Dams, Soya, and More Dams

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Most of the Xingu river catchment area is now protected as designated areas; Indigenous Reserves, National Forests, Extractive Reserves, Ecological Stations and a variety of other legally delimited areas. But the headwaters, to the south, west and east, all lie outside of the protected areas.

Many of these headwaters were at one time occupied by Indians. But they were moved to new villages closer to the centre of the Xingu Indigenous Park (PIX) during the 1960s, where the famous Vilas Boas brothers could take better care of them. There still remain Indian elders who remember the old villages, and Brazilian law offers the possibility of reclaiming the land; both the Panara and the Kisedje (Suya) have succeeded in recovering land from ranchers.

The area around the PIX is now mostly converted to agriculture, and deforestation of the headwaters is affecting the Indians. As the forest is cleared, the amount of sediment, agrotoxins and other pollution entering the river grows, affecting the fish stocks and polluting the drinking water.

Recently, a dam on the Tanguro River burst, releasing accumulated agrotoxins and sediment into the river. People in Tanguro village witnessed large numbers of dead and rotting fish drifting down the river, and were warned not to drink water from the river.

There are proposals to construct a series of six hydroelectric dams on all of the main tributaries of the Xingu. One, known as Paranatinga II, is already under construction, on the Culuene River, at a location considered sacred by the Indians. This was the exact location of the first Kuarup, an extremely important festival when all of the tribes come together, and it was here that legend says the first Indian was created. There was a Kalapalo village here until the 1960s. To see an aerial view of the construction site, click here.

The dam is presently halted following challenges in the Brazilian courts. If it goes ahead, it will reduce the flow of water in the Culuene, the largest feeder into the Xingu. It will also set a precedent, making it easier for the other schemes to obtain approval.

The Caciques and all of the people of the Xingu are seriously concerned about this development, and with good reason. Arivirá Matipu explains:

“This hydroelectric scheme will destroy our supermarket. Our main source of food is the river, we don’t eat game and we don’t keep animals to eat. Our food is fish, and the river provides it. The river also brings water for our mandioca fields, from which we make beju which we eat every day, and our favourite drink mingau. If the dam is completed, the river will die. And if the river dies, we will have no food, there will be no more Indians and the forest will die.”

In each village we visit we hear the same story. We ask, “What do you see as the major threats to your future?” In each case, the answer is “We are most worried about the dam which is being constructed on the Culuene.”

It is no longer safe even to bathe in the river.The Indians have already seen a marked change in the local climate as a result of the clearance of the forest surrounding the reserve.

“The temperature nowadays is much higher,” says Tata Yawalapiti, sister of Cacique Aritana. “It used to be that we had a cold spell in June and July, but that doesn’t happen any more.”

Cacique Kotoki Kamayura has also noticed the change: “The rain used to start in September, and go on right through to April. Now the rains don’t start properly until December. I’m sure this is because of the deforestation to grow soya. In the last two or three years, the forests around the Park have been disappearing very fast; now there is almost nothing left. It is as though we are on an island of forest in an ocean of barren soya.”

The levels of the rivers are lower than they used to be because of this change in the local climate. The hydroelectric schemes will make them even lower, until the river becomes impossible to navigate and there are no longer fish for the Indians to eat.

The dams might provide electricity for some of the towns in the area, but even this is doubtful. If the forest dies it will affect the climate even more, reducing the rainfall and making the dam fail. Previous schemes have had mixed success, often failing because of silting of the dams and corrosion of the turbines. Today, as solar panel technology is progressing at a remarkable pace, it would surely be more sensible to promote this than to imperil the lives of tens of thousands of people, at the same time undermining the fragile ecological and climatic balance of the entire Xingu basin.

The company responsible for the proposal has been involved in a sustained attempt to deceive the Indians and to divide the different ethnic groups. They have succeeded to some extent, but the Indians now seem to be more united against the proposal. Early on, six of the Caciques in the Park were persuaded to sign a document agreeing to the construction, but all six have now asserted that the document they signed, under great pressure, did not coincide with what had been explained to them.

The site of the dam was the scene of a demonstration by representatives of the Xingu tribes, who occupied the partly-constructed dam and took some workers hostage. They were released unharmed after two days, but the Indians destroyed equipment and took away several valuable items including a car. This has turned public opinion, which had previously been sympathetic, against the Indians, and was very damaging to the actions going through the Brazilian courts.

Ikpeng Warriors show their anger at the construction of the Paranatinga II dam.Ilukotu Ikpeng explains their actions: “We are not thieves, and we don’t take other people’s things without a good reason. Some time ago, our land was invaded by loggers, so we went to their camp and sent them away. We took their Toyota, because they had damaged our land and stolen our trees. That was a fair and just act.

“It was the same thing with the dam, they have damaged our sacred site and they are polluting our river, which is now full of sediment.

“We Ikpeng are warriors. When someone attacks us, we fight back. When my sons went to the site of the dam, I told them to take things, to punish the company for the damage they have done, and to give us some recompense. If they carry on polluting the river, we will go back there and take more things until they stop.”

The construction company is now hiring staff to recommence work. But the cases continue their tortuous way through the Brazilian legal system, and there may still be a possibility of stopping the dam.

Recently, the UK-based organisation Survival International launched a campaign against the construction of dams which affect Brazil’s Indian communities, including Paranatinga II. We can only hope that this project is soon abandoned forever.

© Patrick Cunningham

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