UNITED NATIONS, New York City – A side event at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues turned into confrontation on Wednesday as a panel discussing the effects of hydroelectric dams on indigenous populations was met with terse responses from the governments of Brazil and Peru. The heated exchanges took place shortly before a planned protest march from the UN to the Brazilian Mission, where actress Sigourney Weaver lent her celebrity power to efforts by indigenous groups to stop Brazil’s Belo Monte dam.
The side event panel, led by Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, presented evidence of dam-induced destruction of ecosystems and indigenous populations around the globe. Routinely touted as “clean energy” by pro-hydroelectric interests, Goldtooth explained that dams wash out fragile river ecosystems and displace surrounding communities, heavily impacting lifeways and livelihoods.
One of the areas discussed in detail was the Xingu River region of Brazil, where local indigenous people are fighting the proposed Belo Monte dam. If built, this hydro-electric project will be the third-largest in the world, behind the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam, Brazil-Paraguay. First proposed in 1990, Belo Monte has been fraught with controversy and protest. On April 20, the Brazilian government moved the project significantly forward, awarding the building rights to Norte Energia, a consortium of nine companies led by Chesf, a subsidiary of Electrobras, Latin America’s largest power utility company.
Immediately following the UN panel presentation, the Minister of the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations, Maria Teresa Mesquita Pessoa, responded by saying the information given was “two years old” and did not “accurately reflect the consultations” that had taken place with local indigenous people. Speaking in clear English, Pessoa resolutely defended the merits of the Belo Monte dam project. A representative of the Peruvian Mission to the United Nations requested to speak next, and defended his country’s position on hydro-electricity projects as well. IEN’s Tom Goldtooth later noted that it was unusual for governments to officially respond in such a manner during side events at the Forum.
Following the side event, a group of indigenous leaders representing dam-impacted communities from around the world gathered in a planned protest in front of the United Nations. The group of about 50 people marched to the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations. Walking slowly, they attracted attention and support from passing pedestrians and motorists as they chanted “No dams on sacred lands” and “Respect indigenous rights.” Participants carried placards in English, Spanish and Portuguese and a large black banner with the words, “Stop Dams in Amazon.”
Actress Sigourney Weaver, most recently known for playing botanist Dr. Grace Augustine in the movie Avatar, joined the protest at the Brazilian Mission. Post-Avatar, Weaver has traveled with Director James Cameron to the Xingu region of Brazil, and has met with local tribes and government officials in an effort to support the indigenous people of the region and stop the Belo Monte Dam.
When asked why she felt it was important to lend her celebrity status to the survival of indigenous people, Weaver said, “These people clearly feel they have not been part of this (development) process, that they are not being considered, and that their whole way of life would be wiped out…I had this amazing opportunity to travel down and meet all these tribal leaders and sit with the women in the circle and sing the songs and share food with them. And I think it carries with it a responsibility. I want to help get their message out.”
When asked how she felt this related to the experience of being from the United States, Weaver said, “It breaks my heart to see Brazil have the opportunity to do things differently and not take advantage of it. What I felt listening to the tribal leaders (in Brazil) is that we have not listened to our tribal leaders here in the U.S. and it has caused such a rift…Brazil has the opportunity to learn from mistakes that other countries have made and support the ancient way of life of the indigenous people.” Unfortunately in America, we know what happens when people aren’t heard and aren’t included. You can’t go back, you can’t undo the damage done to the original homelands and the original way of life.
Weaver continued, “Dams are a nineteenth Century model. In the US we are dismantling our dams, it’s been a disaster for the environment…We say to Brazil, and other countries, ‘You don’t have to make the same mistakes that we’ve made. You can move toward renewable energy.’”