Latin American indigenous groups join forces to fight dams

Meeting of indigenous people to discuss strategy ahead of Rio+20 Indigenous communities are increasingly coming together to plan strategies

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When Brazilian indigenous leader Tashka Yawanawa saw the news on television that communities from Peru were campaigning to prevent the construction of dams close to their land, he had no doubt about how he could help.

He turned on his computer, and using Skype, he contacted indigenous movements involved in the protest to offer both his support and to publicise the cause in Brazil.

"Today, indigenous groups can no longer escape the white man's technology," says Mr Yawanawa.

"We have to update ourselves, and prepare to face this new world."

He belongs to the Yawanawa people, who live in the Brazilian Amazon, an area where indigenous communities have also fought many battles against hydroelectric dams.

An aerial view shows rivers converging in the Isiboro Secure indigenous territory and national park (Tipnis) in Beni 19 April 2012 Indigenous land is often rich in resources or lies on a strategic route

He leads an organisation that seeks to build links with similar movements in other Latin American countries so they can learn from each other's campaigns.

His initiative reflects an unprecedented effort among the region's indigenous groups, as they join forces to resist major projects which they see as damaging to their territories.

It is part of a growing conflict as governments, seeking what they say is badly needed economic growth, build roads and hydro-electric dams, and exploit natural resources such as oil, copper and gold.

At the same time, indigenous groups say they are fighting to ensure that their traditional way of life is preserved.

Skype is one tool they are using to co-ordinate campaigns, alongside more traditional tactics such as adopting a unified position in international organisations including the UN and the Organisation of American States (OAS).

"We are mapping all the achievements of our fellow indigenous peoples in the continent in order to use their experiences here in Brazil," says Marcos Apurina from the Co-ordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab).

"Our problems are almost identical to the native peoples of other countries."

'Green economy'

This approach has been led by large national indigenous organisations and regional movements such as the Co-ordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (Coica).

Start Quote

Geraldo Manchineri

For me, travelling from Peru to Brazil means only crossing a river”

End Quote Geraldo Manchineri

Coica operates across national boundaries, helping groups in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

Coica's work also involves organising meetings and workshops to help indigenous communities learn about international conventions, and also tips on lobbying and dealing with people in positions of power.

These gatherings allow indigenous leaders to discuss ways of putting pressure on governments to demarcate their territories.

They also discuss how international bodies can help guarantee indigenous rights or prevent major economic projects from having a detrimental impact.

"We are concerned about the new form of development known as the 'green economy'. We understand this as an effort to exploit natural resources in indigenous territories," says Rodrigo de la Cruz from Coica.

Some key areas of dispute


San Juan Ostuncalco and Cabrican Huitan (Quetzaltenango).
Gold mining.

Indigenous groups are trying to stop gold mining which started in the region in 2005. They say that the rivers have been contaminated and that the wealth generated does not benefit the local population.


Bolanos-Huejuquilla (Jalisco)
Road building

Indigenous community of Huicholes (wixarika) have been fighting against the construction of the road that will link Bolanos to Huejuquilla. They say that the works, under way since 2005, are displacing indigenous people, destroying sacred sites and affecting water supplies.


Road building and electrical integration

Designed to link Central America with Colombia to the south, and Mexico to the north. The Plan Puebla-Panama (renamed the Mesoamerica Project) provides billion-dollar investments in roads and electrical installations. Indigenous peoples of the region want to be consulted on works and fear its effects.


Tumaco (Narino) to Puerto Assis (Putumayo)
Transport corridor

Indigenous groups say that the billion-dollar project, which is in the study phase and aims to link Tumaco on the Pacific to Belem in Brazil, would go through ancestral indigenous territories was not submitted to prior consultation, as required by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).


1: Manta (Manabi)
Transport corridor

Ongoing work to connect Manta on the Pacific to the Brazilian city of Manaus, including roads, airports and inland waterway connection. Indigenous groups say the works will affect territories along the Napo River and say they have not been consulted on the project.

2: Yasuni National Park (Pastaza, Orellana)
Oil exploration

Dubbed Project ITT, the project threatens uncontacted tribes in Ecuador, according to local indigenous organisations. They are demanding that the government ensures the integrity of indigenous territories, according to UN guidelines for isolated people.


1: Altamira (Para)
Hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte.

Indigenous people from 28 ethnic groups living in the Xingu River basin - with approximately 20,000 members, say the work will reduce the flow of the river, affecting fish and will attract migrants to the region. They also say they were not consulted about the work and are trying to stop it in court.

2: Northeast of Minas Gerais and the Northeast.
Diverting the course of the Sao Francisco River.

Indigenous movements say at least 18 communities, some of which do not have state-demarcated territories, may be affected by the work to divert the river. They also say they have not been consulted. One group reported the effects of the work to the UN.


Department of Madre de Dios
Road building and oil and gas exploration

Indigenous movements say the Interoceanic Highway, that will connect Peru to Brazil, has encouraged the arrival of illegal miners in the Peruvian Amazon who then invade indigenous lands and pollute rivers. They want the government to restrict the action of these groups and halt oil and gas exploration in the region.


1: Isiboro Secure National Park (Tipnis) in provinces of Beni and Cochabamba.
Road building
Indigenous groups say the road, which will be financed by Brazil and built by a Brazilian company, will affect people of the Tipnis area. Protests last year paralyzed construction. The government says it will consult indigenous groups before resuming.

2: Pacajes, La Paz
Copper mining
Indigenous groups say mining in the Jach'a Suyu Pakajaqui community, with investments of $200m, was started without an environmental licence and diverted the course of a river as well as polluting it. The community appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to try to stop the project.


Border with Argentina
Gold mining

The indigenous Huascoaltinos oppose the Pascua Lama Project, that started 10 years ago. They say the project has caused environmental damage and have reported the government to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).


Copper mining
Mapuche indian communities Mellao Morales and Huenctru Trawel Leufu have been trying since 2008 to annul copper mining contracts which they say violate indigenous and environmental laws. Works were halted by court decisions so that they can be consulted.

Several projects in the Brazil-Peru border region aim to expand the economic and transport integration between the two countries in the coming years.

The Inter-Oceanic Highway, connecting the north-west of Brazil to Peruvian ports on the Pacific coast, was inaugurated in 2011.

According to indigenous movements, this has brought several problems to the region, such as deforestation and illegal mining.

Jaime Corisepa, president of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (Fenamad), says that conditions may worsen if other projects go ahead.

One is the planned construction of six hydro-electric dams in Peru to supply the Brazilian market.

Protest in Cajamarca in Peru against gold mining project (November 2011) Mining has been the focus of protests in several countries

Protests forced the Peruvian government to suspend this project and to start a process of local consultation.

Using new technology and holding regional summits are ways to co-ordinate protests, but indigenous campaigners are also building on relationships that existed long before national boundaries and laws were established.

Marcela Vecchione, from the Pro-Indian Commission (CPI) in the Brazilian state of Acre, in Brazil, says that in many areas, indigenous communities are divided by artificial boundaries.

That is the case of the Manchineri people, divided by a border in 1904 when Brazil annexed the state of Acre.

"I often visit my family on the other side of the border. For me, travelling from Peru to Brazil means only crossing a river," says Geraldo Manchineri.

But thanks to technology, communication across much longer distances has become easier.

Indigenous leaders hope to take advantage of this new way of co-ordinating and gather 1,200 people in Rio de Janeiro this June when world leaders will come together for the Rio+20 meeting.

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