The awareness of life is based on language, a huge puzzle of meanings that are entangled, forming a lens through which we perceive the past, the present, the future and the invisible. Here, at the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, along the Xingu River and its main tributary, the Iriri, traces of a lost population are found. The drawings carved on the rocks stand as an abandoned tale, voices that we no longer know how to decipher.
A language can be a map or a memory. A cosmology or a requiem. As a language becomes extinct, only the silence of the stones remains. There are about 7,000 languages in the world, most of which are spoken by indigenous peoples. Most of the dying ones are also spoken by indigenous peoples. They are oral, without grammar or dictionaries. Knowledge is passed down from person to person. According to a 2014 report (Loh, Harmon), 25% of languages are now in danger of extinction, a higher percentage than mammals (21%), reptiles (15%) or birds (13%).
The decline in linguistic diversity is linked to social, political and economic behaviors, such as forced migrations and urbanization. The journey of the Kuruaya indigenous group highlights all of those factors. First, they lost their territories when they were pursued by missionaries and settlers in the early 20th century. In 1934, there were about 30 indigenous Kuruaya left, near a place called Gorgulho do Barbado (Handbook of South American Indians, Smithsonian Institute, 1948). Those who survived, escaped in a small boat, and travelled downstream until they reached the city of Altamira, in Brazil.
For indigenous communities, language and land are intertwined. For a long time now in the Xingu region, Pará, Brazil, lands have been invaded, cultures have been decimated, and Odete Kuruaya (Iawa), the last fluent speaker of the Kuruaya language, is now on the verge of becoming the final statistic. In 2011, just a few kilometres from her land, the world's third largest hydroelectric dam, Belo Monte, was opened, which now controls the volume and quality of the river's water.
The fish are now scarce, the animals have moved to other territories, and the dry nature of the river makes navigation impossible. To add insult to injury, plans are in the works to open the largest open pit gold mine in Latin America nearby, which will bring along its ore tailings, chemical poisons and the promise of a ravaged landscape.
The company, Belo Sun, is a Canadian corporation that develops international mining projects in Africa, Ukraine, North America and Brazil. The Kuruaya people seem to have been cornered by history. According to satellite data, in July 2020, an area the size of Greater London was cleared in the Amazon Rainforest. Overall, deforestation has been increasing significantly since 2012. In such a scenario one ought to ask, how should the local indigenous people manage to support and preserve their cultures? What is lost when a language disappears? And what contributes to such an extreme outcome?
Around the city of Altamira in the state of Pará, northern Brazil, contact between urban and indigenous people has grown significantly over the years, always in the name of economic advance, and (disputed) progress. Here, in northern Brazil, many of the First Peoples of the forest can be found: the Xipaya, the Kuruaya, the Kayapó, the Xikrin, the Parakanã, the Asuriní, the Arara, the Juruna. The linguistic diversity is greater than that we find in Europe. It’s a tropical Babel.
As a child, Iawa danced in the river and built small houses made of wood and straw, in a place she remembers as Kurupité. Her parents took shelter there and lived off the land.
They grew corn, watermelon, pumpkin, cassava to make flour and cotton to make hammocks. Often, they gathered around the fire and chanted under the Amazon’s starry nights. At 13, Iawa married a migrant escaping the drought from northeastern Brazil. Shortly after, they were forced to work for non-indigenous people by collecting forest chestnuts, hunting wildcats for fur, and extracting rubber.
Around the same period, Henry Ford built Fordlandia – an extravagant project of a factory-city in the middle of the Brazilian jungle to provide rubber for Ford’s automobiles, which was quickly doomed to be a failure.
Iawa’s experience became more and more distant from her indigenous childhood, from the transcendent in life, rites and traditions, which accelerated the group's cultural loss. In the 70s, Iawa finally secured a piece of land from her ancestors, where she lives today, at the Great Bend of Xingu, a stretch of 130 kilometres of land where the Xingu river dramatically twists and serpentines, before embracing the great Amazon river. A few hundred families live in this territory, and Lorena Kuruaya, Iawa's granddaughter and a medical student, volunteered during the quarantine to distribute food in the communities, and found that the community was dangerously isolated.
"There’s hardly any mobile coverage, no internet, and the few radios that exist often malfunction", attested Lorena, “due to the low volume of water we can’t travel by boat, the roads here are perilous, and few families own a car. It’s hard to leave to buy food, or even to leave in a medical emergency. People here were abandoned”.
Measures have not been put in place, despite the mitigation plan signed by Norte Energia (the company responsible for the Belo Monte dam) to compensate the impacts of the dam in the local populations, “it is in severe non-compliance to the contracts”, concluded Lorena.
It is a terrible paradox for the concept of human rights, as the Brazilian indigenous leader, Ailton Krenak, says: “I came to the conclusion that humanity is just a club that advertises a lot about itself and convinces everyone that they are all about equality. As long as they are a successful club, the rest of us may as well die.”
Environmental destruction goes hand in hand with the annihilation of cultural biodiversity, which is the final blow to silence traditional peoples. According to the Nobel prize-winning scientist Philip Fearnside, “the large investment projects carried out in the Amazon have not offered conditions for human development [nor] socio-cultural diversity. The situation indicates the urgency to rethink energy and mineral production in traditional territories in the Amazon biome, a first step to ensure that we can continue to inhabit a world of incredible diversity”.
Iawa is now in her 80s, probably 90s, no one knows for sure. The Kuruaya managed to overcome the missionaries, the settlers, and continue to show resilience as the dam suffocates the river. Iawa built a family, found a land and prospered. Today she is revered as a tribe's elder, consulted about the best time to grow crops, or about which herbs are useful for medicines or prayers. At meals, she is the first to be served. During the day, she harvests seeds and nuts from the forest, from which she creates rings and necklaces. Presently, that is a more difficult task, as the trees are drying out and some seeds and fruits are scant. When Iawa’s grandchildren come to her house they all sing together. Iawa loves the old Kuruaya songs. It reminds her of a time before the arrival of civilization.