Anti-dam activists share struggles

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate March 13, 2014 05:13 pm

Local river activists, Indian youths travel to support crusade against Brazilian dam

Team Klamazon members pose with their hosts, Xikrin villagers of Poti-Kro, at the banks of the Xingu River in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin.
Team Klamazon members pose with their hosts, Xikrin villagers of Poti-Kro, at the banks of the Xingu River in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin. Photo courtesy of Team Klamazon
When Team Klamazon, a group of river activists and Indian youths from the Klamath River basin, visited the Amazon in February, the local indigenous people’s response to their presence was eerie:

“We did not know there were any indigenous left in North America. We saw a movie once, a Western; in it you were all being killed. It brings us hope to see you here now standing in front of us,” said a representative of the Xikrin indigenous people in the village of Poti-Kro on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon in Brazil.

The Xingu, which drains an area the size of California, is currently undergoing the largest dam construction project in the world.  Once finished, the Belo Monte Dam will be the third-largest hydroelectric dam ever built. The Xikrin people have been fighting the dam since it was proposed 30 years ago and have continued even while the project has broken ground. It was their struggle that attracted the group from Northern California, who have been fighting their own battle to take down dams in the Klamath Basin.

Rekindling hope

Mahlija Florendo, Yurok and Team Klamazon member, helps collect cooking wood at Poti-Kro.
Mahlija Florendo, Yurok and Team Klamazon member, helps collect cooking wood at Poti-Kro. Photo courtesy of Maira Irigaray, Amazon Watch
It took an 8-hour boat ride up the Xingu for the Klamazon group to reach the village of Poti-Kro, where they spent three days experiencing the local culture, avoiding tarantulas, playing with pet monkeys and parrots, receiving traditional face tattoos, hunting for anaconda, and building solidarity against massive dam projects.

“Our message was: don’t give up the fight because everywhere across the Earth indigenous are standing up for their rights,” said Dania Rose Colegrove, a Yurok and Hoopa tribal member who 
co-organized the trip to Brazil and who has also organized rallies in support of the removal of four Klamath Dams.

Colegrove said that the meeting of indigenous to indigenous, from North to South America, had deep meaning as the groups shared their cultures through songs and dance.

Nat Pennington, an Orleans-based river activist who co-organized the trip, and with Colegrove was the only other Klamazon member older than 20, said that the Xikrin people have been at a “low point” since construction started despite their protests.  Meeting with other American Indians experienced with anti-dam campaigns was meaningful to them.

“Honestly I think we rekindled their sense of hope,” Pennington said. “It was much more of a big deal than any of us ever imagined.”

Lost livelihoods

After leaving Poti-Kro, Team Klamazon chartered a small plane to capture video footage of the dam construction and its effect on the Xingu basin.

“My heart sank as the construction site of Belo Monte Dam appeared on the horizon,” Pennington said in a statement. “Shades of green and blue that I had never seen before in my life turned to eroding brown mud fields, yellow cranes, thousands of dump trucks, concrete walls, massive diversion canals and huge levees.”

A Xikrin chief holds a jar of Klamath River smoked salmon provided by Sammy Gensaw’s grandfather.
A Xikrin chief holds a jar of Klamath River smoked salmon provided by Sammy Gensaw’s grandfather. Maira Irigaray, Amazon Watch
While traveling by boat on the  Xingu River, the Klamazon members saw villages already inundated by the dam. Roofs of thatched huts  barely poked above the water. The group visited a former village site accompanied by one of the many local Xikrin people who had been relocated for the project.

“There were six dump trucks waiting in line to dump rock for the dam parked on top of her former home site and she started crying,” Pennington said.

The $14.4 billion Belo Monte Dam project has been controversial since its outset, so much so that a government engineer was cut with a machete during a 2008 public hearing on the project in Altamira, according to an article by the Economist.

“With tens of millions of its citizens moving out of poverty, Brazil can satisfy demand only if it adds around 6,000 (mega-watts) each year for the next decade,” the article states.  

Altino Ventura, Brazil’s secretary of planning and development, said that the Belo Monte dam and other future dams planned are using “run of river” designs, which use the river’s natural flow instead of large reservoirs — avoiding environmental impact, according to the Economist.

But the indigenous people encountered by Team Klamazon insisted that the dams will signal an end to their way of life. Already the first dam has prevented travel in the region, which was typically done by boat.

“Even the bulldozers are brought in by boat. It would be like if someone closed Highway 101 between Crescent City and Humboldt,” Pennington said.

“If the dam is completed, these people will be forced to work in mines, log in the rainforest, or move to the cities to live in slums,” said Sammy Gensaw III, a 20-year-old Yurok tribal member who was with Team Klamazon. “The livelihoods of people who have subsisted from fishing, hunting, farming, and even tourism industries will be lost through the destruction of the ecology of the Xingu River region.”

‘Nation by nation’

In Altamira, a small Amazon Basin town where Team Klamazon held a press conference, anti-dam sentiment clashes with thousands of workers who support Norte Energia, the company behind Belo Monte.

The press conference that was planned for an hour, lasted more than four hours and attracted over 80 people, television stations, newspaper reporters and passionate cries for solidarity.

“We live in an era where we have to fight to retain our natural rights and cultures, but our generation is strong and we will not back down in the war against shortsighted greed like what’s happening with Belo Monte,” said 15-year-old Klamazon member Halle Pennington. “We may not win every battle but if we don’t fight at all, we have already lost.”

Since completely stopping Belo Monte feels like a losing battle, the Klamazon crew emphasized the importance of documenting the losses incurred so the people can fight to be justly compensated.

“It’s important to realize that it’s incredibly valuable to capture the destruction that’s happening at Belo Monte because that’s the best way to provide evidence against any more of these projects that claim to be in the name of progress but are really wreaking havoc,” Pennington said.  “Working as a fish biologist on the Klamath River, I witnessed dams sending fisheries like this to the brink of extinction.”

Team Klamazon is hoping to arrange for some of the Xikrin people to visit the Klamath Basin in the near future, strengthening relationships already formed.

“I believe we are in a revolutionary era,” Gensaw said at the press conference. “No longer will location, language or government segregate us, but let the pain of believing we are alone be soothed by the knowledge that in solidarity we will stand. First village by village, then tribe by tribe, and finally nation by nation.”

The members of Team Klamazon were Dania Rose Colegrove, Nathaniel Pennington, Anna Rose Colegrove, Sammy Gensaw III, Damien Scott, Mahlija Florendo, and Halle Pennington.

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