The movement protecting indigenous lands from destructive dams
Brazil / Freedom for Justice / 22 mar 2018
The Amazon holds the largest volume of water of any river in the world. Spanning the width of Brazil, and with tributaries in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, it provides life to the world’s largest tropical rainforest, thousands of unique species and countless communities of people.
The government of Brazil has long seen the potential of harnessing the power of the Amazon and its tributaries to generate electricity, but the vast Hydro-electric dams constructed for this purpose can have detrimental impacts on the local environment and indigenous communities living in the river basin. Hydro dams flood large areas of land, displacing the people that used to live there from their homes and livelihoods. Brazil has already flooded large areas of the Amazon by constructing numerous hydro dams and currently generates 70% of its electricity from hydropower. Brazil's government had planned to expand this development, opening half the Amazon basin to hydro dams, but indigenous and environmental groups are standing up to this injustice.
Movimento Ipereg Ayu and Associação Pariri and other Munduruku associations are resistance movements, formed by the Munduruku people of the Brazilian Amazon. Ipereg Ayu means “I am strong, I know how to protect myself”, and the movement helps members of their community to stand as one against common threats and in favour of sustainable, culturally appropriate development. They work to demarcate traditional territories, protect indigenous lands from illegal logging and mining, and create platforms for the Munduruku people to exchange experience and knowledge.
In 2016 the Munduruku movement came together to resist the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós dam. If built, the dam would have been the country’s second largest and would have flooded an area the size of New York City, home to 820,000 people. An estimated 13,000 Munduruku people would have been displaced. Brazil’s constitution protects indigenous communities from being forcibly removed from their lands, but for the Munduruku to qualify for protection, their land rights needed to be officially recognised by the government.
Movimento Ipereg Ayu alongside many other groups and organisations within the Munduruku community organised thousands of community members and activists to march, with support from Global Greengrants Fund and CASA Socio-Environmental Fund among others. Their initiatives were also supported by their neighbours from Montanha e Mangabal, a traditional community of 'ribeirinhos' (river bank people), living by the Tapajós River. Together, they raised awareness of the potential risks associated with the dam project and demanded the government recognise Munduruku rights to their ancestral territory. Their demonstration of solidarity and strength, combined with international pressure, achieved incredible results: Brazil’s Government Agency on Indigenous Affairs defined 170,000 hectares as indigenous land. Three months later, the Brazilian Government cancelled the license for the dam.
In 2018, Movimento Ipereg Ayu, Pariri, and other indigenous and riverine communities continue to push for the protection of indigenous and environmental rights. Despite their important achievements, the Munduruku people and their neighbours continue to face major threats, including the resurgence of plans to build the Tapajós mega-dam after renewed interest from international investors, a series of new dams planned on the Tapajós’ tributaries and the threat of illegal gold mining which would contaminate surrounding rivers. For protesting against these activities, Ipereg Ayu and other indigenous activists face intimidation, threats and even suppression by the national guard.
However their movement is powerful, and by working together with others across Brazil and around the world towards a common goal, their achievements are a demonstration of the power that grassroots groups can have when challenging their fate in the face of powerful interests.