Brazil Bars a Critic from UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Confronted on all sides by criticism and legal challenges to its Belo Monte dam project, Brazil has now blocked a human rights advocate from attending a United Nations conference on indigenous issues. It had recently come to Brazil’s attention that the indigenous activist Azelene Kaingáng would be attending the meeting and was expected to address Brazil’s legal missteps surrounding the hugely controversial hydroelectric project at a side event.
Stand in Line to Criticize
Most recently, the human rights body at the Organization of American States joined the chorus of critics when it asked Brazil to suspend its Belo Monte project until it had engaged in appropriate consultations as required by international standards, with the relevant documents translated into indigenous languages, and had taken specific steps to protect affected indigenous peoples. But similar criticisms have been coming from a variety of sources, some of them from within Brazil’s own bureaucracy.
Less than a year ago, James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, made very similar allegations in an official report. Seemingly at each step in the licensing process criticism has come from one or another of Brazil’s agencies, IBAMA (Brazil’s Institute for Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources) or FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), or in the form of a lawsuit filed by a federal prosecutor (ten such have been initiated). Two presidents of IBAMA have even resigned, citing overwhelming pressure from higher-ups to expedite Belo Monte in spite of various legal concerns.
Shutting down a knowledgeable indigenous voice
Ms. Kaingáng, a sociologist by training, has been a Brazilian civil servant for over two decades and is currently employed by Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). Ms. Kaintáng is also herself indigenous and is, independently, an advocate for indigenous human rights who has participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues regularly since its establishment some 10 years ago. Although she is currently employed by FUNAI, Ms. Kaingáng would have been participating in the Forum as an independent advocate.
Ms. Kaingáng co-chaired the Indigenous Caucus at OAS negotiations on its draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples until quite recently, and is exceedingly knowledgeable about the protections of indigenous rights as delineated in international instruments — from the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the Organization of American States — and as enumerated in Brazil’s national legislation and its 1988 constitution.
The side event where Ms. Kaingáng was scheduled to speak about Brazil’s problems surrounding Belo Monte will be on mining, dams and energy and the violation of indigenous rights. It is being co-sponsored by two non-governmental organizations, the Society for Threatened Peoples International (STPI) and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Perhaps Brazil feels it has had enough criticism. Perhaps it particularly dreads a critical voice that is unusually independent, outspoken, knowledgeable and is indigenous and Brazilian to boot. And so, the day before Ms. Kaingáng was to leave for New York, she was informed that she would not be allowed to go.
None of the criticisms or various legal measures have resulted in any slow-down or pause in Belo Monte’s progress. It seems not even to understand what the fuss is about. On its own website, Brazil describes its reaction to the OAS human rights commission request to suspend Belo Monte as one of astonishment. And in response to that request, say headlines in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff has cut off relations with the commission and has recalled Brazil’s ambassador to the OAS, Ruy Casaes.
On the other hand, a growing chorus of critics of Brazil’s behavior, concerning other hydroelectric projects as well as Belo Monte — 70 large dams are planned for the Amazon basin — have been comparing today’s government to the military dictatorship from decades past. Interestingly, Brazil’s environmental legislation was initially enacted during that dictatorship, and was later included in the Democratic Constitution of 1988.