Government flouts our rights, say Indians
There is anger at the assembly of the Munduruku tribe in the Amazon that their constitutional rights are being flouted by the government, as it seeks to push through plans to build hydroelectric plants on their land. Here, in his third and final article about his Amazonian journey, HOT reporter Nick Terdre is on the trail of interviewees to explain where the meeting is going.
The following morning, our third day in the village, the meeting proper began. There was a long agenda, and the issue of the dams – the ‘great project’, as it was referred to – came last. Some of the other items were also contentious. One was the illegal presence of gold-panners on Munduruku territory. After making many appeals to the authorities to tackle the matter in vain, the Munduruku last year took matters into their own hands, expelling everybody from one of the gold-panners’ settlements.
The government’s failure, as the Munduruku see it, to uphold their rights has prompted them to seek a more independent relationship. After one of their number was killed by the police during a demonstration in Jacaréacanga in 2011, they set up the Movimento Munduruku Ipereg ay – Movement for the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and of Humanity – to oppose the big projects in the Amazon. And whereas the authorities had previously played a part in their decision-making, the meeting in Mission Village was the first to be held under the auspices of the so-called ‘third association’, from which the authorities are excluded.
Even while we were there, further signs came of the lack of goodwill in the capital, Brasília; one of my companions, who had been checking the Internet, found an announcement that a public hearing had been arranged to reveal the results of the environmental studies for the dam project. Such a hearing is a legal requirement in the process of licensing the dam project, but the Munduruku had not been directly informed. Moreover, the meeting was to be held in Itaituba in just a week’s time.
The government was trying to pull a fast one, my colleagues said; a week could hardly be considered sufficient notice, given that Itaituba was several days’ travel away. In the end, we heard that the hearing had been put back by a week.
That morning I finally got my first interview. I had approached several prominent figures, but while they were apparently happy to talk to me, it was always ‘later’. However, when I button-holed Gerson Manhuary Munduruku for a second time, he came out of the meeting hall to talk to me. Gerson lives in Jacaréacanga, where he is one of several Munduruku who are local councillors for the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party, to which President Dilma Rousseff, who was re-elected in November, belongs. According to my NGO companions, some of them are understood to have expressed support for the project.
If he had been one of them, Gerson was now presenting a very different picture. He was very worried about the dam proposal, he said; a lot of people would be flooded out of their homes, hunting and fishing would be destroyed and people would go hungry. “It’s a concern for us, because it’s a threat,” he said. “The government says it’s willing to listen, but they don’t listen.”
Meanwhile, we had been wondering when we were going to get back. It depended on when a boat was going, but obviously there was no scheduled service. That afternoon, one of the NGO people suddenly came running up to tell me that a boat was about to leave and Maurício was going on it – did I want to go too? Since I hadn’t got any interviews with the Munduruku leaders, I said ‘no’: after spending five days getting here, I didn’t want to leave without hearing what they had to say. Within half an hour, we were waving Maurício and some of the others goodbye.
The next day, thanks largely to my NGO colleagues, I finally got interviews with three of the Munduruku leaders. They all reflected the mood of the meeting – one of fierce opposition to the dams. The first was Lamberto, the cacique of Restinga village, who was very critical of Dilma, the president – Brazilians always use first names and nicknames – even claiming that she wanted to see an end to the indigenous population.
“The dams will bring misery, poverty – we don’t accept this, we will die for our rights,” he said. “The river is important to our survival, we need it for food, to wash, to drink. We feed ourselves from the jungle, if we don’t have the land, how will we feed ourselves?
“It’s a crime to destroy the forests and the animals. Our forests and our animals and fish have already been killed, this is what happened in Belo Monte [where another dam is being built]. We don’t intend to hand over the forest where we live. We are not going to die like animals.”
Petitions solve nothing
Next I spoke to Maria Leusa, head of the female warriors. It was up to the assembly to decide how best to fight against the government projects on the Tapajós river, she said. “We think that the only way is to demonstrate. Papers, documents, petitions don’t solve anything, so our movement has other strategies for action.
“We know that the law guarantees our rights. So we will go on defending what is ours. We will always go on defending our territories against mining. We have a lot of hope. We are going to win. We want the government to recognise our rights and not just those of others.”
During the lunch break, I also spoke to Josias, the head of the warriors. Unfortunately, as we sat down to talk in a corner of the meeting hall, someone produced an electric guitar, plugged it in and embarked on an impromptu performance. It was a bizarre scene in the middle of the jungle, but the practical result was that I could barely hear a word Josias was saying, and the recording was also for the most part incomprehensible.
Josias is an ambassador for the Munduruku cause. Last autumn, he travelled to New York where he met the head of the UN Human Rights Commission to explain the tribe’s cause. Like the other two, he was also optimistic that the Munduruku could win the battle.
Back to ‘civilisation’
By early afternoon, to my great relief, I had got my interviews and was ready to leave. Inácio, who had arrived in the village by plane, was returning the same way that afternoon and offered me a ride, which I accepted (and paid for). A couple of hours later, we were taking off in a single-engined Cessna with the crowd which gathered to wave us off growing smaller below us and finally disappearing.
All around the Amazon, forest stretched away unbroken to the skyline. It looked like a patchwork quilt; the top of each tree a tiny circle surrounded by a mass of other tiny circles, stretching away to the horizon on every side.
As I flew back towards ‘civilisation,’ I wondered what was going to happen to the Munduruku and their way of life. They have a foot in both camps, as it were; they wear mainly the same clothes as whites: t-shirts, shorts, bras, flip-flops; they have mod cons such as outboard motors and TVs, yet they still live a fairly traditional way of life in the forest. Their right to live this way is supposed to be guaranteed, but many of them are now faced with being evicted from their villages and moved to new areas.
It was clear from the mood of the meeting and the Munduruku I spoke to, that they were determined to stand up for their rights, which they believe are protected by the constitution and the law. But against the power of a modern state determined to have its way, it’s hard to see how they can win. They can undertake actions, as when they expelled the environmental studies team from their lands, but the authorities can always resort to force.
The Indians can even win victories in court, as happened last year when the auction for another hydroelectric plant was suspended by a federal court. In this case, the government resorted to exceptional legislation left over from the repressive days of the military dictatorship – the Maintenance of Security Act (Sustentação de Segurança) – which uses the old excuse of national security to trump constitutional rights. Within four days, the court’s decision was overturned and the auction reinstated.
The journey back to Jacaréacanga, which took two days by boat on the way out, lasted just half an hour by plane. And the rest of the return journey was relatively quick; a day to reach Itaituba, this time in a pickup truck which didn’t break down, the fast boat back to Santarém the following day, on which quite by chance I ran into Maurício and overnight, with a stop-off in Manaus, the plane back to São Paulo. In less than three days, I was back in the concrete jungle.
Getting nowhere with Brasília
The assembly in Mission Village continued for five days. Afterwards, I heard that they had decided to call for a meeting with the authorities in early May, seeking an explanation for the mining concessions granted on their land. However, the authorities did not even bother to respond to this request. Meanwhile, the public hearing, at which the environmental studies were to be divulged and approved, was postponed again and eventually took place without any Munduruku being present.
It was only in September that the authorities finally convened a meeting with the Munduruku to discuss how the prior consultation should take place. This rather made nonsense of the notion of ‘prior’ consultation; this is clearly meant to occur before steps such as the approval of the environmental studies, though this had already happened. And just a few days later, the government published notification in the official journal that the contract for the construction of the first plant would be tendered in mid December, in a clear violation of its undertakings on consultation.
The Munduruku sent a letter to the authorities vehemently protesting this move and accusing them of lying, when they gave assurances that they would respect the Indians’ rights. Just a few days later, the Ministério Público Federal – the Federal Public Ministry, an independent branch of government set up to defend the interest of minorities, especially the Indians – issued a ruling banning further work on the hydroelectric plant on the grounds that, although technical and environmental studies had been completed, the Indians had not been consulted. So the notification of the tender was withdrawn.
The ban will certainly be challenged by the government, which will probably win the day in Brasília, the capital, where the higher courts almost always side with it.
Meanwhile, the consultation process has also been disrupted. A second meeting was due to be held in early November, but just a few days beforehand, the authorities arbitrarily changed the meeting-place. The Munduruku protested and the authorities cancelled the meeting. Another has yet to be arranged.
The Indians also protested that the demarcation of one of their areas had not been completed, although all the necessary documents for registering it had been lodged with Funai, the government agency in charge of Indian affairs, for more than a year. In late October, a federal court ruled that Funai must publish the registration document within fifteen days, but, apparently on orders from above, it has refused to comply.
Having territory formally demarcated strengthens the Indians’ rights to it and enables them, for example, to claim compensation if it is invaded by loggers or miners. In the face of the authorities’ delaying tactics, the Munduruku went to the area and began to physically mark out the boundaries themselves. It doesn’t resolve the legal situation, but it is a clear statement of their determination to defend their rights.
The Indians will not be easily driven off their lands, but they are pitted against an extremely powerful enemy. Their main hope lies in mobilising public opinion, at home and abroad. However, although there are supportive NGOs, some of whose members I met on my trip, there is not a great deal of sympathy or understanding for the indigenous peoples in the Brazilian population as a whole. In Itaituba, a town founded by gold-panners, a group of Munduruku were confronted by a hostile crowd not long after my trip.
And when I was back in São Paulo I was surprised to get an earful from an old leftie friend about how the Indians’ interests couldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of progress. When we parted, he apologised for the outburst, but it was indicative of the mindset of many on the Brazilian left.
So the outlook is concerning – the Munduruku and the Indians seem set on a collision course in which there are likely to be casualties, and, if the government gets its way, part of the tribe will be evicted from their homes to make way for a series of hydroelectric plants of dubious effect followed by an invasion of rapacious mining companies. If this happens, the long-term effects on the Munduruku, and other affected communities, could be devastating.
All photos by Maurício Torres, except where stated.
See also Part 1: HOT visits Amazon tribe facing dam threats
and Part 2: Debating dams in the rain forest
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