Human rights defender found drowned in dam

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Brazil human rights defender found drowned in dam


On 21 June 2016, workers at the dam found the body of Nilce de Souza Magalhães' (above) by the Usina Hidrelétrica Jirau dam. She had protested against the dam.

Development must be responsible – not just when we find the bodies of murdered women writes Erin Kilbride.

Nilce de Souza Magalhães worked to defend human rights. She protested against Usina Hidrelétrica Jirau (a rock-fill dam in north-western Brazil) for three years. Last week, they found her body. She drowned in the hydro-electric dam: a man who said he wanted to ‘silence’ her murdered her in January 2016. On 21 June, dam workers found her body on the river bank of the dam. Her hands and feet were tied with ropes to large rocks. This kept her body deep under water for six months.

Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for people who work to defend people’s right to land. In 2016, Front Line Defenders has reported almost 30 killings of environmental, indigenous, and land rights defenders in Brazil – Nilce is the 27th. In 2015, Global Witness said Brazil was the most dangerous country in the world for people who defend environment rights.

They started planning the Jirau dam in 2013. Most of the power was for SE Brazil, 2,000 miles away. There are laws for water development projects, but critics say there was automatic approval of many points before they talked to the local communities.

The dam forced Nilce’s community to leave and live in an area with no running water or electricity. It changed the course of the Madeira River - Nilce’s family lived from fishing in the river for decades.

Nilce fought against the project for three years. Then she disappeared on 7 January 2016. On 15 January, police arrested Edione Pessoa da Silva after someone called to tell them he was responsible. Da Silva said he murdered Nilce. A few days later, he escaped from prison. Some people say Nilce made accusations against da Silva. But people from her organization, Movement of People Affected by Dams, say he killed her because of her powerful activism.

From 2013 to 2016, Nilce was a leader at public demonstrations against the dam and went to speak at legal meetings. She also sent many legal complaints about the dam. These started the legal case against the Usina Hidrelétrica company and Sustainable Energy of Brazil (ESRB), (responsible for developing the dam). Because of her, they started to find out why the fisher families had not had any money as compensation when they were forced to leave. Because of her, they started to investigate the changing of data to hide how destructive the dam would be. After Nilce spoke at a federal negotiation last December, the government decided to send officials to visit the region and investigate.

Nilce was very good at fighting against the dam. She will never see the results of the investigations she started, but her murder shows how powerful she was.

After Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was suspended in May, many politicians are against human rights. One of the first things the new government did was end the Ministry for Human Rights. They used to have a ministry for Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, but this is now only one ‘Secretary’ at a desk in the Ministry of Justice. The new Minister of Justice said that peaceful protests for land rights are ‘guerrilla tactics’; and the new cabinet is all white men. The National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders does not have enough money to support everyone, and there are many death threats.

The message from the government is this: if people are brave enough to fight for rights for women, Afro-Brazilians and indigenous groups, the Brazilian state will not protect them.

Nilce lived and worked in a poor area of Brazil, where the National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders does not work. The authorities did not try to stop her death. Brazilian authorities need to investigate and bring to justice the people responsible. Also, people must see that the government is responsible for cutting the human rights groups that could have protected her.

After the murder of Berta Cáceres (defender of environmental rights) in Honduras, many investors stopped investing in the dam Berta was fighting against. Honduras is famous for violence against indigenous groups and no punishments for people who kill human rights defenders. But after this murder, most of the investors decided there would be too many problems if they invested. After the murder of Nilce, some local Brazilian community organizations have said the international companies must stop supporting the Jirau dam.

If the project stops, or not, we should not have to wait for the killing of human rights defenders before we get responsible development. It is very worrying when human rights are cut and there is violence against poor communities. Companies should not wait for the murders of women who speak out.

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