Brazil mega-dam neglects indigenous rights, says top UN official

Failure to consult on dam impacts attests to wider erosion of rights, UN special rapporteur says

The Brazilian government ‘omitted’ to carry out a full consultation on the impacts of the Belo Monte mega-dam on indigenous communities before authorising the project, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights has said.

“The Brazilian government is pushing indigenous peoples to the limit with this hydroelectric project and wants to make them disappear,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said of the hydroelectric plant on the Xingu River in northern Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. Tauli-Corpuz believes the situation around the site of the project is becoming more volatile since the government has started using military force to ensure construction continues in the face of widespread protests.

After a 10-day tour of Brazilian indigenous territories, Tauli-Corpuz highlighted some advances in the defence of indigenous peoples but lamented cases of violence and neglect. She made explicit reference to the challenges posed by the political and economic turmoil Brazil currently faces.

“One of the issues that contributed to this crisis is the allegation that individual political and economic gain was a significant driver for megaprojects, such as the Belo Monte dam,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

The UN representative said she considered Belo Monte to be an emblematic case because “everything that could have gone wrong went wrong”. Despite this, construction on the Xingu River is already nearing completion. Brazilian federal prosecutors filed 25 cases of wrongdoing against the project which, according to prosecutor Thais Santi, have led to incalculable social and environmental costs.

According to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the Belo Monte dam complex affects indigenous peoples who have “lost control of part of their lands and natural resources contained within them, and are negatively impacted by increased deforestation, risks to food security, worsened health care, and loss of autonomy”.

Elsewhere in Brazil, four new hydropower plants are under construction in the Tapajós River basin, with a further 40 planned. One of these projects, São Luiz do Tapajós, may result in the compulsory removal of three villages belonging to the Munduruku people. Construction has not yet begun due to resistance from indigenous people and environmentalists.

China Three Gorges Corporation, which operates in Brazil as a majority shareholder in EDP Energias do Brasil which was privatised by the Portuguese government in 2012,  is one of the companies interested in managing the Tapajós complex. Chinese company State Grid will build the two giant transmission lines that will connect the Belo Monte to Brazil’s electricity distribution system.

Activist killing “epidemic”

Tauli-Corpuz’s Brazil visit, the first by a UN special rapporteur in eight years, occurs as a wave of violence against indigenous leaders and environmental activists sweeps across Latin America.

Earlier in March, the Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home. Two weeks later, Nelson Garcia, a colleague of Cáceres at the Honduran council of popular and indigenous organisations (COPINH), was shot in the face and killed after government security forces displaced families from the community of Rio Chiquito, the organisation said.

Cáceres founded COPINH in 1993 to denounce the growth of illegal logging and the risks it posed for indigenous Lenca communities. The movement became known internationally in2006 for opposing the construction of the multi-stakeholder Agua Zarca hydroelectric power plant.

In neighboouring Guatemala, forest defender Walter Méndez Barrios was murdered in February after he opposed hydroelectric plants on the Usumacinta River.

“The pattern of killings in many countries is becoming an epidemic definitely,” Tauli-Corpuz said recently in an interview with website Climate Home.

Peter Bosshard, director of International Rivers, says indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by large dams for two reasons: “They often have little political power, and they live in areas that have not been heavily integrated with the formal economy.”

This situation is similar in many Latin American countries. Governments and investors often see indigenous territories as uninhabited and, therefore, ideal locations for infrastructure megaprojects, Bosshard added.

Resistance by Cáceres and COPINH led Agua Zarca’s Chinese contractor Sinohydro to abandon the project in 2013 but Bosshard stressed that such withdrawals are still rare: “International companies certainly do not want to be associated with human rights abuses, but as long as they are not suffering from huge popular pressure, they usually believe they can place the responsibility for these atrocities onto other actors.”

1988 Constitution

By failing to properly consult indigenous people on the impacts of projects that affect them, the state and the private sector are in breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, according to Tauli-Corpuz.

“The risks that indigenous peoples currently face are more profound since the adoption of the 1988 Constitution,” she said in reference to the document that granted indigenous people ‘exclusive and original’ rights to their land. In recent years, forced evictions, illegal industrial activities, delays in demarcating land, big infrastructure projects and murder pose ever greater risks to indigenous communities.

During her visit, Tauli-Corpuz met with leaders of more than 50 ethnic groups in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Bahia, and Pará to gather information that will be published in a report in September.

According to Tauli-Corpuz, there is still time for Brazil to reverse the current erosion of indigenous rights and honour the 1988 Constitution, which made the country a global reference in terms of protection of indigenous peoples.

“The wealth of knowledge in relation to indigenous peoples’ rights and issues, both within the government and among civil society organizations working with indigenous peoples, and the dedication of these organizations and their staff to the indigenous cause are enormous assets,” she said.