Siemens, Greenpeace and the Munduruku: a response to Juergen Maier

Posted by Mal Chadwick — 17 August 2016 at 11:06am - Comments

Last week, representatives from the Munduruku Indigenous People visited Siemens’ UK headquarters with a group of Greenpeace activists as part of our Save the Heart of the Amazon campaign. Although he wasn’t able to meet with the Munduruku that day, Siemens UK CEO Juergen Maier has published a blog post about our action and the issues surrounding it.

It’s great to see Maier and Siemens starting to engage with this issue, but it’s important to set the record straight on a few of Maier’s claims.

Was this an ‘impromptu meeting’? Did we give Siemens enough notice?

Maier says:

"I was sorry not to be able to make the impromptu meeting with Chief Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku and Greenpeace, but receiving one days notice via an ‘open letter’ in the FT is an unusual way to request a meeting. Had I received a letter or an email I would have made a firm arrangement with them."

We sent a letter to Juergen Maier to request a meeting on 26 May (77 days in advance of our visit). Attached to this letter was a report detailing the social, environmental and practical downsides to the Tapajós dams (and proposing some alternatives), but we didn't receive a reply or acknowledgement to either.

Greenpeace campaigners have written to or visited Siemens offices in 20 countries, and have had a similar response. Our German counterparts first invited Siemens to discuss the Tapajós dams in December, and although they did receive a reply, they’re still awaiting a confirmed meeting date. 

So although we did visit Siemens HQ without a pre-arranged meeting, this wasn’t for lack of trying.

How was the meeting conducted?

Maier says:

"Contrary to subsequent reports by Greenpeace, two of my senior leadership team were able to change their schedules and were on standby to welcome the visitors."

During our visit to Siemens HQ, we met with Toby Peyton-Jones, the company’s UK HR director, and a communications manager. While we were grateful to them for taking the time to hear our concerns, presumably major infrastructure projects don’t fall within their remit, and we’d question whether they were appropriate representatives to send to this meeting. It’s fair to say that this isn’t how an organisation usually signals that it’s taking an issue seriously.

Is Siemens involved in hydroelectric power projects in Brazil?

Maier says:

"Secondly, let me also be clear that Siemens is not involved in any hydroelectric power projects in Brazil."

Through their joint venture with Voith Hydro, in which they own a 25% stake, Siemens is a key player in the supply chain for large-scale hydropower.

They were involved in building the last four megadams in the Amazon rainforest, including the disastrous Belo Monte project, which caused immense damage to local communities and ecosystems, and sparked a corruption scandal that continues to this day. In light of this track record, the Munduruku are asking Siemens to publicly state that they will not be involved in damming the Tapajós. If they refuse, then we think it’s fair to assume they are considering taking part, and should be held accountable for this position.

Siemens insists that the future of the Tapajós dams is a matter for the Brazilian government. While it seems strange for a company to outsource its moral judgment and reputation management to a third party, that is of course their decision. However, it’s worth noting that companies can, should, and do avoid projects on matters of principle. Indeed, their Italian counterpart Enel has done exactly that - ruling themselves out of Amazon dam projects on sustainability grounds.

Has the project been cancelled?

Maier says:

"In fact, our information is that the mega dam project in question was recently cancelled by the Brazilian Government."

On 5 August, the São Luiz do Tapajós dam was had its environmental permit denied by Brazilian environment agency, IBAMA, on the grounds that it was too damaging to the environment and Indigenous Peoples. But although this is welcome news, the threat to the people and wildlife of the Tapajós is far from over.

The São Luiz do Tapajós was one of five dams planned for this part of the Tapajós river, and there are 42 more dams planned for the wider Tapajós basin. Two more of the five would completely flood Munduruku land or destroy the river they depend on. And with four separate bills going through the Brazilian parliament designed to weaken the power of IBAMA, by the time these reach the same stage in the approval process, IBAMA may no longer be able to block them.

Is Greenpeace approaching this debate rationally? Did this action move the debate forward?

Maier says:

"Regarding this Greenpeace organised visit I’m afraid, I have to question both the process and balance [...] with complex and emotional issues like this debate we need it to be much more thoughtful, rational and fact based. [...]

But do we now have a clear view of what the other options are? Would these create even more social displacement or negative environmental impact? Was there enough objective evidence from all sides? [...]

I’m personally very concerned by this trend and that we are allowing less space for experts views and balanced debate."

While our action certainly used an element of drama and theatre to make a point, it came after attempting to engage Siemens in a rational discussion of the Munduruku’s concerns, and waiting three months for a response.

As mentioned above, we sent Siemens a copy of our report 'Damning the Amazon’ - and this was met with silence. We have also engaged scientists to provide an in depth analysis of the environmental impact assessment of the SLT dam, which we have sent to the Brazilian government.

Until last week, Siemens seemed keen to avoid this debate, so we’re pleased to see Mr Maier now calling for more rational discussion and offering to arrange a formal meeting on dams in the Tapajós region. This is significant progress from his previous reticence on the issue.

While the negative impacts of these dams on Indigenous peoples and Amazon ecosystems are not in serious dispute (indeed, the Siemens representative we met last week has publicly referred to “the damage from planned mega-dam projects in sensitive, biodiverse areas in the Amazon”), we agree that the debate should be guided by evidence and expertise. To this end, Mr Maier could begin by reading the report we sent him on 26 May, which includes an in-depth analysis of alternative ways for Brazil to meet its energy needs without destroying its natural wonders or displacing its people. We’ll post a second copy to his office, for ease of reference. We’ll also send another formal request for a meeting, and look forward to discussing these issues with Mr Maier at his convenience.

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