Brazil's Indigenous People Resist Large River Modifications

BRASILIA, BRAZIL, May 30, 2001 (ENS) - Leaders of the Apinaje, Kraho, Xerente, Tapuia, and Karaja indigenous peoples gathered from May 24 to 28 at the Boto Velho village on the Bananal Island to discuss the impacts of large development projects on indigenous areas in the region.

The indigenous peoples are meeting to strengthen their common position in relation to the impact of these large projects on their lives.

This week's gathering is the first of a series of meetings to be held in the states of Goias and Tocantins, according to the Indianist Missionary Council (CIMI). Meetings are scheduled to take place in June in the Tapuia village in Goias, and the Xerente and Apinaje villages in Tocantins.


(Photo courtesy Paulo Travel)
The indigenous peoples of this region are suffering the effects of activities ranging from the construction of dams and hydroelectric power plants to waterways like the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway.

The official purpose of the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway is to facilitate river navigation in the eastern Amazon, connecting the central western region of Brazil with Atlantic ports in Brazil's northeast. Authorities say the project would promote agricultural development in Brazil's heartland and in the eastern Amazon by allowing access to markets of grains, fuel and fertilizers.

The project would modify the Mortes, Araguaia and Tocantins Rivers to meet this demand, and the indigenous peoples object that the changes in these rivers will cause the death of the fish and animals which they depend on for survival.

The Tocantins-Araguaia waterway will have an impact on 15 indigenous peoples and 10 conservation units, including the Araguaia National Park.

Other problems for indigenous people arise from ecotourism initiatives and extensive soybean plantations that can directly or indirectly affect their communities.

Most of these projects are contemplated in the Brazil in Action program developed by the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and have specific funds earmarked for them in the federal budget and under multilateral agreements signed with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The encroachment of conservation units upon indigenous areas will also be discussed, and for this reason Pataxo representatives will be attending a meeting in June to provide an account of their resistance after they reoccupied the Pascoal Mount area in the state of Bahia in 1999.

In the state of Tocantins, part of the Boto Velho indigenous area, where the Karaja and the Javae live, has been encroached upon by the Araguaia National Park where the Bananal Island is also located.

Bananal Island is considered the largest fluvial island in the world. Sport fishing in the Araguaia River attracts many visitors, and several tourist agencies provide packages with lodging and boats. Critics complain that the tourist businesses respect neither the environment, the indigenous people, nor the law.

Both for the Pascoal Mount and the Bananal Island, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) supports what it calls a "joint management" proposal. CIMI says this joint management plan is "unconstitutional and restricts the right of usufruct and permanent possession of the land by indigenous peoples."

This has created tension between indigenous people and the environmental agency, CIMI observers report. Like the Pataxo, the Javae and Karaja want the land to be demarcated as an indigenous area and resent IBAMA’s presence in the area. The exchange of resistance experiences will favor the struggle of indigenous peoples against the encroachment of conservation units upon indigenous areas in various regions.

These meetings are a continuation of a resistance movement against large projects launched by the indigenous peoples in November of 1999. Then, a commission formed by 50 indigenous representatives of the Apinaji, Javai, Xerente, Karaja, Tapirapi and Kraht peoples, 16 riverside communities and peasants affected by the Lajeado hydroelectric power station in Tocantins met in Brasilia to repudiate the construction of the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway and the hydroelectric stations planned for the region.