Despite death threats, Brazilian environmentalist has been fighting deforestation for 30 years

Antonia Melo, 66, is the face of the battle against the Belo Monte dam in Brazil.
Antonia Melo, 66, is the face of the battle against the Belo Monte dam in Brazil.PHOTO: NINA JURNA

Antonia Melo remembers how sudden it all was. Between the colourful flowers and plants in her garden, stood an armed man. He aimed his pistol directly at her face, his gaze wild.

“Stop your activism, or I will shoot you dead,” was his message to her, before he left.

The Brazilian environmentalist has lived in danger for years. As president of the Xingu Vivo para Sempre (The Xingu Lives for Ever) organisation, she is the face of the opposition to the Belo Monte dam, the third greatest hydroelectric dam that is being built in the heart of the Amazon. She receives threats, her name is on a hit list, and she is under surveillance.

Brazil is a deadly country for environmental activists like Melo: there is nowhere else in the world where so many activists are murdered. According to Global Witness, an international human rights and anti-corruption organisation, 1,500 activists have been murdered in the past 25 years in Brazil, with a further 2,000 threatened with murder. Most assassinations occur in the state of Pará, in the Amazon.

“It’s an extreme struggle: capital and land versus nature and human rights,” says Melo, who has dedicated 30 years of her life to rainforest protection. “You have the big land owners who want to produce and cut away the forest, and the big industry companies such as the consortium that is building this mega dam. Then you have us, activists who protect nature and the planet and the rights of small farmers and indigenous populations.”

She looks over the Xingu that flows along Altamira, a city with 130, 000 inhabitants. The river is a tributary of the Amazon and an important source of livelihood for the tens of thousands of indigenous tribes along the river. The river is also essential for the thousands of unique plants and tree species covering its 400 islands.

The hydroelectric headquarters, the Monster

Norte Energia, a consortium of ten public and private companies, is building the hydroelectric headquarters a half an hour ride from Altamira. According to the government, this megaproject – kilometres of dam and canals – is essential to addressing chronic energy shortages. Belo Monte will be able to generate 11,000 megawatts, enough energy generation for 23 million households and 30% of Brazilian industry.

“The Monster”, as Melo calls it, is the most extensive industrial project in Brazil at the moment, and entails a huge encroachment on the Amazon Forest. “40,000 hectares of forest will be destroyed under water. Great deals of the river will be dried up. The biodiversity will be completely disrupted,” says Melo. She gazes over the water, inhales the air and begins to cough. “Again, this rotten smell. Do you smell it? Dead fish. Upstream hundreds of dead fish lie in the water. Fishermen cannot survive. Indigenous populations are struggling, their portion has dried up.”

A month ago  Melo’s house, and those of hundred others, was demolished to make space for a canal, part of the hydroelectric plant. For her, the hardest was to part with her self-made garden, where the armed intruder threatened her.

Out of the 500,000 inhabitants forced to abandon their homes around 200,000 were relocated.

“We were promised a new stone house close to the centre. But we were shoved to the suburbs, far away from necessary facilities. Indigenous tribes, who have always lived in villages by the river, have been suddenly placed in small, poor quality, apartments. Alcoholism has increased,” Melo angrily recounts. She declined the house offered to her. “I want money from Norte Energia for compensation. I did not choose to leave my house, and what they gave me, does not compare.”

It became apparent last year that she is a threat to the consortium. A spy was discovered in her organisation. The man spent months undercover and worked his way up to Melo, who lost many friends in the struggle. Her good friend Dorothy Stang, an American environmental activist, was murdered in 2005 by hitmen after countless death threats. Chico Mendes, a trade union leader and activist, was murdered in 1988 ordered by landowners. His death attracted international attention. But this does not scare her away.

“I continue with this struggle. It serves a purpose much bigger than my own existence- - the continued existence of the planet.”

Her struggle has also seen high points. The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam seemed to be a closed deal for a while now. For four years 20,000 people have been working at the headquarters, which plans to become operational in 2019. Yet Ibama, the Brazilian environmental authority, chose to defer the operating license. Norte Energia must first address allegations on the threat to the environment and human rights. She laughs. “It feels like a triumph, even if there is a small chance that the entire construction will be stopped. We have hoped for years that what happened here would be acknowledged as illegal destruction.”

Courtesy of NRC Handelsblad, a member of the Climate Publishers Network. The network is a content-sharing partnership among international news publishers, including The Straits Times, on climate change stories for the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris.