Monitoring the Flow: Defending Rights on Brazil’s Teles Pires River

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Participants at work on a map in Alta Floresta.

Participants at work on a map in Alta Floresta.
Brent Millikan

A few weeks ago, Amazon Program Director Brent Millikan traveled to the town of Alta Floresta in Matto Grosso state (Brazil) to help organize a workshop that marked an important step towards empowering local communities to defend their lands, rivers and rights.

Alta Floresta is a remote town located near the Teles Pires River, a major tributary of the Tapajós, where local communities are facing the devastating impacts of a cascade of four dams currently under construction: Sinop, Colider, Teles Pires and Sao Manoel. 

Much like the notorious Belo Monte, Santo Antônio and Jirau dams, the planning, licensing and construction of dam projects on the Teles Pires River has been marked by chronic violations of human rights – including the right of indigenous peoples to processes of Free, Prior and Informed Consent – and violations of environmental legislation.  Lawsuits against such gross violations have been paralyzed through political manipulation of the judiciary system in Brazil.  

With the support of International Rivers, the workshop was organized by the “Teles Pires Forum” – a coalition of organizations representing indigenous peoples, fishermen, family farmers and their allies – to discuss strategies for independent participatory monitoring of dam impacts, such as changes in water quality, river hydrology and fish that are essential for local livelihoods.  

Put simply, that means helping local people learn how to accurately keep track of the changes they’re seeing on their river.

Why do communities need to independently monitor dams and their impacts? There’s a profound need for real, credible information about what’s happening on the ground (and in the water!) around these projects. This provides a basis for defending the rights of communities and holding dam builders, financiers and government licensing agencies accountable, while contributing to public debate on future projects. Unfortunately, dam builders control most of the information that comes out, and – unsurprisingly – they have a vested interest in hiding the true social and environmenal impacts of their projects on rivers and local people. 

Lawmakers, decision-makers and local communities need the facts. Without them, more projects will move forward, based on shoddy science and suppressed evidence. And that’s no way to influence decisions that will affect the lives of so many.

Mapping a dam's impacts on the Teles Pires River.

Mapping a dam’s impacts on the Teles Pires River.
Brent Millikan

A Powerful Convergence

The workshop brought together people from all walks of life: social movements, small farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, NGOs and university researchers. Affected people from other parts of the Amazon – including the Xingu, Tocantins, Madeira and Juruena rivers – came as well. They came to speak about the monitoring they’re doing where they live, and what they’ve learned from it.

A major challenge for independent participatory monitoring is to value local knowledge of ecosystems that are the basis of local livelihoods, while using simple, accessible methods. In the workshop, participants took the first step of mapping the Teles Pires River within their territories, and the changes they’re observing.

"Before, during and after" - a map by a workshop participant.

“Before, during and after” – a map by a workshop participant.
Brent Millikan

In this exercise, participants answered some basic questions: What was the river like before, what is it like now, and how do we see it in the future? The answers to these questions formed the basis for discussions on what should be monitored and how it should be done.  For example, in drawing up plans for participatory monitoring, emphasis was given to the involvement of elders and women, whose extensive knowledge of freshwater ecosystems and traditional activities such as fishing is fundamental to understanding dam-related impacts.

As dam builders push forward with plans for hundreds of new dams in the Amazon, affected peoples need more tools to prevent bad projects and demand accountability when projects have been steamrolled through, in disregard for the rule of law. Participatory, independent monitoring creates opportunities to catalogue and expose the effects dams are having along the Teles Pires River, which contributes to defending rights, promoting accountability in the dam industry, and helping to avoid mistakes that must not be repeated elsewhere in the Tapajós basin.