The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.
Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon.
“It is a time of death. The Munduruku will start dying. They will have accidents. Even simple accidents will lead to death. Lightning will strike and kill an Indian. A branch will fall from a tree and kill an Indian. It’s not chance. It’s all because the government interfered with a sacred site,” says Valmira Krixi Biwūn with authority.
Valmira Krixi Munduruku, as she was baptized, is an indigenous Munduruku woman warrior living in the village of Teles Pires beside the river of the same name on the border between the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará. A leader and a sage, she speaks with great confidence about a variety of subjects ranging from the old stories of her people, to the plant-based concoctions in which young girls must bathe in order to transform into warriors.
The sacred site she speaks about is a stretch of rapids known as Sete Quedas located on the Teles Pires River. In 2013, the consortium responsible for the construction of a large hydroelectric power station obtained judicial authorization to dynamite the rapids to make way for the Teles Pires dam.
In 2013 the companies involved blew up Sete Quedas, and in so doing also destroyed — in the cosmology of the region’s indigenous people — the equivalent of the Christian “Heaven”, the sacred sanctuary inhabited by spirits after death. Known in as Paribixexe, Sete Quedas is a sacred site for all the Munduruku.
The destruction of the sacred rapids was a lethal blow for the Indians: “The dynamiting of the sacred site is the end of religion and the end of culture. It is the end of the Munduruku people. When they dynamited the waterfall, they dynamited the Mother of the Fish and the Mother of the Animals we hunt. So these fish and these animals will die. All that we are involved with will die. So this is the end of the Munduruku”, says a mournful indigenous elder, Eurico Krixi Munduruku.
The message Valmira Krixi delivers is equally chilling: “We will come to an end, and our spirits too.” It is double annihilation, in life and in death.
In all, today, more than 13,000 Munduruku Indians live in 112 villages, mainly along the upper reaches of the Tapajós River and its tributaries, including the Teles Pires River. This indigenous group once occupied and completely dominated such an extensive Amazonian region that “in colonial Brazil the whole of the Tapajós River Basin was known by the Europeans as Mundurukânia”, explains Bruna Rocha, a lecturer in archaeology at the Federal University of the West of Pará.
The sudden appearance of rubber-tapping across Amazonia during the second half of the 19th century shattered the power of “Mundurukânia,” and deprived the Munduruku of most of their territory. “They just kept fragments in the lower Tapajós and larger areas in the upper reaches of the river, but even so it was only a fraction of what they occupied in the past”, says Rocha.
Now even these fragments are being seriously impacted by the hydroelectric power stations being built around them. Of the more than 40 dams proposed in the Tapajós Basin, four are already under construction or completed on the Teles Pires River. These dams are all key to a proposed industrial waterway that would transport soy from Mato Grosso state, north along the Teles Pires and Tapajós rivers, then east along the Amazon to the coast for export.
The Time Before
The 90 families in Teles Pires village, which we visited, love talking about the past, a time, they say, when they could roam at will through their immense territory to hunt and harvest from the forest. In part, these nostalgic recollections are mythical in that, for at least two centuries and probably longer, the people have lived in fixed communities. But they continue to collect many products from the forest — seeds, tree bark, fibers, timber, fruit and more; using the materials to build their houses, to feed themselves, to make spears for hunting, to concoct herbal remedies, and so on.
Their territory — the Indigenous Territory of Kayabi, which they share, not always happily, with the Apiaká and Kayabi people — was created in 2004. Bizarrely, the sacred site of Sete Quedas lay just outside its legal limits, an oversight that was to have tragic consequences for the Indians.
Over the centuries, the Munduruku have adapted well to changes in the world around them, changes that intensified after they made contact with white society in the 18th century. On some occasions, the people readily incorporated new technological and social elements into their culture, seizing on their advantages. The British Museum has a “very traditional” Munduruku waistband, probably created in the late 19th century, which utilizes cotton fabric imported from Europe. The Indians clearly realized that cotton fabric was far more resilient than the textiles they made from forest products, and they happily incorporated the cotton into the decorative garment.
Today that custom continues. Almost all young people have mobile phones, and appreciate their usefulness. But at times the Munduruku have found, just as many of us do in our city lives, that modern technology can go wrong, with frustrating results. The Munduruku have, for example, installed an artesian well in Teles Pires village and now have running water in their houses. That advance makes life easier, except when the system breaks down, which is not infrequent. During the four days of our visit, for instance, there was no water, as the pump had quit working.
In similar fashion, their religion has also changed, at least superficially. Franciscan friars have had a mission (Missão Cururu) in the heart of Munduruku territory for over a century, and Catholicism has left its mark. The Munduruku say, for instance, that the creator of the world, the warrior Karosakaybu, fashioned everyone and everything “in his own image”, a direct quote from the Bible.
Even so, the Indians have a strong ethnic identity, which they fiercely protect. When we asked to film them, they said yes, but many insisted on speaking their own language on camera, even though they often could speak Portuguese far better than our translator.
Moreover, their cosmology is rock-solid; every Indian to whom we spoke shared Krixi Biwūn’s belief in the hereafter and the paramount importance of the sacred sites in guaranteeing their life after death. This faith forms the foundation of their cosmology, and is essential to their existence. It is this fundamental belief that has now been blasted — making adaptation almost impossible.
The Dams the People Didn’t Want
National governments are obliged to directly consult with indigenous groups before launching any project that will affect their wellbeing, according to The International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. Brazil is a signatory of this agreement, so how is it possible that indigenous sacred sites could be demolished on the Teles Pires River to make way for Amazon dams?
The answer is clear-cut, according to Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director for International Rivers. After the 2011 approval for the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River — a major Amazon tributary — , the government’s next hydroelectric target in Amazonia was on the Teles Pires River. “Four dams are being simultaneously built [there]. Two are close to indigenous people — the Teles Pires and Sāo Manoel. The São Manoel is 300 meters from the federally demarcated border of an indigenous reserve where the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká live,” Millikan told Mongabay. The sacred site of Sete Quedas, left outside the boundary of the indigenous territory, lay in the way of the São Manoel dam.
Unlike the building of the Belo Monte mega-dam, which was extensively covered by the Brazilian and international press, the Teles Pires “projects were ignored”, Millikan says. “This was due to various factors — their geographic isolation, the fact that they were less ‘grandiose’ than Belo Monte, and that there was very little involvement from civil society groups, who generally help threatened [indigenous] groups.”
Even so, the government carried out a form of consultation with the indigenous population and other local inhabitants. On 6 October 2010, it announced in the official gazette that it had received the environmental impact study for the Teles Pires dam from the environmental agency, Ibama, and that the public had 45 days in which to request an audiência pública (public hearing) in which to raise questions about the dam.
A hearing was, in fact, held on 23 November 2010 in the town of Jacareacanga. Although the event was organised in a very formal way, alien to indigenous culture, contributions from 24 people, almost all indigenous, were permitted. According to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent body of federal prosecutors within the Brazilian state, every speaker expressed opposition to the dam. Even so, the project went ahead. Over time, the Munduruku became increasingly reluctant to take part in these consultations, saying that their views were simply ignored.
Although the Munduruku were always opposed to the dams, they were ill prepared for the scale of the damage they have suffered.
Cacique Disma Muõ told us: “The government didn’t inform us. The government always spoke of the good things that would happen. They didn’t tell us about the bad things.” When they protested, the Munduruku were told: “The land belongs to the government, not to the Indians. There is no way the Indians can prevent the dams.”
This is, at best, a half-truth. Although indigenous land belongs to the Brazilian state, the indigenous people have the right to the “exclusive” and “perpetual” use of this land, in accordance with the Brazilian Constitution.
Moreover, the ILO’s Convention 169 says that indigenous groups must be consulted if they will suffer an impact, even if the cause of the impact is located beyond their land. Rodrigo Oliveiraan adviser in Santarém to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) made this clear in an interview with Mongabay: “As it was evident before the dams were licensed that the Munduruku and other communities would be affected, the Brazilian government had the obligation to consult these groups in a full and informed way in accordance with the ILO’s Convention 169.”
The Brazilian government repeatedly claimed that its public hearings amounted to the “full, informed and prior” consultation required by the ILO, but the MPF challenged this assertion. It sued the Brazilian government, and the federal courts on several occasions stopped work on the dam. However, unfortunately for the Munduruku and other local indigenous groups, each time the MPF won in a lower court, the powerful interests of the energy sector — both within government and outside it — had the decision overturned in a higher court.
This was largely possible because the Workers’ Party government (which ruled from 2003-16) had revived a legal instrument known as Suspensão de Segurança (Suspension of Security), which was instituted and widely used by Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85). Suspension of Security allows any judicial decision, even when based on sound legal principles, to be reversed in a higher court without further legal argument, using a trump card that simply invokes “national security”, “public order” or the “national economy”.
The Prosecutor Luís de Camões Lima Boaventura told Mongabay: “Figures collected by the MPF show that, just with respect to the hydroelectric dams in the Teles Pires-Tapajós Basin, we were victorious in 80 percent of the actions we took, but all of the rulings in our favor were reversed by suspensions.”
According to Prosecutor Boaventura, the root of the problem is that the Brazilian authorities have always adopted a colonial mentality towards the Amazon: “I would say that Amazonia hasn’t been seen as a territory to be conquered. Rather, it’s been seen as a territory to be plundered. Predation is the norm.”
Instead of democratically engaging the Munduruku, and debating the various options for the future of the Tapajós region, federal authorities imposed the dams, without discussion. The Teles Pires dam was built in record time — 41 months — and is already operating. According to a recent press interview, the São Manoel dam, due to come on stream in May 2018, is also on course to be completed ahead of schedule.
Almost every week now, local indigenous villages feel another impact from the large construction projects. The Indians say that the building of the São Manoel dam made the river dirty, more silted and turbid. Although their claims may be exaggerated, there seems little doubt that aquatic life will suffer serious, long-term harm. This is serious for a people whose diet largely consists of fish.
In November, crisis came in the form of an oil spill on the river, possibly originating at the dam construction site, an event that deprived some villages of drinking water.
“We Will Have to Pay the Price”
The destruction of the sacred Sete Quedas rapids was not the only blow inflicted on the Munduruku by the consortium building the Sao Manoel dam. Workers also withdrew 12 funeral urns and archaeological artefacts from a nearby site, a violation of sacred tradition that has done further spiritual harm. The Munduruku cacique, or leader, Disma Mou, who is also a shaman, explains: “We kept arrows, clubs, ceramics, there, all buried under the ground in urns, all sacred. Many were war trophies, placed there when we were at war, travelling from region to region. Our ancestors chose this place to be sacred and now it is being destroyed by the dam.”
Francisco Pugliese, an archaeologist from the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay that he had been horrified by the behavior of the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (Iphan), the body in charge of the protection of archaeological sites. He said that the institute had broken the law by exempting the hydroelectric company from the obligation to work with the Munduruku to determine the best way of protecting their sacred site. Worse, Iphan had decided that, as the urns and other material were discovered outside the boundary of the indigenous reserve, they were the property of the government and should be sent to a museum.
“Imagine what it’s like for a traditional people to see its ancestors taken to a place with which it has no emotional link or even knows”, he said. “It’s within this perverse logic of dispossession that archaeological research takes place, in the context of the implementation of the dam. It exacerbates the process of expropriation and the destruction of the cultural references of the people and it reinforces the process of genocide of the original inhabitants of the Amazon basin”, he concluded. Mongabay requested an interview with Iphan but was not granted one.
The elder Eurico Krixi Munduruku finds it painful to describe what this sacrilege means for the people: “Those urns should never have been touched. And it’s not the white man who will pay for this. It is us, the living Munduruku, who will have to pay, in the form of accidents, in the form of death…. Our ancestors left them there for us to protect. It was our duty and we have failed. And now we, the Munduruku, will have to pay the price.”
The harm done to the Munduruku psyche by these desecrations hit home in the aftermath of a 2012 federal police operation known as Operação Eldorado, during which an Indian was killed. Krixi Biwun, the sister of the dead man, told us of her brother’s restless spirit: “He went to Sete Quedas because, when people die, that is where our ancestors take them so they can live there. But now Sete Quedas is destroyed and he is suffering.”
“The Ethnocide Continues”
Is there a way forward for the Munduruku people, a way that the perceived blasphemy done by the consortium and federal government can be reversed? Everyone we talked to in the village is certain that, as long as the urns and other artefacts rest outside the sacred site, one catastrophe will follow another; even small wounds will cause death.
But it is not simply a case of returning the urns to the Indians so they can rebury them. “They can’t give the urns back to us”, explains Krixi Biwun. “We can’t touch them. They have to find a way of getting them returned to a sacred place [without us].”
This seems unlikely to happen. The urns are currently held by the Teles Pires company in the town of Alta Floresta, waiting to be taken to a museum at the request of Iphan. Mongabay asked to see the artefacts but our request was turned down.
Even if the holy relics were eventually returned to a sacred place in one of the rapids along the Teles Pires River, that respite is likely to be short-lived. The next step in the opening up of the region to agribusiness and mining is to turn the Teles Pires into an industrial waterway, transforming it with dams, reservoirs, canals and locks. This will mean the destruction of all the river’s rapids, leaving no sacred sites.
The indefatigable MPF has carried on fighting. In December, it won another court victory, with a judge ruling that the license for the installation of the Teles Pires dam — granted by the environmental agency, Ibama — was invalid, given the failure to consult the Indians.
Once again, however, this court order is likely to be reversed by a higher court using the “Suspension of Security” instrument. Indeed, no judicial decision regarding the dams will likely be respected by the government until the case is judged by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, which will probably take decades. In practical terms, what the Tribunal decides will be irrelevant, for the Teles Pires dam is already operational and the São Manoel dam will come on stream later this year.
The Indians are outraged by the lack of respect with which they are being treated. A statement issued jointly by the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká in 2011, and quoted in the book-length report, Ocekadi, asks: “What would the white man say if we built our villages on the top of his buildings, his holy places and his cemeteries?” It is, the Munduruku say, the equivalent of razing St. Peters in Rome to construct a nuclear power plant, or digging up your grandmother’s grave to build a parking lot.
The researcher, Rosamaria Loures, who has been studying the Munduruku’s opposition to the hydroelectric projects, told Mongabay that their experience reveals one of the weaknesses of Brazilian society: “The Nation-State has established a hierarchy of values based on criteria like class, color and ethnic origin. In this categorization, certain groups ‘count less’ and can be simply crushed,” she explains.
A Munduruku Indian, Marcelo, who we spoke to within an indigenous territory near the town of Juara, expressed the same notion in the graphic terms of someone who experiences discrimination every day of his life:
“The ethnocide continues, in the way people look at us, the way they want us to be like them, subjugating our organizations, the way they tell us that our religion isn’t worth anything, that theirs is what matters, the way they tell us our behavior is wrong. They are obliterating the identity of the Indian as a human being.”