Brazilian Judge Suspends Dam License, Upholds Indigenous Rights

Brazilian Judge Suspends Dam License, Upholds Indigenous Rights

BRASILIA, Brazil, April 5, 2012 (ENS) – A federal judge has suspended the construction license of the Teles Pires hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon, saying the permitting process violated the rights of indigenous people protected under the Brazilian Constitution.

In her ruling, Judge Celia Regina Ody Bernardes, a federal judge in the state of Mato Grosso, sided with federal public prosecutors and public prosecutors from Mato Grosso and the state of Pará who argued the dam would cause “imminent and irreversible damage to the quality of life and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the region.”

The dam would flooding a series of rapids on the Teles Pires River known as Sete Quedas, or Seven Waterfalls, the spawning grounds of fish of great importance to the indigenous residents.

Dam construction on the Teles Pires River in Mato Grosso, January 2012. (Photo by minplanpac)

The judge ordered the immediate suspension of all activities in dam construction, “especially explosions of boulders in the region of Sete Quedas.”

A recent declaration by indigenous peoples cited in the lawsuit states, “Sete Quedas is a sacred place, where the Mae dos Peixes (Mother of Fish) and other spirits of our ancestors live – a place known as Uel, meaning that it should not be messed with.”

The 1,820 megawatt capacity dam has been under construction since August 2011 on the Teles Pires River, a major tributary of the Tapajos River in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

The dam is one of six large hydropower projects planned for the Teles Pires River, which forms the border between the states of Mato Grosso and Pará.

In her decision, Judge Bernardes concluded that prior to greenlighting dam construction, the federal environmental agency IBAMA failed to consult with affected indigenous communities, despite serious threats to their “socioeconomic and cultural well-being.”

She ruled that this constitutes a violation of the Brazilian Constitution and ILO Convention 169, which Brazil signed in 2004.

In addition to its importance for the physical survival of indigenous peoples, Sete Quedas holds tremendous cultural significance. The lawsuit argues that the dam construction site is “a sacred area relevant for the beliefs, customs, traditions, symbolism and spirituality of indigenous peoples. As a cultural heritage site, it is protected by the Brazilian Constitution and international agreements.”

Other threats to indigenous peoples provoked by dam construction, cited in the lawsuit, include conflicts associated with a massive influx of migrants to the region, land speculation, illegal deforestation, predatory fishing and illegal exploitation of mining resources. The prosecutors argued that, given a delay of almost 20 years in the demarcation of the Kayabi territory, such threats are even more severe.

Kayabi indigenous gathering (Photo by Marizilda Cruppe courtesy Greenpeace Brasil)

Taravy Kayabi, a leader of the Kayabi people, said, “While the federal government stalls in implementing laws that protect the rights of indigenous peoples, it is pressuring us to accept the dams. But we know the compensation they are offering will never substitute places that are sacred to us, such as Sete Quedas, that hold the cemeteries of our ancestors and that should be preserved.”

“Sete Quedas is also the spawning grounds of fish that are an important source of food. They talk about fish ladders, but where have these ever worked? Kayabi asked.

“The government needs to look for alternative ways to generate energy that don’t harm indigenous peoples and their territories,” he said.

Civil society groups and leaders of the Kayabi community welcomed the news of the the suspension of dam construction, but warned against a possible overturning of Judge Bernardes’ restraining order.

Brent Millikan, director of the Amazon Program at International Rivers, based in California, says he has seen it happen before.

“What we’ve seen over and over again, in cases such as Belo Monte, is that the President’s office politically intervenes in regional federal courts to overturn decisions against violations of human rights and environmental legislation, using false arguments, such as an impending blackout at the national level if dams aren’t immediately constructed,” he said.

“Of course, this is ludicrous,” said Millikan. He says indigenous peoples and human rights groups in Brazil and around the world” are calling on the government of President Dilma Rousseff “to change course and respect the country’s constitution and rule of law.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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