items, officials say, created serious food insecurity, with formerly sustainable indigenous communities that were not displaced by the dam becoming dependent on handouts.

The problem with the rain of money and consumer goods, Reis explained, is that the indigenous communities had little previous contact with the industrial world and its economic system. This lack of familiarity led to the frittering away of suddenly available cash from Norte Energia. The communities used up resources meant to help them sustain their tribal cultures, to withstand cultural and economic disruptions brought by the dam, and to create economic alternatives to the traditional livelihoods threatened by environmental change.

The ethnocide lawsuit also describes the "coopting of indigenous leaders" asserting that Norte Energia "operated a policy of distributing consumer goods and industrialized food." Using the "shopping list" approach, the suit argues, the company managed to "attract indigenous people to their doorstep, keeping them far away from their communities where the Belo Monte Dam was being built [leading to the neglect of those communities. It was] a massive silencing and pacification program that was carried out using [monetary] resources [that should have been] destined for ethnic development."

Camila Becattini de Caux, an anthropologist with the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro wrote that the amount of money available to indigenous groups was substantial. "In the meantime, the [indigenous people] had no idea what that amount meant, nor what could be done with it," she said.

Divide and conquer

The flood of money had other social impacts. Kaworé Parakanã, an indigenous community member, described the isolation brought by the dam project: "It divided all the populations," he told federal prosecutors. "In the beginning, when the dam was going to be built, we were all there, the people from the Altamira region. We were united. With a lot of strategy, the non-indigenous [dam builders created conflict]. The rulers, they divided the people."

These divisions, fostered by the displacement policies of Electro Norte, resulted in fractured communities. One report by federal prosecutors noted that during the "Emergency Plan," ten new villages were established. The Health District noted a "very rapid" unplanned division of communities that bumped the number of new villages from 22 to 38.

Tucun Xikrin, the chief of Pykajaká village, said that the people didn't trust the consortium, and were sure that it would never fulfill their "shopping list" requests. "But it was us who were fooled," he confessed. "We asked for things… without needing them."

One reason the consortium was able to enact this "emergency plan," the ethnocide lawsuit says, is that FUNAI, the federal agency meant to protect indigenous rights, was locally understaffed and under-resourced and unable to meet the indigenous communities' needs. A preliminary court ruling issued in Altamira in January 2015 found that FUNAI had not been adequately reinforced to fulfill its mandate as required by the dam's licensing agreement. An internal memo even suggested that the heavily overworked FUNAI regional office risked a total collapse during the Belo Monte project.

There are myriad repercussions to this FUNAI failure. The ethnocide suit points out that, in an area with a history of violent land conflicts, the Arara indigenous lands have now become vulnerable to encroachment by illegal loggers and farmers. In 2013, for example, the Cachoeira Seca indigenous preserve was found to be the most deforested area in the Brazilian Amazon, largely due to illegal logging, exacerbated by a lack of enforcement by Norte Energia and the government.

ISA has determined that the consortium has failed to adequately secure indigenous lands at 21 entry points, as it originally promised in the dam licensing agreement. Only seven security points have been set up so far, with questionable effectiveness. According to ISA, illegal loggers have been invading demarcated indigenous areas, and deforestation has increased around the Xingu River – illegal activity that continues even after the completion of the Belo Monte Dam.

The Regional Sustainable Development Program´s February report identified another result of Belo Monte's construction and the displacement of rural people. It found that the number of village births plummeted, while hospital births jumped. But according to an ISA analysis, health conditions didn't necessarily improve – between 2010 and 2012, infant mortality rose 127 percent.

The fight goes on

"Belo Monte is an irresponsibility of the Brazilian state," declared Thaís Santi, the lead attorney for the federal ethnocide lawsuit, during a public meeting last January. "The dam leaves a debt [to indigenous people] that still hasn't been paid."

Santi argued that the Brazilian government must play an active role in repairing the cultural and environmental damage done to the Xingu region. The Brazilian courts haven't yet heard the prosecutors' case. Meanwhile, advocates say, the situation among the region's indigenous people continues to deteriorate.

Angry indigenous groups and their allies aren't placidly waiting for action. They continue mobilizing. Early in October, the director of the Indigenous Health District Office serving the Xingu region was ousted after 400 people peacefully occupied the offices for 32 days to protest their dismal health services.

In September, the Belo Monte Dam's operating license was suspended by the federal government because Electro Norte failed to complete the installation of Altamira sewer and water systems required as part of its operating agreement.

The Belo Monte activists are concerned not only for their own Xingu watershed, but for dam development across the Amazon as well, including in the Tapajos Basin, where more than 40 dams are planned or already under construction.

"This energy model that we have in our country doesn't work for us," Barros concluded. "Every day that goes by, there are more dams being built in our country; there are more people affected; and there are more rights violated. So our goal is to organize all the people affected and carry on this fight."

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