Painted and feathered Indians waving machetes and clubs slashed an official of Brazil’s national electric company on Tuesday during a protest over a proposed hydroelectric dam.
Mobs of Indians from different tribes surrounded Eletrobras engineer Paulo Fernando Rezende minutes after he gave a presentation to a gathering debating the impact of the Belo Monte dam on traditional communities living near this small, remote city in the Amazon region.
Rezende emerged shirtless, with a deep, bloody gash on his shoulder, but said “I’m OK, I’m OK,” as colleagues rushed him to a car.
It was not immediately clear whether Rezende was intentionally slashed or received the cut inadvertently when he was surrounded and pushed to the floor. Police said they were still investigating and no one was in custody.
Tensions were running high at the meeting, where about 1,000 Amazon Indians met activists to protest the proposed dam on the Xingu River.
Environmentalists warn it could destroy the traditional fishing grounds of Indians living nearby and displace as many as 15,000 people.
“He’s lucky he’s still alive,” said Partyk Kayapo, whose uses his tribe’s name as his last. “They want to make a dam and now they know they shouldn’t,” he said.
Following the attack, Kayapo and dozens more members of his tribe danced in celebration with their machetes raised in the air, their faces painted red and wearing little more than shorts and shell necklaces.
The Brazilian government said the proposed US$6.7 billion hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, which flows into the Amazon, would supply Brazil with an estimated 11,000 megawatts of power and is essential to meet growing energy demand.
Rezende, who was the top government official at the conference, said the dam’s impact would not be as bad as some environmentalists were making it out to be and that it was selected from a number of Xingu dam proposals as being the option that would least affect Indians.
Rezende was booed several times during his presentation, only to be followed by Roquivam Alves da Silva of the Movement of Dam Affected People, who roused the crowd by declaring: “We’ll go to war to defend the Xingu if we have to.”
Da Silva denied that he had incited the attack.
“It’s true it happened right after I spoke, but I don’t think I caused it,” he said. “Tensions were already simmering.”
Wilmar Soares, who heads Altamira’s association of business owners, said residents were demanding increased security at the weeklong protest, scheduled to end tomorrow.
“No one has the right to cut anyone. It was a surprise, but it was preventable,” he said.
Rezende was given stitches at a hospital and released. He then made a statement to authorities and left without speaking to reporters.
The attack recalls a similar meeting in 1989 when Indians held a machete to the face of another Eletrobras engineer during protests against a series of proposed hydroelectric dams on the Xingu river.
Following that incident, the World Bank canceled loans to Brazil for the dam.