LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The leader of Brazil’s Munduruku indigenous people has appealed for international support to protect his people’s ancestral forest land in the remote Amazon following the defeat of a mega-dam project that attracted celebrities including Paul McCartney.
After a lengthy struggle, the Brazilian government announced earlier this month that it would suspend plans for the $9 billion Sao Luiz de Tapajos hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, citing likely impacts on indigenous people and the environment.
The project would have flooded nearly 400 square km of forest that is home to the 12,000-strong Munduruku people, according to Greenpeace.
Munduruku chief, Arnaldo Kaba Munduruku, made a five day journey from the Tapajos basin of northern Para State to London this week to win backing to fight on until the lands around the dam site are legally recognized as belonging to his people.
The chief is seeking to build international pressure on Brazil’s government and has so far won the support of dozens of celebrities including sculptor Anish Kapoor, Scottish singer Annie Lennox, and British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.
“When we look to the future, what we want is no construction of dams in our territory,” Munduruku, wearing a headpiece of blue and orange feathers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London.
The Sao Luiz de Tapajos dam is just one of several dams planned on the Tapajos River where the 12,000-strong Munduruku people traditionally fish and bathe, and which plays a central role in their mythology and culture.
The dam would have been one of Brazil’s largest hydroelectric dams with a capacity of about 8,000 megawatts.
Munduruku, in London for the first time, said gaining formal recognition of lands will be a crucial factor in preserving the river basin for his people, the largest indigenous group living along the river.
Between meeting supporters and the media in the British capital, Munduruku visited the British Museum, where curators sought out Munduruku artifacts stored in its vaults to show him before he makes the journey back to the remote inner Amazon.
“I have realized how careful you are with the objects displayed there,” said Munduruku, 57.
“But the Brazilian government is not taking care of our sacred places, of our sacred objects, so our fight is because of that.”
The Munduruku live across the northern part of the Tapajos Basin in two regions already recognized by Brazil’s government as protected territories - the Munduruku and Sai Cinza Indigenous lands - as well as an area down river around the village of Sawre Muybu, near the Sao Luiz de Tapajos site.
All along the Tapajos River are places sacred to the Munduruku. The “Crossing of the Pigs” is at the center of the Munduruku creation story, the place where they believe the river was created by Karosakaybu, an ancestor with supernatural powers.
The Munduruku are facing a two-pronged struggle - to halt further dam projects and gain recognition for the Sawre Muybu territory.
The decision to suspend the first dam came after a study by Brazil’s indigenous affairs department Funai in April said the presence of local tribes in the area made it inviable, prompting regulator Ibama to suspended the dam’s environmental license..
But the government has not yet approved Munduruku’s application for full federal recognition of the Sawre Muybu lands as an indigenous territory, which would provide stronger legal protections against development in future.
Brazil gets around three quarters of its power from hydro-electric dams, which the government has called a clean source of energy. But Sara Ayech, Greenpeace UK forests campaigner, said a goal of Munduruku’s trip is to argue that no dam which floods traditional lands can be “clean”.
Munduruku is also concerned that amid Brazil’s political turmoil there is no guarantee the suspension will hold.
“How are our grand-children going to live?” he said. “If the dams are built, they will not know how the Munduruku used to live because everything will be destroyed.”