By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last Thursday around 500 people, including activists, indigenous leaders, fishermen and local residents, gathered to stage a peaceful protest at the site of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Altamira, in the Amazonian state of Pará. Their goal was to halt the dam’s construction, which they say is illegal and threatens to devastate the local environment and their way of life.
The protest was a result of a meeting of more than 700 local community leaders earlier last week which pressure groups are calling a “landmark alliance” in the campaign against the dam.
In a statement released on Friday, the NGO Amazon Watch said, “Such unprecedented partnership between indigenous people and fishermen shows that the people from Xingu are united to defend the river, nature and their traditional way of life.”
Protestors initially vowed to occupy the Belo Monte construction site permanently, but the demonstration was brought to an end after 15 hours when lawyers representing the dam-building consortium, Norte Energia, arrived with a court order to clear the site.
Amazon Watch campaigner Christian Poirier said, “The atmosphere was very energized and positive, with a feeling of hope and empowerment emanating from the protestors who had succeeded in their attempt to occupy the construction site and halt construction, sending a strong message to the Dilma Rousseff government.”
The day before the protest, the government had turned down an invitation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – part of the Organization of American States (OAS) – to take part in a closed meeting with indigenous group leaders in Washington whose aim was to help facilitate negotiations between the two sides.
The demonstration follows a stalemate between federal judges who are examining the lawfulness of the decree that authorized the construction of the dam.
At a hearing on October 17th, the Public Prosecutors’ Office (Ministério Público Federal, or MPF) argued that the decree was unlawful because the Brazilian Government had failed to consult the affected indigenous populations prior to the construction of the dam, which is their legal obligation under the terms of the Brazilian Constitution and International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which Brazil signed up to 2003.
Judge Selene Almeida upheld the arguments and voted to annul the decree. However, the trial was suspended until October 26th at the request of Judge Fagundes de Deus, who argued in favor of the decree last Wednesday, saying that the convention does not stipulate that the consultation should take place before the decree is granted; only that it must predate the commencement of construction works.
He presented evidence from the Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Indigenous Foundation), documenting 42 meetings that had been conducted with local communities to discuss the impacts of the proposed works.
He said, “We cannot lose sight of the problem of increasing demand for energy, which has required the implementation of urgent measures. The decision [to build Belo Monte] is anchored in the public interest of the whole Brazilian nation.”
Juma Xipaia, a local indigenous leader said, “We only demand what our Constitution already ensures us: our rights. Our ancestors fought so we could be here now. Many documents and meetings have already transpired and nothing has changed. The machinery continues to arrive to destroy our region.”
The trial has been adjourned until November 9th.