Construction on the controversial US$11 billion Xingu River dam construction project — the so-called Belo Monte dam — was temporarily halted by a Brazilian federal judge last month due to concerns over the impact on local fisheries. The judge ruled the dam’s environmental license violates the constitutional rights of indigenous communities and is therefore illegal. An appeal is expected in the case.

Then last week, hundreds of indigenous people, fishermen and riverine community members began to occupy the dam site, located in Para state in northern Brazil, forcing the suspension of construction. Protesters said they would permanently occupy the site and called on allies to join them. After 15 hours, lawyers from Norte Energia and justice officials informed the protesters that a different federal court in Brazil ordered the immediate removal of protestors and prohibited any actions that disrupt Belo Monte’s construction; and they informed the protestors that troops were in the area and prepared to act. Our friends at Amazon Watch, who are campaigning to stop the dam, have noted that the risk of a violent confrontation between security forces and indigenous protestors is very high.

The 11,000-plus megawatt (MW) project is the largest hydropower project under construction in the world and will be the world’s third largest if completed under its current design. The project is supported by the Brazilian government, constructed by Norte Energia, a consortium of Brazilin state-owned and private companies, and funded by Brazil’s development bank BNDES. It is widely seen as a major threat to the Amazon and the local indigenous peoples.

The dam has been controversial from the start and efforts within Brazil and through international forums have not resolved the conflicts. Internationally, the Brazilian government has refused to engage with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). They did not attend a recent IACHR hearing related to claims that they had failed to implement measures to protect indigenous communities threatened by the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River.

Are indigenous communities selfish for resisting energy projects?

Now I want to get back to the topic I raised in the title of this post: the conflict between local communities and the needs of developing countries, especially urban populations and industrial development. Allowing the government’s mega-project will cause drought in an area occupied by two indigenous communities of about 200 people and hundreds of families living along the banks of the river. Moreover 16,000 people will be displaced by flooding and 40,000 hectares of rainforest will be inundated. However, this damage can produce 11,200 MW.

The question of worthiness compared with the loss and the conflict between the urban people and the indigenous people is very important. Most urban people everywhere in the world demand and consume very high amounts of energy. Indigenous people, who may be fighting to save their cultures and lands, may experience public pressure accusing them of being selfish and conservative. How should governments and peoples balance the issue of high demand against the rights of the indigenous people? For the people who live along the Xingu River, their sustenance depends almost exclusively on the consumption of ornamental fish from the river. And what about their concerns for the negative environment impacts which will harm wildlife, subsistence farming, and water supply, to say nothing of roads and other infrastructure that will forever change their way of life?

The Brazilian government should undertake a process of ‘free, prior, informed, in a good faith, and culturally appropriate’ consultations and consent with the indigenous people. They should provide access to a social and environmental impact assessment translated into their respective native languages, and take measures to ‘protect their lives and personal integrity’ as well as prevent the spread of diseases and crimes arising from the Belo Monte project or caused by a massive influx of outsiders if the project does go forward.

The government of Brazil insists that in fact it has done all of these things, claiming that it has complied with all required processes toward the indigenous people. The government says it is ‘impartially and independently monitoring compliance with the requirement to protect the human rights of members of communities living in the project’s zone of influence and this project is a part of the government’s Accelerated Growth Program, which aims to improve infrastructure through projects that also generate jobs and development.” Clearly, there is a major disconnect between the government’s claims and the views of many local and indigenous people that will be impacted by the dam.

UN spotlight on Brazil / indigenous rights

Mr. James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples addressed the topic of the impact of extractive industries on indigenous peoples in his submission to the UN earlier this month, pointing out the negative and even catastrophic effect these activities have had on the rights of indigenous peoples, and the need to facilitate a common understanding among indigenous peoples, governments and private companies about key issues and applicable human rights standards in this context. My colleague Brad discussed this issue in his post last week, and I think it is important to note the similar risks that hydropower projects — much like mining, timber, oil and gas — have for indigenous communities. Whether it is taking minerals or wood from the earth, or forever changing the flow of a river, the impacts to the land and the people who live off that land are profound and permanent. Mr. Anaya stated that this issue will be the major focus of his work during the next three years of his mandate. He has a lot of work ahead of him.

Interestingly, Brazil will play host to what many expect to be the most decisive international conference of our time, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (informally known as Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro in June of 2012. This conference aims to further commit governments to pursue sustainable development.  Rio+20 will build on previous conferences on sustainable development that addressed major environmental and development challenges and led to key international environmental agreements, including the Stockholm Declaration (1972), Agenda 21(1992), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) and the Johannesburg Plan Of Implementation (2002).

Brazil will be on the stage and in the international spotlight during this conference and will have to answer to the global forum regarding Belo Monte. Will this project be an example of sustainable development and indigenous rights, or an example of what not to do in developing a country’s natural resources while respecting the rights of people and nature?