Background briefing

Madeira River dams

A series of mega dams is being built as a central part of Brazil’s Accelerated Growth Programme, which aims to stimulate the country’s economic growth by building a huge infrastructure of roads and dams, mainly in the Amazon region.

The size of these projects threatens to harm or destroy vast areas of land, upon which numerous tribal peoples, including several groups of highly vulnerable uncontacted Indians, depend for their survival.

The Jirau and Santo Antonio dams are prominent examples.

The two large dams – the Jirau and Santo Antônio – are being constructed on the Madeira River in the western Amazon in Brazil at an estimated cost of US$15 billion.

Initial construction began in 2008. The Santo Antônio dam was expected to go on-stream in 2011, and the Jirau dam in 2012, but the dams have not yet been completed.

European companies such as France’s GDF Suez and banks such as Spain’s Banco Santander are involved in this project.

The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams.
The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams.
© Clive W. Dennis/Survival

FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs department, has evidence that there are uncontacted Indians living in the areas affected by both dams. Some live as close as 10km to the site of the Jirau dam.

A recent FUNAI report says that the noise of the dam construction has already pushed some of these Indians off their land, into a territory where miners are operating illegally. Any encounter between the uncontacted Indians and miners could spark off conflict.

The uncontacted Indians have little or no immunity to common diseases such as flu and measles introduced by outsiders. Any form of contact threatens to drive them to extinction, as has frequently happened in the past.

Pirahã man in a canoe. The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams, Amazonas state, north-west Brazil.
Pirahã man in a canoe. The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams, Amazonas state, north-west Brazil.
© Clive W. Dennis/Survival

The Jirau and Santo Antônio dams also directly threaten four indigenous peoples of the Upper Madeira basin: the Karitiana, Karipuna, Urueu Wau Wau, and Katawixi. The Parintintin, Tenharim, Pirahã, Jiahui, Torá, Apurinã, Mura, Oro Ari, Oro Bom, Cassupá, and Salamãi tribes could also be affected.

If construction of the dams continues, the project will build new roads, bringing in an influx of loggers, miners, colonists and land grabbers to the area, thus increasing deforestation and harming the hunting and fishing grounds on which the tribes depend for their survival.

Social tensions and violence between outsiders and Indians are likely to erupt as indigenous territories will be targeted for their natural resources.

The dams’ reserves will make waters stagnant, an ideal breeding ground for deadly diseases such as malaria, which are already common in this part of the western Amazon.

There has been very little consultation with indigenous peoples about the project, and they did not give their free, prior and informed consent for the dams to be built.

This is in violation of Brazil’s constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation which has been ratified by Brazil.

If the dam is built, what will happen to the Indians’ way of life? Will anybody bring us food? No. Nobody will bring us anything. We are very worried.
Valmir Parintintin, Indian leader

Valmir Parintintin, leader of a Parintintin Indian community, stated, ‘The government has still not come and spoken to us about what impacts the dam will have. The market, the supermarket of the Indians is the river.

‘If the dam is built, what will happen to the Indians’ way of life? Will anybody bring us food? No. Nobody will bring us anything. We are very worried’.

Domingos Parintintin said, ‘We hope that the project will be stopped, because it is our children who will suffer the consequences. They will no longer have enough fish or enough game to feed themselves’

Please write a letter for the tribes affected by the Madeira River dams. Your letter will get the message to the Brazilian government that tribal peoples’ rights must be upheld.