Legal battles for Earth: Amazon defenders & James Cameron stall dam; Malaysian Judge gives lands back to rainforest community
Avatar director James Cameron played a part in halting an industrial development project that threatens indigenous people of the Amazon.
Palm oil plantation. Inset: deforestation by a logging company around a Penan village in the Middle Baram region in Sarawak.
The Avatar director and one of its stars have played a part in halting an industrial development project that threatens indigenous people of the Amazon. Earlier this week, we brought you the story of James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver's trip to Brazil to raise awareness of the indigenous communities’ battles to stop the massive Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest. We are now happy to report that the Dam Project Auctions have been canceled, and both stars are now in Washington DC for meetings with US Government officials.
Judge Antonio Carlos de Almeida Campelo granted a preliminary injunction (urgent) seeing “danger of irreparable harm” considering the imminence of the auction. The decision is the result of the assessment of one of two public civil actions filed by federal prosecutors dealing with irregularities of the enterprise. It focuses specifically on the lack of regulation of Article 176 of the Federal Constitution of Brazil, which requires the issuing of an ordinary law for the use of hydraulic potential on Indian lands.
"It remains proven unequivocally that the Belo Monte hydroelectric will exploit the hydro energetic potential in areas occupied by indigenous people who will be directly affected by the construction and development of the project," the judge said in his statement.
If built, the project would divert 80 percent of the flow of the Xingu River along a 100-km length of the river, drying the lifeline of tens of thousands who depend on the river for their survival. Over 20,000 people would be forced from their homes.
SAO PAULO - Amazon Rainforest Defenders and James Cameron Win Bid to Stall Dam Project. Environmentalists aided by "Avatar" director James Cameron celebrated a big win Thursday after a judge suspended bidding on construction and operation of an Amazon dam that would be the planet's third-largest.
The ruling also resulted in the suspension of the hydroelectric project's environmental license. It was reminiscent of 1989, when rock star Sting protested the same dam alongside Indians in an event that helped persuade international lenders not to finance it at a time when Brazil was shuddering under a heavy foreign debt.
The administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is vowing to appeal, however. And Brazil, with government reserves of $240 billion, has such a booming economy that it no longer needs money from abroad to build the $11 billion Belo Monte dam.
Environmental groups and Amazon Indians "are incredibly energized by this decision and have renewed hope, although no one is naive," said Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch. "Everyone recognizes that in Brazil, a decision like this could be overturned quickly, and that we haven't won the battle yet."
Increasing international condemnation won't reverse Brazilian policy makers' view that the dam is essential to provide a huge injection of renewable energy, said Christopher Garman, director of Latin American analysis at the Eurasia Group in Washington. "This dam is going to happen. It's just a matter of when it happens," Garman said.
Brazil has a fragile energy grid that was hit last year by a blackout that darkened much of the nation. Belo Monte would supply 6 percent of the country's electricity needs by 2014, the same year Brazil will host soccer's World Cup and just two years before Rio holds the 2016 Olympics.
Soltani disagreed that the construction of the 11,000-megawatt dam is inevitable, saying Cameron's involvement was a major advance and attracted attention that could "create pressure on the (Silva) administration and on the Brazilian public, and hopefully will encourage the Brazilian public to take a stand."
Neither Silva nor top administration officials commented on Wednesday night's court ruling, but the president made it clear just before the decision was made public that he thinks the dam is necessary to meet skyrocketing electricity demand in the nation of more than 190 million. He also took on the project's critics, both domestic and foreign.
"No one worries more about taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we do," Silva said in a speech in Sao Paulo. Without mentioning Cameron by name, Silva said people from developed nations should not lecture Brazil on the environment because those countries mowed down their own forests long ago. "We don't need those who already destroyed (what they had) to come here and tell us what to do," he said.
Bidding had been scheduled to take place next Tuesday, but the judge said more time is needed to examine claims that Indians were not consulted about the project and that insufficient environmental protections were put in place.
"It's a small victory for us, but I don't expect the battle is over," Cameron told The Associated Press by phone from the small Amazon city of Altamira.
Government lawyers were analyzing the decision Thursday and would file an appeal soon, according to a spokeswoman for the solicitor general's office who spoke on condition of anonymity due to department policy.
The director of "Avatar" and "Titanic" spent two days this week visiting Indian villages near the proposed dam site on the Xingu River, which feeds the Amazon, and talking with about 50 leaders of various groups. Along with actress Sigourney Weaver, Cameron also joined a protest in the capital of Brasilia, calling the fight against the project a "real-life Avatar" battle.
"Avatar" depicts the fictitious Na'vi race fighting to protect its homeland, the forest-covered moon Pandora, from plans to extract its resources. The movie has struck a chord with environmentalists from China, where millions have been displaced by major infrastructure projects, to Bolivia, where President Evo Morales praised its message of saving nature from exploitation.
Environmentalists and indigenous groups say Belo Monte would devastate wildlife and the livelihoods of 40,000 people who live in the area to be flooded. They also argue that the energy generated by the dam will largely go to big mining operations, instead of benefiting most Brazilians.
Malaysian palm oil grower loses case over damages to rainforest community. IOI group suffered a legal setback this week when the Miri High Court — a court for Miri District in Sarawak, a state in Malaysian Borneo — ruled that the palm oil grower is liable for damages caused by the destruction of land belonging to Long Teran Kanan, a Kayan native community. The legal battle has dragged on for 12-years but now represents an important precedent for forest-dependent communities in Malaysia, reports the Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO that campaigns on behalf of Sarawak's forest people.
According to the Borneo Resources Institute Malaysia (BRIMAS), Senior Assistant Registrar of the Miri High Court, Abdul Raafidin bin Majidi on behalf of Justice Datuk Abdul Aziz bin Adul Rahim, ruled that members of the village of Long Teran Kanan possess native customary rights over land that had been granted to IOI by the Sarawak state government. The court said the leases had been issued unconstitutionally and were therefore "null and void."
"With this decision, the court declared that the first and second defendants or its agents or servants are trespassing over the native customary rights land of the plaintiffs and that any damages and loss suffered by the plaintiffs be assessed by the Deputy Registrar of the High Court at a date to be fixed," said BRIMAS in a statement. "The court awarded both exemplary and aggravated damages against the defendants."
The defendants — the Sarawak Government Land and Survey Department, the Land Custody Development Authority (Pelita) and IOI Pelita Plantation Sdn. Bhd. — are expected to appeal the decision.
Implications for sustainable palm oil - The court ruling is another blow to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an initiative that aims to improve the environmental performance of palm oil production through a certification standard, says Bruno Manser. IOI is a prominent member of the group, but last month a report from Friends of the Earth linked the palm oil grower to deforestation in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
Legal battles for Sarawak's forest people continue
The Long Teran Kanan ruling comes less than three months after authorities destroyed, without warning, 39 Iban homes in the village of Sungai Sekabai in Sarawak in a dispute between the community and state-backed land developer, Tatau Land Sdn Bhf. A Sarawak court shortly thereafter issued an injunction to prevent further demolition.
One of the destroyed homes belonged to Nor Nyawai, a community leader in Sungai Sekabai who famously won a court case in 2001 which recognized native rights over primary rainforest. But while the ruling set a precedent that strengthened native claims to customary lands in Sarawak, the community of Sungai Sekabai has been battling developers ever since. A timber company at the root of the dispute has cleared much of the forest around the community, replacing it with acacia plantations, despite the 2001 court decision.
The Sarawak state government has long backed industrial interests over those of native peoples like the Penan and Iban, both by investing in projects — including oil palm plantations, mines, hydroelectric projects, and logging operations — and by sending in the military and police to crush local opposition. Its newest scheme is known as SCORE, a set of projects that will turn a large swathe of Sarawak into an industrial corridor for mining and energy development. SCORE includes at least four hydroelectric dams (up to 28,000MW of power), aluminum-smelting and steel plants, coal mines (1.46 billion metric tons), and natural gas development (nearly 41 billion cubic feet), according the state government.
Photos courtesy of Atossa Soltani / Amazon Watch, Onelonetree, and the Bruno Manser Fund
Related article: Commodity trade and urbanization, rather than rural poverty, drive deforestation. Deforestation is increasingly correlated to urban population growth and trade rather than rural poverty, suggesting that measures proposed to reduce deforestation will be ineffective if they fail to address demand for commodities produced on forest lands, argues a new paper published in Nature GeoScience.
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