Debating dams in the rain forest
After a five-day journey by plane, boat, bus and boat, HOT reporter Nick Terdre has finally reached ‘Mission Village’ in the Amazon rain forest, where members of the Munduruku tribe are meeting to discuss the government’s plan to build hydroelectric plants on their land.
Near the priest’s building where we were accommodated was a larger set of buildings which included the nuns’ quarters and more guest accommodation. I found one of the nuns doing some washing in a large sink. She asked where I was from. “I’m from England,” I said. “And you?” “Thanks be to God, I’m Brazilian!” she replied cheerfully. When she had finished washing, I seized the bar of soap and did some of my own; I was in desperate need of some clean clothes.
There was electricity in the village, courtesy of a generator. There were showers and, at least in the priest’s house and guest building, flushing toilets. In the evening, we were invited to eat in the house of the cacique or village chief. It had a concrete floor, wooden walls and a cooker fuelled with bottled gas. We ate in the kitchen, sitting on chairs and on the floor. The room was dominated by a wide-screen TV tuned in to ‘TV Globo’, Brazil’s most popular channel. Dinner was roast meat and rice. Some of the meat was a bit tough, and I felt a filling in one of my teeth come away. I didn’t blame the meat – most of my fillings are a good 50 years old and ready to be replaced.
After dinner, I tagged along with Lala and Eliane from the Tapajós Vivo (Living Tapajós) NGO who were on the trail of some local handicraft. They had been directed to another house; here we were invited inside, and while they made their purchases, I was able to appreciate the range of electronic gear – a large TV, a couple of laptops and some hefty-looking speakers and audio equipment. It all looked rather more state-of-the-art than my own bits and pieces back in St Leonards.
The following morning, we had breakfast al fresco with our hosts standing around a large table near the meeting hall. To drink, there was diluted fruit juice and black coffee, kept hot in thermos flasks. And to eat, tapioca cakes made from manioc flour and crackers.
I ran into Kailo, a dentist, who had volunteered for duty with the Munduruku after spending several years working with other tribes. He travels round from village to village. The drinking water, which comes from wells, is very good, he said. But the Munduruku eat a lot of sugar in their diet, and aren’t very good at brushing their teeth. I’d mislaid my toothbrush on the journey here and Kailo gave me a no-frills, government-issue new one, together with some dental floss. It was a relief to finally brush my teeth properly after several days of trying to do it with my finger. And then, of course, I found my own toothbrush.
The assembly begins
The assembly got going at about 9am. The hall was pretty full – I counted roughly 140 people inside, while others stood all around the outside, leaning on the chest-high walls. The first day was taken up with presentations, as the various delegations from different villages introduced themselves. It was all, or nearly all, in Munduruku. Since none of my companions spoke the language, what was said passed us by. But all the speakers were clapped, and some cheered enthusiastically, having apparently said something particularly rousing.
There was another guest staying in our quarters – Inácio. He was, he told me, the president of a community health association in Santarém and had come to give advice to the Munduruku. Quite why, I wasn’t sure. My colleagues said he was a false friend of the Indians, though that was perhaps because they didn’t agree with his views. Inácio told me that the Munduruku needed to be realistic; hunting and fishing were getting more difficult, and simply opposing the hydroelectric development would not get them anywhere.
In his opinion they should enter into negotiations seeking the right to 20% of the energy to be generated by the plants. That would be worth a lot of money to them, but would also drastically alter the economics of the project, and probably their own way of life. It sounded quite unrealistic to me.
In the late afternoon, it was the turn of us whites to introduce ourselves. I stood in line with the others and when my turn came, explained that I was an English journalist and had come to hear the Munduruku’s story so that I could tell the people back home what was happening to them. I got an appreciative clap, though not as loud as some of the others, who took the opportunity to vehemently condemn the dam project.
Once the introductions were done, Maurício made his slide presentation, which was largely based on official information. The second of the various stages in the process of issuing a licence for a hydroelectric plant to be built requires the indigenous peoples affected by the project to be consulted, he pointed out. As everyone knew, this hadn’t yet happened, although the government had already embarked on later stages of the process.
Seven plants, much disruption
The scheme calls for a total of seven hydroelectric plants, generating a maximum of 13,800 mega-watts. Three will be sited on the Tapajós, the others on its tributaries. In the case of the Munduruku, 18,000 hectares, housing 16 villages, will be flooded. They will not be the only ones to suffer; flooding will affect a total of 207,500 hectares of conservation units, on which 32 communities currently live. The homes of at least 2,350 people will disappear under the waters.
Construction of the seven plants is expected to attract some 130,000 migrant workers chasing just under 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. Past experience shows that the construction period, which will last three to five years, will be chaotic and disruptive, probably becoming even worse when it comes to an end and tens of thousands of workers find themselves unemployed. As has been amply documented in similar projects, criminality and sexual exploitation thrive in such conditions, and conflicts between the migrants and both indigenous peoples and established settlers are commonplace.
The ecological effects would also be damaging in various ways, Maurício said. For example, the seasonal rhythm of the rivers will be disrupted, and with it the lives of fish, turtles and other species living in them. The waters in the flooded areas will turn still and stagnant, in the process becoming unsuitable for drinking. The fishing on which both indigenous and riberine communities depend will be threatened.
Mining also poses a threat to the indigenous communities. Large swathes of the land in the south of Pará state where the Munduruku live have already been licensed to mining companies, giving them the right to come onto the land, even if it is occupied by indigenous peoples, to prospect for and produce minerals. Mining companies round the world have a dreadful reputation for their treatment of both the peoples and the environment on lands where they work, and the experience in Brazil is no different.
Almost half the mining concessions in the Tapajós basin have gone to the state-owned company, Vale do Rio Doce, which has a history of conflict with the peoples, whether indigenous or not, on its concessions. In the area of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project on the Xingu river, Canadian mining company Belo Sun was already expelling people from its concessions, Maurício said.
Most of the land occupied by the Munduruku is covered by the concessions, and there are half a dozen other indigenous groups affected, as well as conservation areas. Had anyone from the government ever consulted with the Munduruku about the mining concessions? he asked.
Obeying the law
“You have much more strength than you know,” he told the audience. “You must demand that the government obey the law.” He recalled the occasion when the Munduruku had expelled a team carrying out environmental studies from their land. The government responded by sending the team back under the protection of armed soldiers.
“The fact that they sent an army here shows that you are strong,” Maurício said. “The number of men who came reflects the size of the government’s fear. If I didn’t think you could stop this, I wouldn’t be here.”
If that occasion testifies to the Munduruku’s determination to protect their land, it is also indicative of the government’s willingness to use force to get its way. In the case of Balbina, one of the first hydroelectric plants in the Amazon, when the local Indians resisted, a military force was sent in and they were forcibly moved to another area, some being killed in the process.
The audience followed the presentation with interest, and when it was over, a lengthy debate ensued, as speaker after speaker got up to say their piece. I couldn’t understand a word and, as it was already late, I decided to return to our quarters. Soon after it began to rain torrentially – we were trapped inside. When midnight came, the rain was showing no signs of abating, so we gave up on dinner and went to bed hungry.
Next week: concluding article from Nick Terdre on his Amazon experience.
All photos by Maurício Torres, except where stated.
Also in: Travel« Amazon trip Part 3
HOT visits Amazon tribe facing dam threat »