HOT visits Amazon tribe facing dam threat
On a holiday with a difference, HOT reporter Nick Terdre travelled deep into the Amazon rain forest to meet with the Munduruku Indians, who are threatened by government plans to build hydroelectric plants on their land. Read about the first part of his journey here, where he travels from the UK to São Paulo and on to ‘Mission Village’.
I was already planning a holiday in Brazil, where I used to live, so when presented with the opportunity to attend a meeting called by the Munduruku Indians to debate the dam projects proposed for their area, I was eager to go. My companion was to be Maurício Torres, an academic, who works closely with indigenous peoples and other communities in the Amazon threatened by developmental projects – a concern that keeps him pretty busy.
The Munduruku are a tribe of some 12,000 living in various villages, large and small, in the upper and middle reaches of the Tapajós river, which flows north through Pará state and disgorges its massive flow of waters into the Amazon river some 750 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean. Hydroelectric plants have been built on several of the Amazon’s major tributaries – the latest proposal is to build seven plants on the Tapajós and its tributaries, in the process flooding an extensive area of Munduruku lands.
The meeting was to be held in Missão Aldéia, or ‘Mission Village’, so-called as it was set up by German Franciscans in the early 20th century. The village stands on the banks of the Cururu river, a tributary of the Tapajós. From Santarém, the city which stands at the mouth of the Tapajós, it would be a journey of four days, Maurício told me. In the event, it took five.
I flew from São Paulo to Santarém, a six-hour journey. The following day, after equipping myself with a hammock in the local market, I caught the fast boat to Itaituba, a town established by gold-panners some 300 km up-river. As the boat took to the middle of the river, I could hardly see the bank on either side. How wide must it be, I wondered – six or eight kilometres? It was symbolic of the vastness of everything in Brazil.
We surged upstream at 53 kph, according to the commander. Six hours later, after making a few short stops, we arrived on schedule in Itaituba. It was 7pm and darkness had just fallen. I booked into a hotel I’d been recommended and had dinner at a restaurant on the riverside. A lot of the traffic was light motorbikes, the preferred means of transport for young people of both sexes. A couple of girls drove up, took off their helmets and joined some friends at the table in front of me. They were all fiddling with their mobiles. “Hey, baby!” one said, as she got through to a friend.
On the way back to the hotel, I passed a gym with a full complement of fitness fanatics pounding away on treadmills. Maurício was supposed to arrive that evening, but instead, I received a text message that he’d lost his bag in transit and the airline, while they were trying to return it to him, had put him up in the town’s best hotel.
His bag only arrived late the following day, so we spent the morning wandering round the street market by the riverside, and in the afternoon hired a small boat to take us to the other side of the river, so that he could take pictures of a soya loading terminal on the opposite bank. Soya is one of Brazil’s leading farm exports; on leaving Santarém, we had passed a large soya terminal owned by the US multinational, Cargill. The government has plans to develop a transport network to facilitate its export through the Amazon.
As we ate in a restaurant in the evening, Maurício gave me some background on the dam project. With its growing economy and population, Brazil – one of the so-called Brics group along with Russia, India, China and South Africa – needs ever more energy. Hydroelectric power is already its major source, and the authorities are keen to make use of untapped hydro potential.
But the justification for the dam project looked shaky, according to Maurício; one of the supposed ‘expert studies’ supporting it, calculated the energy output based on the water levels at their highest, which only occurs for part of the year, thus giving an unrealistically high figure. A more accurate study by an independent body, the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica, concluded that the energy generation would be insufficient to justify the project in economic terms.
While some of the energy is intended to be used for the benefit of local people, the driving force behind the hydroelectric programme is to power big mining operations. Mauricio would be giving more detailed information on how the Munduruku’s territory would be affected, both by flooding for the dams and mining activities, in a presentation he had prepared for the meeting, he said.
Upstream of Itaituba, the river has rapids and shallow stretches, which are difficult to navigate. So it was by bus that we resumed our journey the following day. This was a 400 kilometre stretch to Jacaréacanga, the last town on the banks of the Tapajós. It was supposed to take 10 hours, but ended up taking nearly 22; the problem was not the earth road, parts of which turned into a mudbath as rain fell, but mechanical problems. After stopping and starting several times, the bus eventually came to a terminal halt as the fuel injection system failed.
Here, there was no mobile phone coverage and the crew had no means of reporting the breakdown to headquarters. But fortunately, Maurício had a satellite phone and they were able to get a message through. A replacement bus was despatched, but took several hours to arrive. In the meantime a lot of the passengers got lifts with passing traffic. One of the remaining ones entertained the others with excerpts from a popular TV show on his smartphone. At one point, a stirring advert came on – a man and a woman talking in their best PR tones about the benefits the dam project would bring to the region, and ending with the apparently undeniable argument: “What will future generations think of us if they look back and see that we didn’t take this golden opportunity?”.
We eventually arrived in Jacaréacanga about 7.30 in the morning. Maurício and I went to a nearby hotel where we got some breakfast and hired a room to rest in until we were to continue our journey in the afternoon. We were going to make the last part of the trip by boat, but first we had to take an uncomfortable two-hour journey in the back of a truck to reach an embarkation point further upstream. There were about 50 of us crammed into the truck – mostly Mundurukus, but also half a dozen members of NGOs supporting their cause. Darkness was falling when we arrived at the embarkation point, so we spent the night here in our hammocks in a rough wooden hut.
In the morning, we took to the river in voadeiras, slim steel boats around 10 metres long, powered by an outboard motor. The river was in flood, with parts of the forest under water. It meant that where the river took a curving course, we could take short-cuts through the flooded forest, weaving our way through the branches and canopies of the trees, sheltered from the sun.
We stopped for lunch at a spot where one of the boats ahead of us had already landed. Someone had shot a monkey, which was being roasted over an open fire. I was looking forward to tasting it, but when it was ready my attention had been diverted elsewhere and I missed my chance – in no time at all it was all eaten.
It was pleasant travelling up the river. At some point, unnoticed by me, we left the Tapajós and took to the Cururu. Most of the time, there were clouds in the sky and though it was hot, the heat was not unbearable. When it rained, as it usually does here in the afternoon, we sheltered under a large plastic sheet. We made regular stops at riverside settlements and villages. For the Munduruku, it was probably a good chance to see relatives and friends. But progress was slow, and in the end it took us two days in the voadeiras to get to Mission Village.
We arrived to a grand reception. Two lines of Indians came down the hill to greet us, singing a song of welcome – one line of men, carrying their weapons, mainly bows and arrows, but some with short spears, and the other of women, some of them also carrying weapons. They had designs painted in black on their faces and bodies. When the song was over, we shook hands and walked up the hill between them. They accompanied us to the meeting hall, a large rectangular building with a sloping roof and open sides with low walls. Here another ceremony took place as they formed a circle and walked round, chanting. We did not understand a word – there were no Munduruku speakers among us.
Once the formalities were completed, we were shown to our rooms. There was still a Roman Catholic presence – a priest and two nuns, and quite a large church. We arrived in the afternoon of 20 April – Easter Sunday. There must have been a service earlier in the day, but though some of the Indians are Catholics, I didn’t see anyone in the church during my stay.
We slung our hammocks in the guest dormitory in the priest’s house. It was a relief to reach the village after such a long journey – and what with the rain and our boat shipping water due to being overloaded and an erratic pilot, we were all wet and so was our gear. But finally we had a chance to dry out and recover. I slept well in my hammock that night.
Next week: the debate begins.
All photos by Nick Terdre, except where stated.
Also in: Travel« Amazon trip part 2
Pedalling away »