Occupy the Amazon: Brazilian Amazon Groups Invade Site of Dam Project

Buenos Aires – Waving bows and arrows and dressed in war paint, hundreds of members of indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon invaded the construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on Thursday.

Although they had vowed to permanently occupy the site in their latest attempt to stop the dam from being built, the protest disbanded late Thursday.

About 300 people arrived on seven buses at 6 a.m. and made their way to the site in Pará State where the North Energy consortium is building a workers’ camp for the mammoth dam, said Paulo Cunha, an inspector for the Federal Highway Police. The group blocked the Trans-Amazon Highway around the village of Santo Antônio, where it passes the construction site, he said.

Security officials did not try to prevent the demonstrators from entering the property, the police and other officials said.

The indigenous groups demanded the presence of a senior Brazilian official, saying that they wanted to start a new round of negotiations over the dam, Amazon Watch, an organization that works to protect the Amazon region and indigenous people, reported.

“Belo Monte will only succeed if we do nothing about it,” Juma Xipaia, an indigenous leader from the Xingu area, said in a statement released by Amazon Watch. “We will not be silent. We will shout out loud, and we will do it now.”

The move signaled a change in strategy by indigenous groups in their campaign to stop the dam. Legal challenges by local Amazonian communities — backed by international environmental groups like Amazon Watch — have done little to dissuade the government of President Dilma Rousseff to halt work on the dam, which would be the third largest in the world. Brazilian officials say the dam is badly needed to provide for future energy needs in growing cities like São Paulo.

“This is kind of a last resort,” said Atossa Soltani, the founder of Amazon Watch.

Ms. Soltani said indigenous groups were committed to nonviolent action. Last year, at a meeting at a village along the Xingu River, which the movie director James Cameron attended, about 70 indigenous leaders vowed to form a new tribe of 2,500 to occupy the construction site and, if necessary, sacrifice their lives to defend their native lands.

Environmentalists say that the $11 billion dam would flood about 200 square miles of the Amazon region and dry up a 60-mile stretch of the Xingu River, affecting fishing and the indigenous groups’ way of life.

Construction of the workers’ camp began about three months ago, but this was the first time that the indigenous groups tried to invade the site.

“It has been a process,” Ms. Soltani said. “Communities have slowly built enough solidarity where they could sustain it. Now, all of the affected communities are united.”

North Energy said in a statement on Thursday that it would not halt construction work. A judge in Altamira, Cristina Collyer Damásio, ordered the demonstrators to leave the site and prohibited any disturbance that would halt construction work. Violators, the judge said in her order, would be fined about $290 a day.