We must stand up to protect Brazil’s Amazon rainforest from this huge dam

The construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon threatens to destroy unique cultures, making traditions, rituals, languages and knowledge of the forest disappear. Português English

miguel pinheiro
17 March 2020, 7.26pm
An indigenous child from the Xingu river, Brazil
Image from 'Terra Preta', documentary by Miguel Pinheiro

It is hard to imagine a place with greater human diversity than the Mid-Xingu region, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Entering the forest feels like travelling through time, a journey that goes back to the slaves using the woods as a hideout, to the rubber plantation settlers, to Transamazônica - a road that tore through the forest as the first agent of “civilization” and brought pioneers from all over Brazil, up to the cosmopolitan businessmen who arrived with the gigantic Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Altamira, Pará.

All these migration waves were like a parade to the eyes of the native populations. The indigenous ethnic groups of the Mid-Xingu are at the core of an invisible Brazil, as guardians of songs and litanies and timeless practices. For centuries, they prospered in a sustainable way by cultivating manioc and yam, by hunting paca and armadillo, and by fishing tucunaré and piranha often from the top of their stilt homes above the rivers - the palafitas - which look more like the slender legs of an ingenious Don Quijote. And right next to it, the children would eat from their hands the manioc flour freshly made. It was paradise before being lost to Milton. Or at least, this was my first look of enchantment at the dawn of the Amazon.

Before the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, one of the largest in the world, Raoni Metuktire, a Kayapó indigenous leadership and candidate for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, tried to warn the local traditional communities of the devastation that would follow. All in vain.

He could do very little in those days when organized groups visited the surrounding villages promising the local chiefs’ extraordinary wealth. “Each village will have an airstrip and each village’s chief a private plane! You will all be rich !”, told me a repentant indigenous Xikrin chief.

The dam could only be built with the natives' permission, but there was never a free and informed referendum about what compensations they were entitled to. No one ever asked what their culture was, and how to best mitigate the impacts of the dam in their lives. Unsurprisingly, today’s result is an agonizing watercourse, followed by the sadness and revolt consuming those who have fallen for it.

The indigenous ethnic groups of the Mid-Xingu are at the core of an invisible Brazil, as guardians of songs and litanies and timeless practices

The quantity and quality of the water in the river Xingu has decreased. Without water the trees died, and no longer produced the fruits that fed the fish. Without food the fish are gone. The hunt has moved away. History repeating itself like a copy of a copy, as one kind of progress crushes a unique culture in the entire planet, causing the destruction of nature, and the extinction of human diversity.

As each community breaks down, a way of life is lost. Traditions, rituals, languages, knowledge of the forest, all disappears. And their misery increases as loggers and land grabbers invade their lands, gold miners pollute the river, and civilization introduces new diseases. According to the North American researcher and Nobel Prize winner Philip Fearnside, the Belo Monte Dam delivers only 40% of the promised energy.

Brazil has other energy options, but hydroelectric plants have a strong lobby because its production involves more money than what would be used to invest in the dominant elements available: water, sun, and forest.

The Xipaya are a group of indigenous people who, since the 17th century, have defended their territories from invaders. Juma Xipaya, the first indigenous chief woman in the Mid-Xingu, is sure that all this was planned, and it was executed in order to create dependent indigenous people, that felt coerced all the time, and ended up as city beggars.

She became an element of struggle and resistance, and for that she left her village and went to Medical University. "Miguel, it has to be quick because I have to present a paper in today's class." By the time I left the interview my thoughts were caught up in a whirl. In 2017, Brazil was the country that killed the most environmental activists in the world. In 2019, it ranked fourth. I sat for a few minutes looking at the Xingu River that flows through Altamira.

In January 2020 there was a 74% increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, compared to the same month in 2019. At the end of the day, what are we all losing by letting indigenous people acquiring an Occidental way of life?

As the Anthropocene progresses, it is becoming obvious that the greatest of all extinctions is that of the human race itself. We are turning progressively more redundant. And one day when we are all the same, we will have nothing better to do than to break all the mirrors in the world and celebrate our monotony. But until that day comes, we ought to stand up and help Juma defend the largest tropical forest in the world. I mean, how long will we allow the killing of those who protect such beauty?

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