Indigenous rights ignored as Brazil jump-starts power line: prosecutor

World

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil’s move to accelerate construction of an electric line to the northern state of Roraima, which now relies on crisis-ridden Venezuela for power, could violate the rights of indigenous peoples whose land it must cross, a federal prosecutor told Reuters.

Roraima is not connected to the rest of Brazil’s power grid, and its electricity supply from Venezuela has experienced outages amid that country’s economic collapse.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s stance against the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, including his recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president, has raised fears Maduro could cut off power coming across the border.

The power line project to connect Roraima with the power grid in Amazonas state was auctioned off in 2011, but it has been held up in the licensing process. The power line must cut across 120 kms (75 miles) of an indigenous reserve, home to the Waimiri-Atroari, who were nearly wiped out in the last century, complicating the process.

Presidential spokesman Otavio Rego Barros said last week the government would declare the project “of national interest,” allowing it to obtain an installation license in time to start construction in the second half of this year.

That could potentially speed up or skip the step requiring the indigenous tribe to be consulted.

“The measure could be challenged. I’m concerned over the attempt to simplify the debate, as if the Indians were a hindrance or impediment to construction,” Julio Jose Araujo Jr., a federal prosecutor in Amazonas state, said in an interview this week.

Consultations with the affected indigenous people are required but nonbinding for the project’s ultimate approval, and Araujo argued that the obligation has not been taken seriously since the start.

“There is a clear silencing of these groups in the construction of the project, since its conception,” he said

Federal prosecutors have launched various challenges, including one that would have made the consultations binding, but that was struck down by a court in January.

Barros, the presidential spokesman, said the government wants to talk with indigenous leaders but that “the interest of national sovereignty overrides other issues.”

The Waimiri-Atroari have been nearly wiped out since the beginning of the 1900s due to diseases after contact with settlers and after fighting with the military.

“You can call it genocide … it was decades of attacks, massacres and epidemic deaths,” said Stephen Baines, a University of Brasilia anthropologist who studied the group in the 1970s.

Reporting by Luciano Costa; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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