Raoni, the leader of the indigenous Kayapo peoples located in the Brazilian Amazon, advocated last Thursday at a side event of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, for the discontinuance of the construction of the Belo Monte dam in the Xingu River (located on his land).

At the conference Raoni said, “I am going to ask again here that the Brazilian government stops construction of this dam. I am going to continue defending nature and calling for respect of the forest because my ancestors, my parents lived here first.” Raoni’s people stand firmly with him, as shown both in the video and the featured image, which shows 300 people forming a human sign “Pare [stop] Belo Monte”. The 300 indigenous protestors also planted 500  açai trees to stabilize the riverbed and shoveled out a water pathway through an earthen dam that was created to halt the water flow.

Oh Dam!

The dam will cost $13 billion and flood around 200 square miles of land, displacing anywhere between 16,000 to 40,000 people.  The Xingu River is a life source for the Kayapo, providing them with fish, drinking water, and a bathing source. Creation of the dam would also lead to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation of pristine Amazon land, and other irreversible environmental damages. As Raoni alluded to, his people have lived on this land and protected it for centuries; outsiders should not be able to just walk in and take the land away and destroy it.

What Exactly is Sustainable Development?

As we have discussed in previous blogs, the Rio+20 Earth Summit and complementary discussions are focused mainly on the overarching issue of sustainable development. Dams, and some other large infrastructure projects, are typically not a form of sustainable development when they create more damage than good. When projects , such as large dams, only look at single dimension metrics for growth, like GDP and percent of the population with electricity, they overlook the damages they inflict on the communities the projects are in. The wellbeing of the communities affected by the project must also be taken into account in order to move towards more sustainable development.

Sustainable development provides are more holistic approach to development, taking into account multiple and diverse growth metrics, such as the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs provide ten measurement indicators each for eight important elements of growth:

  • ending poverty and hunger
  • universal education
  •  gender equality
  • child health
  •  maternal health
  • fighting HIV/AIDS
  •  environmental sustainability
  • global partnership

As the MDGs expire in 2015, the Rio+20 delegates have been drafting a document to create Sustainable Development Goals to take their place, and hopefully will help push a shift towards more sustainable development projects, such as Ecolodges like the Achuar-run Kapawi Ecolodge, which bring in profits for the local community while minimizing environmental damage. Ecolodges and other sustainable development projects can also be used as an educational tool to foster environmental stewardship.

More information on the Belo Monte Dam, Raoni & Kapawi Ecolodge: