‘The Amazon is Life’
Q&A with Sheyla Juruna, Indigenous woman warrior from the Brazilian Amazon
If you’ve heard of the Belo Monte Dam and have signed a petition to stop it, you’ve probably seen a picture of Sheyla Juruna, Indigenous woman warrior from the Xingu River Basin of the Brazilian Amazon, who’s spent the last 20 years working to stop this dam from being built on the Xingu River in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.
Photo courtesy Amazon Watch
Sheyla was recently in the United States on a tour of NY, DC and San Francisco to expose what she calls, “the project of death” and make appeals to activists, concerned citizens, foundations and global leaders to support the struggle to defend the Amazon and our entire planet from unchecked and unsustainable “development” that will decimate Indigenous peoples, the true stewards of the Amazon, unless we stop it and promote alternative development and renewable energy for ourselves and our future generations.
During her visit Sheyla spoke at various public events including the Amazon Watch 15 year anniversary luncheon and an evening presentation at the Earth Island Institute. Before she returned to Brazil, I had a chance to ask some specific questions to better understand what was really happening on the ground in Altamira and what we can really do at this time to show our support.
What is the Belo Monte Dam?
It is a “project of death.” If built, it will be the third largest dam in the world after the Three Gorges dam in China and the Itaipu dam on the Brazil/Paraguay border. It is not just one dam, it is a series of dams that will divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile (100km) stretch, flood more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and local settlements and displace more than 40,000 indigenous and local people. Belo Monte is not just one dam. We know our river. The Xingu will not generate the amount of megawatts they promise. They will need to build 5 dams and many more in the future to reach capacity.
How will your people, the Juruna, be directly affected by the dam?
We have already been affected. We have been fighting this dam since 1989. We stopped it then and we have to keep fighting to stop the dam now. If we don’t, our entire way of life will be lost. My people, the Juruna, and the neighboring Arara, live on the Big Bend of the Xingu. If Belo Monte is built, over 100 km of our river at the Big Bend will be diverted and dried up. The river is our life. We depend on river for fishing, drinking and bathing. The river is our economy. The river is our road. That’s how we navigate. I fear that our river will become a river of concrete and I can’t imagine what our lives will be like. Because of all of this, I’m working to stop this and ensure our voices are heard. The life of Indigenous people and the planet are all important.
Photo courtesy Amazon Watch
Since June, when the Brazilian government issued the final installation license for the dam, what has been happening in Altamira?
Social, environmental and cultural impacts all happening right now. On a daily basis, machines are arriving, forests are being destroyed and people from all across Brazil are arriving in search of work. 90,000 people are expected to arrive. They are arriving to no social services or land available for sale, which is causing conflicts and displacement of local people. Everyday I see farmers crying for being forced off their land. Imagine someone that’s 70 years old and being forced off their land. Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to start over? We’re seeing this happening in front of our eyes and don’t know what to do. Due to the social impacts that are happening in front of our eyes, The City of Altamira, previously in favor of the project, has recently come out strongly against the project.
Did the Brazilian government ever consult the indigenous or local communities regarding the project?
No. The government is moving forward in a very unjust manner. It has denied our right to health care and education, which are supposed to be guaranteed by government, but only being offered only in exchange for opposing the project. This project is a continued project of domination/colonization that began with the Portugese hundreds of years ago. We’ve never been heard, but we have ideas and alternative ways of life that should be respected. While the government says it respects human rights, it is doing the opposite. It is imposing this project on us, similar to what it did with the Trans-Amazon Highway 30 years ago, dividing our communities and not offering us any options for sustainable alternatives for our communities. For these reasons, the Federal Public Prosecutor (MPF) has filed 14 lawsuits for violations of social and environmental conditions. Additionally, we have filed a petition at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights requesting suspension of the project because Indigenous communities have not been properly consulted. We’ve been threatened, not consulted.
How are the communities in the Xingu Basin responding?
Via the Xingu Alive Forever Movement (MXVPS), the Indigenous, riverbank, farming and local communities have been working together to resist the project and call for alternatives. We are working locally and organizing nationally and internationally with our allies across the country and around the world. We have been resisting for over 20 years now and we will not stop until we stop this “project of death.” We have petitioned and protested the government, we have filed national and international lawsuits, we have engaged celebrities and the media, but the government is still not listening to us. The only thing we have is our voices, our words, and our stories to share with the world so that people know what’s happening and can support us. All of us united can stop this project.
What are your alternative development proposals?
First of all, let me say that we are not against development, but we want alternative development. We want clean, renewable energy that doesn’t destroy the environment and our lives but we are never given the right to propose alternatives. The government, however, doesn’t want to hear about alternatives. They only want one form of energy… hydroelectricity. The government has plans to build over 60 dams in the Amazon in the next 20 years. If this happens, the Amazon will be completely destroyed. This is not just a passionate or emotional battle… this is a battle to defend our lives.
What can we do to support the campaign to defend the Xingu and stop the Belo Monte Dam?
We’re calling on the world to show their support for the last stand to defend the Xingu. It’s not just about our people or the people of the Amazon. It’s for the whole world and our future generations. The Amazon is life. I consider the Amazon to be the “first world.” The world is being threatened by this project. I don’t believe the “first world” is developed. It’s all concrete and people can’t breathe and now they want to develop the Amazon. If this happens, the Amazon will die and the entire world will be affected.
We need to work together to raise awareness and financial support. We need financial support so that we can take action against the dam in the region. This is very difficult to organize. There are 25 different Indigenous tribes in various villages totaling more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples. There are also fisherfolk, farmers and city dwellers that are affected and need support. Please get involved and donate to the Xingu Urgent Action Fund.
Lastly, I want to say that we need to pressure the financiers and companies benefitting from this project. BNDES (the Brazilian National Development Bank) is financing 80 percent of the Belo Monte Dam project, as well as other destructive projects throughout the Amazon. Most companies are Brazilian, like mining company Vale, but there’s also Alcoa (based in NY) who wants to set up a mining plant in Altamira and turbine manufacturers based in Europe: Alstorm, Andriz, Voltz Siemens.