THE BLOG
11/30/2010 09:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The People vs. the Dam

The election in Brazil is over. Dilma Roussef has won. For the first time in Brazilian history, a leftist woman will be President of the Republic.

But progressive leaders of the Amazon are far from celebrating. In fact, they are in the process of launching nine lawsuits against her, in an attempt to stop one of her signature projects, a dam on the Xingu River that would put an end to their lives as they know them.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Brazil was supposed to have adapted a "live and let live" approach to the indigenous people of their land, that both respected their cultures, and more to the point, recognized their superior stewardship of the environment.

And in 2002, when Lula was elected president, there was celebration in the Amazon. For one thing, he came not from the traditional ruling oligarchies who saw the Amazon as a cash machine and its inhabitants as "in the way," but from the people. Lula was a former factory worker, a labor leader, an outsider. Business would not be as usual. He chose Marina Silva, the daughter of a rubber tapper, as his Minister of the Environment. He vowed to listen to the indigenous people and protect their lands and their forests.

Until when? It was around 2006 that Lula, "the first Green President of Brazil," as the press still called him, started using a new word, "Developmental-ism." Or was it Dilma Rouseff, then his Chief of Staff? Whoever it was, this new word, with its dynamic connotations, sounded good, sounded like progress, except to the people in its path, who could see that it was leading not forward but back. Back to slash and burn. Back to "relocation" of the people in the Amazon who were once again in the way. Back to mega-dams which would flood some people's villages and dry up others' rivers, not to mention the new giant highways to better transport these peoples' forests, now called "timber," straight across the Amazon to Peru's Pacific ports -- in other words, to China.

"Developmental-ism" -- a long way from the "sustainable history" that Lula, together with Marina, had promised. In 2008, Lula went around her and appointed Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a professor who'd visited the region precisely once, in charge of the "Amazon sustainable development initiative." That's when Marina submitted her resignation.

This was seen as very bad news for the rainforest and its inhabitants. "It's time to start praying," said Sérgio Leitão, the director of public policy for Greenpeace in Brazil.

But what kind of a match has prayer traditionally been, up against, say, gigantic earth moving machines, particularly once the money has started changing hands and rolling in? In this particular case, the first phase of Lula's, and, now Dilma's "Developmentalism," the river is the Xingu [pronounced Shin-GOO], and the dam, called Belo Monte or Monster, depending on whom you ask out there, would: flood 500 square miles of rainforest, an area the size of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, with Manhattan thrown in; displace at the very least 12,000 people; and destroy the lives of 45,000 others whose ancestors have lived on and around this river since long before the first Portuguese even dared to dream of any Amazon.

Nor is this dam an original idea. It's been kicking around since the military dictatorship, which was precisely where you'd expect an idea like this one to come from, fraught as it is with kickback, gross inefficiency, and environmental hazard. Ironically enough, it was Dilma's people, the left, who managed to stop this project then, in the late 1980s. Only to dust it off and trot it out again, presumably when the kickback would land in their own goal.

Not that it's any better an idea now than it was in 1989. Though proponents speak in glowing terms of "growth and meeting energy needs," World Wildlife Brazil reported in 2007 that Brazil could "cut its demand for electricity by 40% by 2020 by investing in energy efficiency. The power saved would be equivalent to 14 Belo Monte hydroelectric plants and would result in national electricity savings of up to $19 billion."

Not to mention increasing installed capacity in wind power, which, according to Afonso Henriques Moreira Santos, an ex-director of Brazil's electricity regulatory agency Aneel, could easily meet the government's goal of 6% growth per year. Ex-director because he spoke out against the dam. To no avail, however, because by then, President Lula had decided he was going to have this dam "na lei ou na marra," as he put it, by hook or by crook.

The crooks in this case being typified by but not limited to the Sarneys of the Amazon states of Para and Maranhão, Senators, Governors, Presidents, even, to whom the Amazon really belongs. They have grown rich over the last sixty years by delivering the place to their buddies, who include the aluminum boys -- think toxic red tide in Hungary -- and the clear-cut loggers. The kind of men who hire the unemployed to shoot activists like Chico Mendes, the American nun Dorothy Stang, and over a thousand others who have looked at the Amazon and seen not Walmart but Eden.

"By hook or by crook" -- adorable Lula, adored by the world. He left office only because he was constitutionally precluded from running again, but he put his pet, Dilma, in to hold his place. This is her first elected office -- President of Brazil. Quite a feat, but looking hard, do you see Angela Merkel or Eva Peron? Any surprise that most of the money is on Lula again, four years from now?

And that money wants this dam. This dam will be built, say Norte Energia, the consortium whose absurdly low bid won the project. They were still planning, they told Valor Econômico, Brazil's leading financial newspaper, in October, "to begin construction this year." They have already lined up giant earth-moving machines on the borders of the region; and according to a letter of complaint filed by the COIAB, have been bribing some groups of indigenous with foodstuffs, boats, motors, health care, even houses, and threatening others with withdrawal of all of the above. This has, as intended, splintered opposition on the ground. As one despairing progressive in São Paulo put it, "This dam is already built."

"But not yet," says Sheyla Yakarepi of the "Xingu Vivo Pra Sempre" movement, "Xingu Alive Forever." She is a member of Juruna people, and she lives on the Xingu River. "We are dreading it every day, waking up to seeing the machines moving in to destroy our homes and our river."

But it hasn't happened yet and there is no resignation amongst the Juruna. "We are against the Belo Monte Dam and we are committed to fight with our bodies and souls to defend our lives and the life of our river."

She does not speak of bodies and souls lightly. Both she and Antonia Melo, another founder of Xingu Alive Forever, have received death threats. More than a thousand dam opponents have been murdered so far, particularly the most effective. Take Ademir Alfeu Federicci, for example, a local organizer, who traveled the region, asking ever-growing groups, "What will be left of the Xingu river for the people of Xingu?"

Exactly, said the people of the Xingu. Journalists were beginning to quote him. "Why sacrifice the Xingu River by building dams, when its basin represents one of the country's most important sites of ecological capital in its natural state?" he asked the government, in 2001, just before gunmen came to his mud house in the forest and in front of his wife and children, shot him in the head.

But you can't shoot a social movement, and on November 11, 2010, Xingu Alive Forever, along with more than 20 other movements, submitted a formal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), "denouncing grave and imminent violations upon the rights of indigenous and riverine communities that will be affected by the construction of Belo Monte Dam Complex on the Xingu River," and asking the Commission to adopt "precautionary measures" that would compel the Brazilian government to halt plans to build the dam.

That same week, prosecutors from Brazil's Federal Public Ministry (MPF) advised that Brazil's environmental agency IBAMA not issue an installation license until Norte Energia can comply with an obligatory set of social and environmental conditions. Norte Energia and Lula's government have been pushing for a "partial" installation license, which would allow the project to break ground without complying with legally binding conditions that were clearly impossible, like safeguarding "human rights and the environment," for starters.

The good news is that Norte Energia is now talking about "next year" instead of next week. And the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), the same group that stopped a dam in Panama, is now involved. "Moving forward," says Astrid Puentes Riaño, "without taking precautions required by international norms will only result in human rights violations and the irreversible destruction of a critically important region of the Amazon."

And unlike years past, what happens in the Amazon no longer stays in the Amazon. James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver are among those watching. They went down to the Xingu try to save this "real Pandora," as Cameron put it. As for Marina Silva, she ran against Dilma as a Green candidate, and won an astounding 19.4% of the vote, enough to force a run-off. Many see her as the future of Brazil, as they see Belo Monte as, in the words of Beatriz Carvalho, of Greenpeace, "an out-dated Brazil, old energy models that benefit few but possess an enormous capacity for social and environmental destruction."

But can it be stopped?

Yes, says Sheyla, "if" -- a big if -- "there is justice in Brazil."