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-Brazil boasts of its "clean energy" from hydropower-

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for Amazonia it is a death sentence

Sandra Weiss





Flavia Nascimento has not had a moment's peace for six years. Once they broke into her flat in Jaci-Parana, about 100 kilometres from the Brazilian Amazon city of Porto Velho, ransacked everything and demonstratively put a knife on her bed. Twice a car tried to run her down while she was on her way home from work on her motorbike. The key to the laboratory in the hospital, where she often works the night shift, was stolen and the surveillance camera manipulated. "I reported everything, nothing happened", she says. It took a long time before she was ready for this conversation. Several human rights activists acted as guarantors. She has become suspicious over the years. 

"I reported everything,

nothing happened"

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© Florian Kopp  

The reason for the harassment is her opposition to two dams built in 2013 on the Madeira River in the state of Rondonia. The 46-year-old is educated, can speak well, and has a strong character. A leading figure.


Many of the 5000 inhabitants of Jaci-Parana were against the Santo Antonio and Samuel dams, which were built by a state and private consortium. The partners included the French company Engie, the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht involved in corruption scandals, and several Brazilian public electricity distributors. The project was financed by the World Bank and the Brazilian Development Bank.

The dams were part of the Economic Development Plan for South America (IRSA), which was drawn up in 2000 by several neighbouring Amazon states and the World Bank. "The Madeira dams were the first mega-project in the Amazon Basin following the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s", says Joao Rodrigues of the Movement of Dam Victims (MAB). They therefore had symbolic character and set the standard for other infrastructure projects in the Amazon, such as the controversial Belo Monte mega dam. It is a public and private partnership - a state private partnership designed by the World Bank. A model that, under state leadership and in the name of progress and profit, tramples on environmental regulations, transparency and human rights.

"Not even the electricity generated here is of any benefit to local residents"


Together with other activists, Nascimento organised demonstrations, which were crushed by the police with rubber bullets, batons and tear gas. She filed petitions, went to court, gave interviews. She denounced the sloppy environmental reports, the lack of consultation with the population, the disappearance of funds for compensation payments to those affected.

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Over and over again, local judges archived the trials or dismissed the petitions "in the public interest". Activists were criminalised and imprisoned with the help of the state security laws that still originated from the dictatorship. 

Dams, the judges argued, were necessary for the common good of all Brazilians. Nascimento can only laugh about this: "Not even the electricity generated here is good for the local residents”. According to Rodrigues, the residents of Rondonia pay the highest electricity prices in all of Brazil - 151 euros per MW - while there are bargain prices of the equivalent of 16 euros per MW for industry. There is logic in this: according to the tender, dam operators must sell a certain quota of electricity to industry at a minimum price that covers costs. Everything else is traded on the free market where they earn up to six times more.

Forced resettlements have torn communities apart.

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"Once built, dams are a grossly fantastic business. The water is free, the manpower requirements are low, and the taxes are minimal, less than one percent of turnover," says Rodrigues. Clearly a sure thing, especially if the construction was financed cheaply with government and international loans. But they have destroyed the lives of Nascimento and several thousand residents of the Madeira River. Forced resettlements have torn communities apart, whereas the village of Jaci-Parana grew from 5,000 to 20,000 inhabitants during the construction of the dams.

„At weekends, it was no longer possible to go out onto the road. The village became one large brothel; alcohol and drugs became a problem", says Nascimento. She did not let her adolescent children out of the house for fear of assault. The number of murders and rapes increased. The water table rose and became contaminated. The communities now have to buy drinking water.

When the dams were completed, jobs disappeared and Jaci-Parana fell into a deep crisis. Fishermen lost their livelihoods on the river when fish disappeared because of sedimentation caused by the reduced flow rate through the dams. 


The neighbouring state of Acre, which is separated from Rondonia by the Madeira River, was completely cut off from the outside world for a fortnight.


Then village flooded in 2014. Dam expert Rodrigues suspects that the company let the reservoir run far too full in order to benefit from the increased electricity prices due to a period of drought in central Brazil. The water stopped flowing in the lower reaches of the river, and in the upper reaches it dammed up, flooding not only Jaci-Parana but also roads and bridges. 

"The project was at the centre of attention, the people just got in the way"


© Misereor/Florian Kopp

Kazike Kavuré from the Parakaná tribe is also not very fond of dams. The 31-year-old lives in Apyterewa on the upper reaches of the Xingú River, 1800 kilometres from Flavia Nascimento. The construction of the Belo Monte dam broke into the tranquil life of his tribe like a meteorite. From the very beginning, this huge work, which was already being considered under the military dictatorship in the 1970s, was controversial. 


„The project was the focus of attention; the people were just in the way", says Erwin Kräutler, Bishop emeritus of the Amazon, who was one of the leaders of the resistance at the time and still lives in Altamira on the Xingú River today. Kräutler even organised a meeting with President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Left Workers' Party (PT). During the election campaign, Lula promised that Belo Monte would not be built, Kräutler remembers. At the meeting, the president assured the assembly that the aim was to modernize Brazil and that nothing would be done against the will of the people or without compensation. That was another promise breached later.


At first, the leaders of the tribes in the catchment area were united against the construction. An engineer from the state corporation Norte Energia was even injured with a lance during a meeting with the indigenous people. The company then changed its confrontation tactics and began courting the Kazikes. "Everyone was allowed to write a monthly wish-list worth 30,000 Reais (just under 7,000 euros) and received what they ordered," says Cleanton Curioso of the Catholic Indigenous Mission Council (CIMI). Refrigerators, outboard motors, motorbikes, diesel generators and televisions found their way into the palm huts. Norte Energia also built health clinics, new houses and schools. 

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"There was a gold-digger atmosphere", recalls teacher Maria Luisa da Conceicao from Apyterewa. Many Kazikes became greedy, thought only of themselves, and lost sight of the community. Young men also wanted privileges, left the community and founded their own village, but retained their Kazike identity. Eleven communities became 84 communities, divided among themselves, tiny and far distanced from each other. The resistance crumbled or was silenced. 57 environmental and 110 indigenous activists were murdered in Brazil in 2017. The state of Pará, where the Parakaná tribal land is located, heads the top of the list in these incidents.

57 environ-mental and 110 indigenous activists were murdered in Brazil in 2017.

The dam was constructed and tens of thousands of migrant workers came to the region. The water level rose, hunting grounds were flooded and animals died or fled. Fish were poisoned by the mercury from the illegal gold diggers. The now unemployed migrant workers settled on indigenous land. The Indians' storehouses dwindled. The wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs constructed by Norte Energia were sticky ovens. The pickup truck that served as community transport lacked spare parts. The diesel deliveries for the generator were reduced. 


Meanwhile, the green rainforest carpet in Pará is becoming a patchwork, explains Marcelo Salazar of the non-governmental organisation Instituto Socioambiental (IS) in Altamira, pointing to a map in which the green Parakaná protected area is eaten up in a horseshoe-shaped manner by the red-marked advance of the invaders. Satellite images in fast motion are even more frightening. Kavuré does not know how to oppose the advance. The gold diggers on his tribal territory only laugh or shoot into the air when they see the indigenous people. The police station at the entrance of the gold-digger camp protects the invaders, not the indigenous group. 

Since the right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro became president, there is no longer any point of contact for the indigenous people. The Funai indigenous authority and the Ibama environmental authority have been deprived of their financial and personnel resources. 

The mega projects of the PT successfully broke down the resistance and the social fabric in Amazonia. On these foundations, Bolsonaro can now build his final offensive.

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The military now has control of Amazonia. It is like turning a goat into a gardener, says Kräutler: "The settlement and development of Amazonia has been a geopolitical project for the armed forces for 50 years”. The leftist PT always played along, but under Bolsonaro things are moving much faster. Laws that allow mining in indigenous areas or legalise illegal land grabbing after the fact are just waiting for a favourable moment to pass Congress unnoticed by the international community.  


Kavuré s counting on solidarity from abroad: on press reports about burning rainforest and - even more importantly - threats of boycott. This scares the land grabbers, who live from the export of wood, soya, beef and rare earths. But the fight against white people's profits is unequal, and Kavuré knows that. And the Parakaná are weak. Not even all the Parakana Kazikes stand behind him. In the 40 years of contact with the white civilisation they have forgotten their traditions. Their fighting spirit has been weakened by alcohol, money, sugar and evangelical churches. In the wake of the churches, discord has reached the indigenous people. The Evangelicals proselytise aggressively against those of different faiths and tolerate no syncretism whatsoever. Those who belong to these churches are obliged to renounce traditional culture, medicine and clothing. It is a brutal assimilation programme.

"The military now has control of Amazonia"

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Originally, these charismatic churches were financed by the US secret service CIA. During the Cold War they were part of the counter-insurgency of the Latin American guerrillas. The evangelical movements were supposed to compete with the left-wing liberation theology of the Catholic Church, which was considered communist. Since that time they have become independent. In Brazil, hundreds of imitation churches have arisen. They are a booming enterprise for their founders. These have become multimillionaires, controlling a media empire as well as the politics of the cross-party "Bancada evangélica", an evangelical faction that is value-conservative and economically neoliberal. Together with the agri-business and the arms lobby, they form the BBB faction - Boi (beef), Bala (bullet), Biblia. It is one of the pillars of Bolsonaro.


In 2016 Belo Monte was opened. To date, due to the strong seasonal fluctuations in the water level of the Xingú River, the dam has only delivered a fraction of the 11,000 MW originally planned. This electricity is brought to the mines and industrial areas outside Amazonia via high-voltage pylons. From an energy policy point of view, a nonsense, but the mega projects of the PT successfully broke down the resistance and the social fabric in Amazonia. On these foundations, Bolsonaro can now build his final offensive.

"These dams are monsters" Nascimento says. Two of her comrades-in-arms have already been killed, and two others had to go underground. Nascimento could be next. Yet she still does not want to surrender.


Misereor supported parts of the research.

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