Fear and Loathing at Tucuruí

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Ralph Steadman

The brutal murder of a union leader who fought on behalf of those whose lives were ruined by Tucuruí Dam in the Brazilian Amazon has re-connected the issues of violence and disregard for the rights of dam-affected populations.

Raimundo Nonato do Carmo, 53, "Raimundinho" was shot seven times on April 16 by two men on a motorcycle as he walked out of a supermarket on the street in which he lived in the town of Tucuruí. Sonia Magalhães, a researcher at the Federal University of Pará State, who for over 25 years has followed the battle of those displaced by the dam which began operation in 1984 for fair compensation, says "Raimundinho was a fearless leader who fought tirelessly for environmental protection in the region flooded and destroyed by Tucuruí".

According to Magalhães, Raimundinho "was proud to have learned from his father, who was forced to relocate to the Parakanã Resettlement, where he suffered from a plague of mosquitoes caused by the dam at the end of the 1980's and spent the last years of his life wandering from resettlement to resettlement in search not only of land, but also of the hope that was lost when the dam was built. Raimundinho was there, fighting for his father and for all the rest – for roads, houses, credit, and against the timber cutters and land grabbers, as well as against the dambuilders Eletronorte and against the ineffectiveness of the environmental agency Ibama".

When dam-affected people occupied the islands in the 3,000 sq km lake formed by Tucuruí, Raimundinho was there from the beginning, designing a proposal for an Extractive Reserve. When I met Raimundinho in 1997, and went with him to visit the tiny islands, once hills in the middle of the rainforest, where families eked out a living by fishing and planting a few crops, his proposal to preserve the islands seemed little more than symbolic given the enormous environmental catastrophe that surrounded them. But, ultimately, Raimundinho's actions were successful and Sustainable Development Reserves were created within the reservoir, guaranteeing the right of the squatters to continue living there, and to have access to public resources.

Raimundinho's activism led to threats against his life, and he decided to move with his family to Belém, the state capital. Still uncertain about his safety, he returned to Tucuruí in 2007 and resumed his work. But, the savagery of the process of the "development" of the Amazon caught up to him. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church says Raimundinho is one of 14 rural union leaders murdered in this region in the past three years.

Perhaps as an homage to the fallen leader, 400 members of Brazil's Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB), along with organizations representing fishermen, farmers and the landless initiated an occupation of the navigation locks worksite at Tucuruí Dam this week. They say that Eletronorte has dragged their feet on help promised to 900 families for agricultural assistance and fish farming, among dozens of measures they are demanding the company take to restore the livelihoods of the more than 30,000 people displaced by the dam. Yesterday, the activists were dispersed by riot police, charged with invading an "environmental protection area" as well as a "national security zone". Some were beaten, and eight leaders were taken to the state capital for questioning by the intelligence unit of the military police. Meanwhile, Raimundinho's killers remain at large.