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Amazonian Tribe Brings Struggle to International Stage

Above: The Munduruku of the Tapajós Basin will not sit quietly as their way of life is destroyed. Photo courtesy of Aaron Vincent Elkaim.

When Brazilian energy planners proposed to choke the Amazon’s Tapajós River and its tributaries with dozens of large hydroelectric dams, they underrated a formidable foe: the Munduruku people. The largest indigenous group in the Tapajós Basin, the Munduruku are proving to be sophisticated adversaries who are throwing a wrench in the dam industry’s plans.

The tribe has frequently caught the Brazilian government off guard with their tactics. They have a flair for the theatrical – they staged a series of dramatic protests in Brasilia, including a “die-in” at the Ministry of Mines and Energy – and the practical. In January, they delivered a protocol to government officials demanding a culturally-appropriate process of free, prior and informed consultation and consent (FPIC). While enshrined in Brazil’s constitution and integral to ILO Convention 169, the indigenous right to FPIC has been systematically ignored in Brazil.

This month the fight goes international. Prominent Munduruku emissary Ademir Kaba will head to Geneva, where the United Nations will hold its 29th Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Ademir will deliver his people’s message to the UNHRC on June 24, accompanied by Prosecutor Felício Pontes of Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF). Pontes has co-authored dozens of civil action lawsuits on violations of human rights and environmental law surrounding the Belo Monteand Tapajós dam projects.

Ademir Kaba and Felicio Pontes (pictured) will stand up for indigenous rights at the UN
Ademir Kaba and Felicio Pontes (pictured) will stand up for indigenous rights at the UN Aldeia Amazonia

But as the tribe’s work bears fruit – they’ve forced energy planners to push back the timetable for Tapajósuntil 2016 – the government is resorting to ever more draconian measures. The use of a dictatorship-era legal mechanism known as “Security Suspension” (Suspensão de Segurança) allows it to arbitrarily overturn legal decisions that challenge dam projects, a tactic it disproportionately wields against the Munduruku.

The conflict comes at a bad time for Brazil, a nationcurrently angling for a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council. The country is particularly sensitive to criticism at the international level given its reputation for leadership within the UN climate change convention (UNFCCC).

Previous criticisms of the government’s handling of the Belo Monte Dam in 2011 resulted in aggressive denials of negligence and retaliatory measures. It remains to be seen whether the government will now take a more conciliatory approach given mounting evidence of human rights abuses and the social and environmental chaos resulting from Amazonian megadam projects.

Furthermore, as the Munduruku and other groups tenaciously defend their rights, the Brazilian government will find it increasingly tough to meet the rising challenge of defending its record on indigenous rights on international stages.

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