Tribes Dispute Greenwashing by Dam Builders

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Conflict of Interest at Heart of Sustainability Guidelines, Says Environmental Group

Foz do Iguaçú, Brazil― Indigenous people from Brazil’s vast but shrinking Amazon region yesterday interrupted the Congress of the International Hydropower Association, claiming that the Belo Monte Dam was approved illegally by the Brazilian government, vowing to fight as long as it takes to stop the dam.  At the same event, environmental activists dismissed a new voluntary environmental tool as an effort by the dam industry to greenwash its practices.

Sheyla Juruna of the Juruna tribe, which would be directly impacted by the Belo Monte Dam as it reduces access to water on the Xingu River, surprised the director of Brazil’s Eletrobras while he was giving a presentation in which he claimed that the Brazilian government received consent to build the dam from the region’s most important indigenous leaders.  Ms. Juruna, who was joined by Mr. Patxon Metuktire, grandson of legendary chief Raoni of the Kayapó tribe, gave detailed accounts of the  reunions with indigenous leaders, in which government representatives set up photo opportunities and expressed the monetary compensation that the tribes would receive, while never receiving their final consent.  

The two indigenous representatives also described to an audience of concerned industry figures and politicians from across the world how the Brazilian government recently approved a construction license for the dam, despite the Norte Energia consortium never having fulfilled the 40 social and environmental prerequisites mandated by Brazilian legislation to prepare the region to face Belo Monte’s impacts.

Sheyla Juruna at the IHA Congress


Ms. Juruna, whose tribe would suffer directly from reduced access to water as 80% of the Xingu river is diverted into two reservoirs, stated that “Norte Energia’s avoidance of its requisite social and environmental duties are representative of a larger problem in the hydropower industry.  Dam builders don’t comply with their legal responsibilities, in order to avoid paying higher costs.  It’s a shame that the industry pretends it has obtained consent from affected indigenous people, when there is glaring evidence that it has not.”  The statement echoed recent opinions by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and by Brazilian academic associations, which have requested a moratorium on the dam until the matter of indigenous consent is resolved.  The Brazilian government reacted harshly against the decision of the IACHR, threatening to remove its representative from the multi-lateral body.

This week’s protests coincided with the dam industry’s official launch of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, a voluntary score card for the dam industry to measure how well it complies with social and environmental sustainability guidelines.  However, environmental organization International Rivers claimed that the new guidelines are weak, in that they do not require developers to comply with national legislation nor with international policy standards.  The new score card promotes indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, but does not require hydropower developers to obtain it before beginning construction.

Zachary Hurwitz at the IHA Congress


Zachary Hurwitz, International Rivers’ Policy Coordinator, stated that “there is a conflict of interest at the heart of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  While it’s necessary for industry to learn how to do sustainability in the right way, the Protocol substantially increases the risk that hydropower companies will be allowed to greenwash a project while they continue to cut corners behind closed doors.  The new guidelines essentially put the fox in charge of the hen house.”  

The fracas at the conference also reopened older wounds felt by people who were displaced by the Itaipú Dam, currently Brazil’s largest, during the 1980s.  Representatives of the Guaraní tribe, who were displaced by the dam and currently live in run-down encampments on the shores of its reservoir, joined a group of Brazil’s Movement of Dam-Affected People outside the Congress, in protest of what they claimed were structural human rights violations and a lack of transparency in the Brazilian dam industry. 

According to Patxon Metuktire, “Dam-affected people and civil society expect the dam industry to follow national law and international standards in each case, so that projects like Belo Monte and Itaipú, which have great social impacts, don’t go forward.  We won’t accept the dam industry’s greenwashing.”

For more information about the IHA’s Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol: http://www.internationalrivers.org

For more information about the Belo Monte Dam:

For more information about the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre: (Portuguese)

International Rivers is an environmental and human rights organization with staff in four continents. For over two decades, International Rivers has been at the heart of the global struggle to protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.