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The final agreement from the Paris climate talks has been the subject of much controversy regarding the language in the document pertaining to indigenous rights. Any semblance of a legally binding measure pertaining to these rights was omitted from the final agreement that was signed by the governments of 190 countries. The agreement concluded a two-week long process that brought together some of the world’s largest corporations, and environmental and human rights organizations, to agree on international energy standards, goals and applications.

As the final agreement appears, language pertaining to indigenous groups resides in the preamble—a completely non-binding portion of the text. The only other mention includes a recognition of indigenous ecological knowledge, although the wording provides no protection for such peoples. The decision was made in part by pressure from the UK, Norway, the EU and the U.S., who fear the legal liability that would follow a mandated recognition of indigenous groups.

All other mentions of indigenous people remain in requisitions that are not legally binding, due to some of the more vague aspects of the text. For example, any request following the auxiliary (helping) verb “shall” is legally binding; those following “should” are not. The need to “respect, promote … obligations on human rights … the rights of indigenous peoples” falls under the category of “should” and is therefore not legally binding.

The implications of this have resounding effects for Brazil, whose various indigenous groups residing in the Amazon have been fighting aggressive energy projects for more than three decades, especially regarding the infamous Belo Monte dam.

Although various studies have been produced that prove Belo Monte will actually generate large amounts of methane from the decomposition of plants forming the dam’s giant reservoir, the real setbacks were in a large part due to the special quality of indigenous rights, which in turn encompass a unique conservation of indigenous land. The neglect to obtain consent of affected indigenous people (as legally mandated in Brazil’s Constitutional Article 231) prior to the construction, set in motion a series of license suspensions and delays resulting from mass protests.

Despite these resistances, two weeks ago the Brazilian government granted Norte Energia Consortium (consisting of 50 percent ownership by the Brazilian federal power utility Electrobras, as well as mining corporation Vale) the authorization to put the Belo Monte mega-dam into use, filling its large artificial reservoirs that will hold 80 percent of the Amazonian Xingu River ‘s flow. The measure will be directly effecting 1,000 indigenous people as well as displacing up to 40,000 people.

For the Brazilian Amazon, the COP21 results are alarming given the plans for future projects within indigenous areas. The fear is a domino effect that will inevitably come with the commencement of the dam’s operation: more dams must be built to ensure the proficiency of Belo Monte in Brazil’s dry seasons. This causal sequence will be far more daunting to combat without international recognition of the biggest protectors of the region.

Without a legally binding measure emerging from the climate talks and without the adequate pressure from an international coalition, the affected tribes are not receiving the support they were hoping for against Brazil’s future intrusive energy projects.

The intertwining of human and environmental rights is an issue that Brazil is forced to tackle on a monumental scale. The nation of some 203 million people has experienced a doubling of energy demand since 1990. The trend is anticipated to continue—by 2021 the economy is predicted to bloat by 63 percent, requiring 6,350 megawatts of new energy added each year to the already 121,000 megawatt consuming nation.

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