OP-ED: IRONY OVERLOAD: Rebuked by OAS for Not Providing Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to Indigenous Peoples, Brazilian Diplomat to Speak at UN Briefing on Indigenous Rights and their Need for FPIC

By Rebecca Sommer

New York, NY (28 April 2011) The United Nations Department of Public Information (UN DPI) has invited Brazilian diplomat Alan Coêlho, Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the UN, to make opening remarks at a briefing for non-governmental organizations on indigenous rights and the need for free, prior and informed consent in mining and development projects. The briefing is in advance of next week’s session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). 

Just 3 days ago Brazil responded officially, albeit not publicly, to the Precautionary Measure issued on 1 April by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – a body of the Organization of American States (OAS) -- on behalf of a dozen indigenous communities of the Xingu River basin. Precautionary Measures are undertaken by the Commission only in serious or urgent situations, to “prevent irreparable harm to persons,” among other reasons. In this instance, the IACHR has called on Brazil to halt the licensing of the megadam Belo Monte project until it has fulfilled its international obligation to engage in free, prior and informed consent and has taken certain specified protective measures. 

Specifically, the Precautionary Measure (MC 382-10) requests Brazil to

  • perform consultations that are “free, prior, informed, in good faith, and culturally appropriate, with the goal of reaching an agreement…”,
  • provide affected indigenous groups with the Social and Environmental Impact Assessment in an appropriate, accessible language, 
  • adopt “vigorous and comprehensive measures” to protect the lives and personal integrity of the members of the indigenous groups recently observed in voluntary isolation in the Xingu River basin (these groups were observed for the first time only in 2010), and 
  • adopt measures, also “vigorous and comprehensive,” to prevent the spread of diseases and epidemics which would likely be caused by a massive influx of new population into the area.  

 

Despite statements to the contrary by Brazil, and according to both agencies of the Brazilian government the above conditions have not been met. 

  • All the indigenous peoples that will be affected by the project have not been consulted with. In fact, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has expressed his concern more than once, and specifically noted that the consultation process was carried out in a way such that the indigenous peoples themselves were not able to participate; on the contrary, the consultations took place in urban areas inhabited by people that will not be affected by the project. 
  • The Social and Environmental Impact Assessment has not been made available in appropriate and accessible languages to all the various groups of indigenous peoples who will be affected. 
  • Concerning the recently observed indigenous groups still living in voluntary isolation a mere 70 kilometres from the proposed dam site -- by far the most vulnerable group -- their territory has not even been determined, much less demarcated, and thus none of the appropriate and necessary measures for their physical protection, and to ensure their continued survival, have been taken. 
  • No attempts have been made to provide the physical protection that might prevent the spread of diseases or epidemics brought in by an influx of population., nor have steps been taken to provide specific measures requested by indigenous groups -such as the posting of guards to protect their territories from the invariable and unwanted influx of newcomers to the area looking for wood, food, water and places to live.

In spite of all the concerns stated by so many actors, including various authorities and experts, the Brazilian Government, in its initial response on 4 April, “noted with astonishment” the measures that the IACHR requested to ‘safeguard the lives and personal integrity of members of indigenous peoples’ supposedly [emphasis added] threatened by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant.”  The response by the Ministry of External Relations recognizes the need for technical, economic and environmental feasibility studies and for consultations with the affected indigenous communities, and names Brazil’s environmental agency (IBAMA) and its National Indian Agency (FUNAI) as responsible for carrying out these studies and consultations.

 

At various points in the long history of the Belo Monte Dam project, both IBAMA and FUNAI officials have expressed reservations and have listed numerous conditions that they say must be met before the Belo Monte project could go forward, but which to date have not actually been met, despite the Brazilian Government’s protestations to the contrary. In spite, or perhaps because, of the official approval of the Brazilian Government of the project, at least three officials have resigned, supposedly due to high level political pressure to approve Belo Monte. Two senior IBAMA officials, Leozildo Tabajara da Silva Benjamin and Sebastião Custódio Pires, resigned in 2009, and IBAMA President Abelardo Azevedo resigned in January 2011. Roberto Mesias, a previous president of IBAMA, also stepped down, but pointed to pressure from both sides of the issue -- the Government and environmental organizations – as his reason. 

 

 The project has been stopped and started more than once. The gravest deficiency noted by many observers is indeed the lack of participation in real consultations based on free, prior and informed consent. 

 

Thus, it is more than a little ironic that Brazil is providing opening remarks at a briefing on the need for free, prior and informed consent and indigenous peoples rights.

 

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Rebecca Sommer is the representative to the UN for the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples International,in consultative status to the United Nations ECOSOC and in participatory status with the Council of Europe. She is a contributor to Huntington News Network on environmental subjects and indigenous peoples.

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