November 3, 2003

Students Vow To Stop Dam

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The Kayapo people of the Amazon region are fighting for their way of life for the second time in 15 years, but this time a group of Cornell students is trying to help by raising awareness for the cause. The group put on a movie and held a discussion on Thursday in the Robert Purcell Community Center auditorium. The movie, created in 1990 by Prof. Terry Turner, anthropology, depicts the Kayapo’s struggle against the Brazilian government in 1989.

The government had planned to build hydroelectric dams along the Xingu, a tributary to the Amazon River along which the Kayapo live. The dams would have flooded the Kayapos’ land and damaged the ecosystems of the forest and river off of which the Kayapo live. The idea to build the dams was first proposed in 1988, but the Kayapo organized a rally in Altamira, Brazil to stop it in 1989.

Publicity

“There were about 200 journalists, so they got a hell of a lot of publicity,” Turner said.

The Altamira rally caused the World Bank, which was to provide the loans for the project, to back out and put international pressure on the Brazilian government not to build the dams. Turner said that this was a watershed moment for indigenous peoples across the world, who saw that they could be successful in their struggles against governments.

The struggle proved to be just the first step, however. The Brazilian government has revived its plans for the dams, causing the Kayapo to once again mobilize. Turner talked briefly about this new situation after the movie.

“The shocking thing is that all this is happening again,” he told the audience at RPCC.

The problem this time is exasperated by developments in Brazil, particularly the coming of ranchers and farmers. Turner said that these farmers are moving onto the Kayapos’ lands and polluting their water with pesticides, killing the fish the Kayapo eat. Now the Kayapo are organizing another rally, and this time they are including other people in the area.

“If [the rally] works, it’s going to have ramifications far beyond the south valley,” Turner said.

One audience member, a member of the Cayuga Nation, was not as optimistic about the far-reaching impact for indigenous people that the Altamira rally had. “We are not winning,” he said. “We need to know what’s happening right on our doorstep, and we don’t.” He asked why, if the Altimira movement was so successful, the problem has come back after only about a decade.

“Looking at the facts, [a lot of people] think there’s nothing to do,” replied Turner. He said that “there’ll be a third time and a fourth time,” but that the Kayapo will win in the end.

Responding to another question, Turner later said that there are many alternatives to the large dams proposed, including wind power and smaller dams, but that these options are not as financially attractive to companies that specialize in huge construction projects. He said that although there are only a small number of these companies, they have a lot of money and power.

Turner also explained that although the Kayapo are small in number, they can use Brazil’s constitution, which is very liberal with respect to its treatment of indigenous peoples, to their advantage. They are also starting to run for local government offices, and they have been organizing other local groups to lobby for their cause.

Levi Namaseb, a visiting scholar with the linguistics department, said he would have liked a more balanced discussion. He thought that the discussion did serve its purpose, but that it would have been better if both sides of the issue had been brought up. “Discussion means exchanging ideas,” he said.

“The purpose of this program is education,” said Ed Pettitt ’05, who organized the event.

“Living in the college environment is very isolating and very guarded,” he said. “Any kind of experience these students can get in the real world is beneficial.”

The group is hosting two additional events in November, each focusing on a different issue concerning indigenous people. On Nov. 15, they will be showing the movie Medicine Man and examining the ethical concerns researchers face when working with indigenous people, and on Nov. 22. they will show The Mission, followed by discussion about what rights missionaries have to preach to these people.


Archived article by Yuval Shavit