Brazilian Indians gather to end protest against Amazon dam

By Alan Clendinning
Altamira, Brazil (AP) 5-08

Hundreds of Amazon Indians capped a five-day protest against the construction of a multibillion dollar dam by swimming in the river they say it will destroy.

“Xingu, alive and free forever!” sang the crowd as feathered and painted women bathed their children in the half-mile (0.8-kilometer) wide river and men splashed about to show how they hunt for fish they fear the dam will eradicate.

“We’re here to defend our river,” said Moxia Parakana, a chief who uses his tribe’s name for his last name. “If the dam is built, where are we going to live? The fish will go away.”

Critics say the dam will swallow rain forest, kill off native fish and flood an area so large that 16,000 people will be displaced.

The gathering in this small city of 70,000 was a peaceful end to an event that saw tensions rise when an engineer for the national electric company was attacked after giving a speech on why Brazil needs the dam.

Indians wielding machetes pushed Paulo Fernando Rezende to the floor on May 18, ripped off his shirt and left his right shoulder with bloody gash that had to be closed with stitches.

Indians in Brazil frequently carry weapons both on and off their reservations.

Dam opponents claimed Rezende’s injury was blown out of proportion in an attempt to shut Indians out of planning on the dam.

“They must be consulted and they haven’t been,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Erwin Krautler, whose diocese encompasses Altamira and many isolated communities along the Xingu River. “Indians have been massacred in Brazil for centuries and no one ever did anything for them.”

The US$6.7 billion (euro4.3 billion) Belo Monte dam is projected to produce 6.3 percent of Brazil’s electricity by 2014, feeding clean energy to the country’s southeastern industrial base, its rapidly developing northeastern coast and the jungle manufacturing zone of Manaus along the Amazon River.

Critics say the rising water will transform 87 miles (140 kilometers) of flowing river into stagnant puddles, submerge thousands of homes, kill fish that Indians and others depend upon, and increase mosquito-borne diseases like malaria.

Bishop Krautler also says it will cause deforestation of the Amazon rain forest for cattle ranches and farms, leading poor farm workers into debt slavery and encouraging land grabs by the region’s infamous “pistoleiros.”

Idalino Nunes de Assis, who heads a group of poor riverside dwellers, said the government has failed to recognize that “the Xingu is our way of life, and we depend on it.”

“The Xingu does not deserve to be condemned to death,” he said.