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Amazon Communities Protest to Maintain the Xingu River Alive

Foto: Lilo Clareto

This Monday morning (11/09), over 150 representatives of fishermen, riverbank communities, family farmers and the indigenous Curuaya and Xipaya peoplesoccupied a section of the Transamazon Highway in a protest against Norte Energia (NESA) the concessionaire of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex located in the state of Pará (Brazil).  The protestors are demanding that during the rainy season months of November 2020 through March 2021, sufficient water is released by Belo Monte to enable a seasonal migration of fish, known as the “piracema”,  along  the Volta Grande (Big Bend) a 100 km stretch of Xingu river directly impacted by the dam project.

The natural flow of the Xingu along the Big Bend was drastically reduced since operations of Belo Monte were initiated, with the majority of the rivers’ water being diverted through an artificial canal to the dam’s turbines (see graphic below).  Norte Energia has proposed releasing a volume of water considered far insufficient for the reproduction of fish and other species of fauna and flora along the Big Bend of the Xingu, according to an expert panel from eight Brazilian universities,  as well as by Federal Public Prosecutors and federal agencies responsible for environmental protection (IBAMA) and indigenous peoples (FUNAI).

According to the protesters, the reduced water levels along the “Volta Grande” of the Xingu – which includes flooded forests that are essential for feeding and reproduction of fish –  have prevented the occurrence of the piracema over the the last two years.  As a result, there has been a major decline in fish populations, leading to a crisis in food security and falling incomes among communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods.  Moreover, navigation of small boats along the Big Bend of the Xingu has become increasingly difficult, seriously affecting the mobility of local communities of fishermen, river, small farmers and indigenous peoples.  This catastrophic situation has exacerbated the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020.

During 2020, the Middle Xingu region, where the Big Bend is located, has suffered one of the most severe droughts in the last fifty years.  Various tributaries of the Xingu River dried up, contributing to fish mortality and declining agricultural yields for farmers.  According to local populations, the water scarcity provoked by Belo Monte greatly increased the vulnerability of Xingu’s Big Bend region and its communities to the negative effects of the drought.

A declaration issued by protestors is demanding that IBAMA suspend the Belo Monte Operating License until Norte Energia guarantees a minimum flow of 16,000 cubic meter per second (m3/s) along the Big Bend in April and March so that fauna and flora species be protected during the “piracema” period, when fish migrate upstream to feed and reproduce.

A False Consensus and a Legal Battle

Based on the controversial design of Belo Monte, Norte Energia has demanded the diversion of a volume of water for operating the Belo Monte turbines that corrresponds to 80% of the normal flow of the Xingu River along the Big Bend (Volta Grande).   In an environmental licensing process marked by intense political pressures, IBAMA and Norte Energia negotiated a flow regime for operating Belo Monte, dubbed a “consensus hydrogram”, to supposedly reconcile demands for water for the dam with needs to maintain ecological integrity and local livelihoods along the Big Bend.  Independent scientists and local communities have long criticized the agreement.  The regime was first scheduled to be applied in November 2019, as the final turbines of Belo Monte came into operation.   With mounting scientific evidence of the hydrogram’s lack of reliability, Ibama issued an order in early 2020 stipulating an alternative regime that requires the release of additional water to to alleviate downstream environmental and social impacts on the Big Bend.  In early October, Norte Energia went to court in an attempt to overturn IBAMA’s order, which was rejected by a local judge.  The company has since filed an appeal with a Federal Regional Court (TRF1) in Brasilia that is pending a decision.

Read the declaration of protestors:

Declaration:  A Manifestation to Guarantee the Piracema – 2021

We, fisherwomen and fishermen, riverbank dwellers, family farmers and Curuaya and Xipaya indigenous people, declare that we have decided to put at risk our security and that of our families, in this peaceful and desperate act of civil disobedience during this moment of the pandemic because we have NO recourse left: the Xingu is dying, and we see NO way out for our survival, that of our elders and our children, if we and the competent authorities do not have the determination to change this situation.

The drought of the Xingu during this year of 2020 is one of the most severe in recent times. Compared to last year, the volume of water in the river has decreased by almost 40% in October, and many of the streams that flow into the Xingu, such as Altamira, Ambé or Trindade, among others, are drying up, forming lakes filled with dead fish.

For the population of the Middle Xingu that depends on the river and the streams for fishing, boat transportation, water consumption and irrigation, this situation has taken on catastrophic proportions.  Hundreds of families are severely impacted by COVID 19, especially with regard to their food security; they are not only going hungry, but are completely losing their livelihoods.

For two years now, the diversion of the waters of the “Volta Grande” stretch of Xingu to the turbines of Belo Monte has made the seasonal period of fish migrations and reproduction (“piracema“) impossible.  This has depopulated the river of fish and turtles and is undermining fishing activities that are essential for food security and income generation.

Furthermore, this year the drought is making navigation practically impossible, especially along the passages of the river with rock outcrops (pedrais), causing serious damage to boats and engines.  The agricultural plots of family farmers and riverbank populations are drying up, and the water from both the river and streams is absolutely unfit for consumption.

Despite the worsening situation due to climate change, intensified by deforestation and burning – which, after the construction of Belo Monte, placed Altamira at the top of the list of municipalities with the highest rates of environmental crime in the state of Pará – the current reality of calamity in the Xingu is not a surprise.

Innumerable studies and technical evaluations conducted by government agencies such as Ibama, Funai and the Federal Public Prosecutors Office (MPF), as well as by research institutions, demonstrate the social and environmental catastrophe produced by the hydroelectric dam’s intervention in the flow of the Xingu River along the stretch of the “Volta Grande“, which is absolutely insufficient to maintain the life of the fauna, flora, and riverine communities, fisherwomen, indigenous peoples, and peasants in the region.

When analyzing documents produced by Ibama technicians in 2009, the Federal Public Prosecutors’ Office (MPF) concluded that there was no guarantee that the aquatic fauna and alluvial forests would be able to withstand, in the short and medium term, the water stress that Belo Monte dam would impose on the Xingu River,

A group of researchers and specialists from eight renowned universities and other institutions from around the country which formed an Expert Panel, concluded at the end of 2019 that data from a environmental mitigation plan (PBA) and from complementary studies proved that the flows of the proposed hydrogram in the licensing of Belo Monte would make life impossible along this stretch of the Xingu River.

In October, Norte Energia released an average of 800 cubic meters of water per second into the stretch of the “Volta Grande“.  Belo Monte’s Environmental Impact Study itself states, however, that it would take at least 15,000 m3/s for fish and other aquatic animals’ sites to be minimally flooded to allow for migration and breeding  (“piracema”). Without the average flow rate of 13,000 m3/s, freshwater turtles will not be able to access feeding areas that are periodically flooded, called igapós to which they seasonally move in search of food, concludes the document.

On the other hand, FUNAI demanded in the licensing of the Belo Monte dam guarantees of the maintenance of ecological conditions necessary for the physical and cultural survival of the Juruna and Arara indigenous peoples along the Volta Grande, and to these we add the Curuaya, Xipaya and other indigenous inhabitants of the Xingu islands.

In view of this, we feel legimated and legally supported in demanding the following measures that cannot be postponed, that guarantee:

1. A flow in the Volta Grande do Xingu that guarantees the reproduction (“piracema”) of fish, currently threatened with extinction, as of November 2020, and that reaches at least 16,000 m3 / s in the months of March and April 2021;

2. The establishment of a definitive hydrogram that guarantees the survival of the river, the fauna, the flora and the surrounding communities according to existing scientific data and, if necessary, complementary and independent studies;

3. The constitution of a River Basin Committee with equal participation of indigenous peoples and surrounding populations, along with the independent scientific community to decide the policies for the Middle Xingu region with respect to surface water flows and groundwater;

4. The fulfillment of all conditions of Belo Monte’s environmental licensing, especially with regard to needs of local fishermen and riverine people, in accordance with Public Civil Action Lawsuit filed by the State Public Defender’s Office (Case no. 0802669-16.2020.8.14.0005).

In order to meet these conditions, we demands that IBAMA suspend the Belo Monte Operating License, which is ultimately responsible for the violation of human rights and the rights of nature, committed by the hydroelectric dam project, until these are definitively and satisfactorily met.

Altamira, November 9, 2020

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