On October 10, 2017, the Alexander Soros Foundation conferred its annual Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism upon Antônia Melo Da Silva for her inspiring role leading campaigns to stop the construction of the Belo Monte dam and other harmful infrastructure projects in the Amazon rainforest.
Two decades ago, Melo, a mother of five, founded the “Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre,” a collective of social and environmental organizations in the Altamira region of Brazil impacted by the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. The movement brings together groups unified in their objection to the dam, including communities living along the river, fishermen, rural workers, urban dwellers, Indigenous Peoples, and religious and women’s organizations.
The “Xingu Vivo Para Sempre” has also partnered with movements from other Amazonian rivers in Brazil and neighboring countries. With support from the Xingu alliance, the Munduruku Indigenous Peoples of Brazil succeeded in suspending government plans to construct a mega-dam on the Tapajós River, another major tributary of the Amazon.
The Belo Monte project was first proposed in 1975, but a full license to construct the dam complex—which will be the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world—was not granted until June of 2011. When construction is completed in 2019, the dam complex will comprise three dams and several dykes, creating the Calha do Xingu Reservoir, which will have the capacity of more than 2 billion cubic meters and surface area of nearly 130 square miles. However, the dam complex will flood 150 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, decimate migratory fisheries that feed and sustain riparian communities, and has already displaced 40,000 people.
In cities near Belo Monte, levels of violence, sexual exploitation of children, and human trafficking have surged, as the region was not prepared for the huge influx of workers brought in by the dam construction.
The Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism, which annually recognizes activists working at the nexus of environmentalism and human rights, is chosen by a nominating committee comprising Global Witness Co-Founder Patrick Alley, Human Rights First President Elisa Massimino, human rights scholar Aryeh Neier, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, and attorney William Zabel. Antônia is the sixth winner of the award.