Brazil’s Mebegokre Kayapó natives are dammed. Decades ago, the indigenous South Americans began opposing the building of hydroelectric dams to further large corporate interests (in the name of civic duty) over their own. These efforts, often described in the sympathetic press as heroic, failed.
The controversial Belo Monte dam, completed in 2016, is the third-largest dam in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipu Dam. It was built on the Xingu River in the northern Brazilian state of Pará and is situated 300 miles downstream of Kayapó communities.
The Xingu flows northward from Brazil’s savanna through Kayapó lands for 300 miles and then continues for an equivalent distance until it reaches the city of Altamira where Belo Monte was constructed. No one denied that the mega-dam on the river would have serious consequences for the people who depended on this entire waterway and its abundant fish, animal, and plant life.
The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is enormous. When fully operational, its 18 huge turbines generate 11,000 MW of electricity, placing it fourth on the international list ranked by power-generating capacity. The total cost of this power project is estimated at $18 billion.
Achieving all this new clean energy requires flooding large tracts of valley land. Riverside villagers must relocate before their homes are destroyed forever. The environmental impact on Brazil and the cultural disruption of its native population have been as sweeping as project critics predicted from the first planning stages.
In 1989, the Kayapó organized a huge protest meeting in Altamira to stop a dam-building project. They succeeded in halting forward progress after sympathetic coverage from the global press garnered them widespread international support.
Seven years later, 200 representatives from 19 of the 21 Kayapó communities met for five days to share their concern and anger in April 2006 after the Brazilian government and the electricity company Eletronorte conspired to build five dams along the Xingu River in Amazonia.
The Kayapó objected to the Brazilian government’s proposed construction of the Belo Monte dam and four other hydroelectric dams on the Xingu River and its main tributary, the Irirí:
“The participants in the meeting were unanimously opposed to the construction of these dams, alleging that they would have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem, and would flood large areas of indigenous territory. Many speakers introduced their remarks by singing their personal war-songs, and warned that if the government proceeds with the construction of Belo Monte it would bring on war with the Kayapó.”
The local residents accused the project planners of not providing open disclosure about the project. Furthermore, the corporate profiteers had violated Brazil’s constitution by failing to consult with the communities who would be affected by the project.
Meeting organizer Megaron Txukarramãe said that “the problems that threaten the lives of our communities in the Xingú Valley also threaten other peoples, both indigenous and Brazilian, who also live in the valley” and added: “Now, following upon the successful conclusion of the meeting of all of our own communities, we are entering upon the next stage of our struggle, contacting organizations of national Brazilian settlers of the Lower Xingú and the Transamazonica to form an alliance of all the peoples of the Valley of the Xingú to save our river from the dams, from pollution, and all kinds of destructive development, and to promote alternative forms of production based on the productive powers of local communities using sustainable resources.”
In 2013, leaders of 26 Kayapó communities rejected a $9-million offer from Brazil’s state-owned electricity agency Eletrobras to back the next four years of hydropower development projects in the Amazon:
“We have decided that your word is worth nothing. The conversation is over. We, the Mebengôre Kayapó people have decided that we do not want a single penny of your dirty money. We do not accept Belo Monte or any other dam on the Xingu. Our river does not have a price, our fish that we eat does not have a price, and the happiness of our grandchildren does not have a price. We will never stop fighting: In Altamira, in Brasilia, or in the Supreme Court. The Xingu is our home and you are not welcome here.”
After becoming operational in 2016, the Belo Monte dam is deemed by some observers to have been built primarily as payback to the Brazilian construction industry for campaign contributions paid to the former ruling Workers’ Party.
The effects from the Belo Monte mega-dam construction project on the locals was devastating:
“Tens of thousands of indigenous and traditional people were forced from their homes, and had to give up their fishing livelihoods. Meanwhile, the city of Altamira endured boom and bust, as workers flooded in, then abandoned it.”
The mega-dam has destroyed the ecosystems and the biodiversity that preserved and nurtured by the Kayapó for millennia.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported that national deforestation spiked in 2016. Raging wildfires and drought have further reduced Xingu River flows and the Belo Monte dam seems unlikely to meet its promised economic goals or energy production.
Ironically, forcing thousands of people to submit to corporate tyranny and abandon their ancestral lands to dam their river lifeblood for a public power utility is failing, just as opposition to the scheme did.
Much worse, those displaced must continue to fight for their very survival against – and despite – their official masters.