Big Hydro Invades Indigenous Land in Brazil

The Brazilian Amazon’s social and environmental history in the last forty years has been governed by the completion of monumental infrastructure projects, especially in transportation and energy generation. Over the years, research on the operation of the energy sector has brought to light the impact it has on the environment and how it affects the population living within its orbit.

One recurring point in these studies is the enormous influence that construction, hydroelectric projects, mining companies, agro-industry and oil, gas and forestry extraction wield on state development policies and practices. These companies often exercise considerable leverage on decision making process in areas that are usually and formally designated to be in the political sphere. The State’s apparent inability to establish a standardized best-practice procedure to ensure consultation with the indigenous, quilombola[1] and traditional[2] populations seems to be the result of these partially hidden interests, hierarchies, and regulations involved in this complex relationship[3].

What Harvey commonly referred to as “accumulation through dispossession” is not uncommon in the Amazonian theatre. Capital “acquires” swathes of new territory and denies the indigenous population living there access to their land and water. The Environment is thus symbolically and materially downgraded exclusively into the commercial realm and becomes nothing more than a commodity injected into the wider global market to assist production and serve economic growth. This inevitably triggers currents of human migration as the usual means of subsistence of the traditional and rural populations (be they indigenous, quilombolas, or ribeirinhos[4]) are affected and they are forced to dislocate. Furthermore, as the fight for control and ownership of land intensifies, the deforestation process accelerates in order to ensure the establishment of a monoculture of agricultural crops (like soja, sugar cane, eucalyptus, etc.) Blatant land speculation is also common. In most cases the natural flow of the rivers is altered and creates multiple crises of access to, and supply of, water, not only for human consumption but also for other means of subsistence (the Belo Monte Dam is a prime example of such as case). Consequently, there is a direct and systemic impact on the food chain, and in particular on river fish. Undisposed of vegetation begins to decompose and produces methane emissions (a greenhouse gas) which is not only released into the atmosphere but also contaminates the water reservoirs by introducing pathogens and vectors which interfere with the dissemination of diseases such as malaria. This has resulted in an increase in infectious disease, and an exponential rise in STDs has been recorded.

The lack of planning is coupled with a blatant disregard for the constraints and provisions attached to the granting of the licenses. This has resulted in a fragile public health care system and an accompanying rise in the cost of living, especially in housing and food. Mitigating and/or compensable measures taken by either by the energy companies or by the public sector are retrograde and insufficient, implemented much too late to remedy any negative effects on the indigenous populations. It is not unusual for the incidence of violence to increase dramatically in the affected communities. The instances of death attributed to violence or accident have also increased substantially.

The transmission and distribution of the power generated by the hydroelectric plants, in the form of massive power cables, provide yet another cause for concern due to their substantial and multifaceted social and environmental impact. Even in the so called “usinas plataforma,[5]” the energy must be connected to the main regional or national grid, and this occurs on land, either by taking advantage of the already deforested routes (along the highways) or through the clearing and subsequent maintenance of new byways. It is estimated that there will be a need for hundreds of kilometres, and these newly cleared pathways will pass through conservation areas, indigenous territory and private property.

The saga of the Apinayé, who inhabit an area known as “Bico do Papagaio” (Parrot’s beak) in the Amazonian state of Tocantins, illustrates this history of territorial dispossession. For the past fifty years, they have watched their territory and way of life be diminished through the creation of various infrastructure projects, among them the Carajás and Norte-Sul railways, the BR 153, Transamazonian, TO 126 and TO134 highways, the high voltage line from the Tucuruí Hydroelectric plant, the environmental reverberations from the plants at Estreito and Lajeado, as well as the new waterways built on the Tocantins/Araguaia rivers. To this one can add the future dangers posed by the proposed dam at Serra Quebrada, which threatens to flood over 14% of land legally designated as Apinajé IT. They are furthermore confronting an accelerated program of deforestation promoted by companies such as Sinobrás (mining), Eco Brasil Florestas S/A (cellulose production), Cargil Agricola S/A (US Agribusiness exporter), Suzano Papel e Celulose S/A (pulp and paper). These companies are aided and abetted by the Instituto de Natureza do Tocantins (Naturatins, the Nature Institute of Tocantins) and encouraged to invest in the planting of soya, sugarcane, eucalyptus and plan to establish coal mines in the extreme north of the state of Tocantins.

This process and its consequences has been observed and recorded in various instances and situations not only across the Brazilian Amazon, but also in other areas both in Brazil and across the world[6].

Hydroelectric plants in the Amazon: Effects on Indigenous Territory

Ignoring all recorded evidence and submitted objections, the Plano Decenal de Expansão de Energia 2023 (Ten Year Plan for Energy Expansion 2013, or PDE 2023) projects an increase of 28,000 megawatts in energy production in the decade from 2014-2023 through the coming online of several large scale hydroelectric plants. It does not, however, predict that any of the 30 plants throughout the country will have any direct impact on the indigenous territories. The plan states that eleven of the thirty will be situated at least 40 km from indigenous territory in what is known as “the Legal Amazon” and at least 15km away in the remaining regions. The plan is underpinned by an official decree known as the Portaria Interministerial no. 419/2011, which regulates the actions of federal public bodies dealing with the issuing of federal environmental licenses. However, the plan acknowledges that up to eight different indigineous territories will be affected by the 232 new transmission lines these plants will require, which combined add up to a total of 41,000 km of new lines. [7]

Collating the facts and information available in the Institute of Socioeconomic Research (Inesc) under the title “Rights and Investment in the Amazon,” we were able to ascertain that a collection of twenty-three hydroelectric power stations located in a minimum of seventeen infrastructure developments, have socio-environmental consequences on indigenous territories, be it on the populations that live there or on the physical environment that these populations are dependent on to maintain and further develop their way of life.

The discrepancy regarding the extent of the projected impact on the ITs between our study and the official version revolves around how the concept of “impact or interference” is constructed and defined. According to the current legislation, an “interference in IT” occurs when a parcel of IT land is directly affected by the dam’s barrier or by the reservoir. The criteria for defining and measuring “impact” concerns territorial and environmental effects only and does not include a human or social dimension. It is our position that it is both urgent and imperative that this indicator be revised.

Where indigenous communities are concerned, there are many studies indicating that the indirect impacts of such large scale developments are as negative or often even more so than direct impacts. The mere announcement that such a project is in the pipeline in the vicinity, often accompanied by sightings and even contact with surveyors or researchers is enough to provoke intense disquiet and anxiety amongst the Indian community. The situation in the Tapajós basin is one such example.

Studies undertaken in the last few decades show clearly that the interference caused by such massive projects reach far beyond the 10km radius around it. It can affect indigenous communities long before they have had any sort of direct contact with the project– that is to say, long before they come face to face with the life on margins of the construction of dams, railways, or the erecting of transmittors. As was explained by Daniel Posey in 1987, contact can be classified in three different ways:

*Indirect contact, which includes the transmission of disease without a human carrier through insects and animal vectors and depositories

* Intermediate contact, which depends on a temporary or fortuitous contact with groups or individuals such as merchants, soldiers, researchers, civil servants, miners, rubber tappers, and other indigenous people who have already had contact with other people and their diseases

* Direct contact, which, as suggested, is a result of cohabitation with missionaries, permanent civil service staff installed in the community, tourists, or even permanent personal relationships such as marriage with those who have already had a long period of life in urban centres or among those who have.

The collection of articles edited by Martin Alberto Ibańez-Novion and Ari Miguel Teixeira Ott in 1987 and the bibliographical study by Julio C. Melatti (1987) and that of Dominique Buchillet (2007), added to the information collated in A Map of Famine Among Indigenous Populations of Brasil by Verdum (1995) as well as the National Inquest into the Health and Nutrition of Indigenous People (Coimbra Jr., 2014), reveal the complex realities of the present situation of the indigenous populations and, more importantly, provide irrefutable clues to investigate the correlation between territory, governance, socio-environmental change, and the physical and emotional health of the indigenous communities throughout the Amazon region.

Final considerations

The complex tableau of threats and vulnerabilities suffered by indigenous people becomes even more serious given that their territorial rights continue to be disrespected on a massive scale in direct contravention of the fact that these have been legally recognized. Unfortunately, it seems that the “Terra Indígena” exists on paper only, as the Brazilian State does not guarantee these populations their human rights or any form of material security. In order to discourage the constant invasions of their land and to put an end to the resultant environmental degradation, the State must make is presence felt in these areas in an adequate and effective manner.

The National Foundation of the Indian, FUNAI, has been hit year upon year by massive and systemic budget cuts. As a result, the services it can afford to provide have dwindled, and its political power in areas that are clearly within its remit, such as adopting a researched and informed position vis-à-vis the socio-environmental consequences on any of the Indigenous Territories of the many proposed infrastructural projects, has been categorically usurped. This is a clear violation of the territorial rights of the indigenous people of Brazil, a practice one sees occurring in a systematic and generalized manner not only in the Amazon, but also throughout the country.

Translated by Isabella Weibrecht

Ricardo Verdun is an anthropologist and public affairs adviser with the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC).