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Xingu Ornamental Fish Collectors Get Dam Reprieve

Posted: December 22, 2011, 8:15 p.m., EDT

By John Dawes

Mention “Altamira” and few people will know what you are referring to. However, mention the singer Sting and his support for Amazonian tribes, and many people will have some recollection of what you are talking about.

It was as long ago as 1989 that Sting gave his support to the tribes of the Xingu in Brazil and attended a meeting held in the city of Altamira in protest at the proposed building of the Belo Monte dam in the region. The world outside Brazil has largely forgotten about this dam. However, the arguments and protests have continued, with the project being approved, then put back, then approved again, and so on.

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There are, and have been, powerful entities pushing for the construction of this dam (which is believed to be the third largest in the world), including the Brazilian government and, in the past, the World Bank. So what on earth could a small organization of ornamental fish collectors, breeders and exporters expect to achieve against such overwhelming odds? Well, remarkably, they were able to get the project halted, at least for the moment. Of course, the authorities haven’t given up on the proposed dam on the River Xingu-there’s a lot at stake-but the courts have acceded to the demands of the ornamental fish association (Associaçao dos Criadores e Exportadores de Peixes Ornamentais de Altamira-Acepoat) and halted proceedings until further notice.

The Xingu ornamental fish collectors, breeders and exporters (who may number as many as 1,000, by the time you take in family members), argued that their livelihoods would be destroyed if the project went ahead, and that it would lead to the extinction of the most important fish species of the region, not least because the dam will cause a reduction of 80 percent of the flow of the River Xingu. The fishermen are backed by several organizations and individuals, including Article 19: the Global Campaign for Free Expression, especially since some estimate that somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people would need to be relocated if the Belo Monte project goes ahead. Other backers include the aforementioned Sting and Hollywood director James Cameron.

In announcing the decision, judge Carlos Eduardo Castro Martíns prohibited the consortium responsible for the construction, Norte Energía S.A. (NESA) from carrying out any work that results in the alteration of the bed of the Rio Xingu, such as the construction of a port, the installation of barrages and dykes, detonation of explosives, and excavation of canals—in effect, any work that interferes with the natural course of the river that could have consequences for its ichthyofauna. Nonetheless, construction of residences and other features can continue, since they don’t interfere with either navigation or fishing activities. Any violations of the prohibition, though, will carry a penalty of Reais200,000 (approx. U.S.$110,000) per day.

As things stand, the ornamental fish collectors, breeders and exporters are claiming victory in their ongoing struggle to save their livelihoods. How permanent or long-lived this victory will prove to be remains to be seen, since, to no one’s surprise, the Brazilian government is lodging an appeal.

I would like to thank Dr. Gerald Bassleer, president of Ornamental Fish International, for his valuable exchange of correspondence during the preparation of this report.

Footnote: For an interesting and revealing series of reports on the Belo Monte dam, visit here.

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