Archive for the 'Heart of Brazil Expedition: Progress' Category

Altamira to Porto De Moz; Hydroelectric Potential 27th July 2007

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Banner Protesting About the Proposed Belo Monte DamAltamira is one of the ten members of the Belo Monte Consortium, a group of municipalities supporting the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam close to Altamira by the national electricity generating company Eletronorte. At first glance, the dam seems to be a well-founded project which will bring benefits to the region, and to Brazil as a whole, while causing disruption only to a small number of people.

The project is part of the Brazilian government’s “Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento” (Accelerated Growth Programme), but has already run into a quagmire of legal challenges which threaten to derail the government’s stated target of completing the licensing procedure by the middle of 2008.

Core to the legal challenges is the mechanism for consulting the Indian communities which would be affected. According to a ruling of the Regional Federal Court (Tribunal Regional Federal), this is the direct responsibility of Congress, and cannot be carried out by IBAMA, the government environment agency which has already begun the process of defining the terms of the consultation, without an act of congress.

During the last part of the Heart of Brazil Expedition, all of the Indian villages and riverside communities (ribeirinhos) we visited, from before São Félix do Xingu to beyond Altamira, voiced strong opposition to the dam. They told us that they are planning a large protest meeting.

There are many questions hanging over the dam. Who exactly will benefit from the huge generating capacity which is proposed? There is no shortage of electricity in the region, and recent progress in solar panel technology promises to provide even rural properties with abundant power.

Reflected Clouds and RainforestThe nearby Tucurui dam generates abundant power during most of the year, and its capacity has recently been practically doubled by the completion of a second phase. But the main beneficiaries of Tucurui have been the private mining and metal corporations, which have negotiated very beneficial contracts which amount to the supply of subsidised electricity for their commercial activities.

The Tucurui site was recently occupied by people who were displaced by the construction of the dam over twenty years ago, who are still today fighting for adequate compensation.

Since the Xingu dries up substantially during the months from July to October each year, many question the technical viability of the project. A recently published book, titled Tenotã–mõ (which in the Arawete language means “What Has Started” (o que segue à frente, o que começa) explains that a second dam will be required to justify the existence of the first by keeping it supplied with water during the dry months, thereby allowing it to operate throughout the year. Eletronorte have not been straightforward in disclosing this. The second dam would flood fifteen times more land than the first, and affect many more of the indigenous and riverside (ribeirinho) people.

Questions remain about the amount of electricity which would be generated. Tucurui often operates at less than a third of its stated capacity. During the dry season, the dam may be unable to generate any electricity at all. Surely it would be more sensible to improve the operation of the existing generating capacity, rather than drowning so many more square kilometres of forest?

Even the environmental claims for this non-fossil fuel means of producing electricity are under question. The greenhouse gases produced by rotting vegetation will more than negate any benefits derived from not using fossil fuels to generate the same amount of electricity for at least the first 39 years!

The Coração do Brasil with ParrotFor the Indians, the effect of the two dams would be disastrous. Their entire lives would be disrupted, and they would have no alternative but to join the ‘money society’ to acquire everyday essentials including food, debasing and undermining the very core of their culture in the process, and making them dependent on outside assistance to maintain their lives.

Fishing in an open body of water is much more difficult than in a confined channel, and as fish is the main source of protein for the Indians, they would be unable to supply their basic dietary needs. They already have difficulty when the river is in full flood, and this would be drastically worsened by the dams.

The dams would transform the ecology of thousands of square kilometres of rain forest in unpredictable ways, changing the balance of species and even affecting the climate. The proponents of the dam use the uncertainty to mask the likely negative impacts. Even an independent social and environmental study is unlikely to identify all of the problems. Within the government’s stated time-scale, it is simply impossible to carry out an assessment which will do more than look at the most superficial effects of the proposal.

It is not clear from the very restricted amount of information available on the Eletronorte website whether the effects of climate change and the reduction in the flow of the river which will result from the proposed construction of six hydroelectric schemes on the headwaters of the Xingu river have been taken into account in the technical studies on which the proposal is based. All along the river, everybody, from Indians to fazendeiros, from caboclos to businesspeople in the towns, has been telling us about changes in the local climate.

There is now no room for doubt that the climate is changing, and changing very quickly. The local people report decreased rainfall during the months from October to December, and much hotter weather the whole year through. They report river levels much lower than before during the dry season, with the very low water levels which make river travel difficult arriving several weeks earlier.

Driving the Boat by Foot!It is possible that the Brazilian government may decide to override the rights of people living on the margins of the river and implement this proposal, claiming that it will benefit the people of Brazil as a whole. It seems that this claim is spurious, and that the only beneficiaries will be a small handful of powerful Brazilian and international corporations.

We passed the site of the first proposed dam on our way to Paquissamba. The village lies below the site, and the river at that point will be completely cut off, leaving the village high and dry, unable to fish and unable to use the river for transport.

Further downriver from the site of the dam we rejoined the river, having returned to Altamira to take the Coração do Brasil by road to Vitoria do Xingu for the last leg of the expedition.

The river here has the proportions of a lake. From Vitoria to Porto de Moz is a distance of 120 kilometres, and the river is over 10 kilometres wide for most of the distance. We encountered almost maritime conditions, our small boat repeatedly banging down on the waves, jarring our bones and blurring our vision.

This last journey in the Coração do Brasil was otherwise uneventful, so Sue and I had plenty of time to reflect on our experiences over the last four months. We have learned a huge amount during our travels, re-meeting old friends in some villages and making new ones in others.

Porto de MozAs we sped towards Porto de Moz, our final destination, we thought about the strength and vibrance of the indigenous cultures we had seen, and we reflected on the progress many ethnic groups have made towards self-determination.

We shed some tears for the villages where things are so much worse than they were, and we thought of the threats to the river and its people which are so powerful today, from the soya farms and hydroelectric schemes on the headwaters to the huge Belo Monte dam proposed so close to the mouth of the river.

We thought about what must be done to protect this river we have come to know so intimately, with its breathtaking vistas, its boiling rapids, its majestic curves, its vibrant forests and its remarkable people.

We realised that our journey, far from being over, is only just beginning.

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

Eletronorte’s Belo Monte website:
International Rivers:
Summary of Tenotã–mõ:
– The full text of the book is available to download (in Portuguese) on this page (in six pdf files):
capa parte I parte II parte III parte IV parte V

Maps: vale do rio Xingu e barragens projetadas

© Patrick Cunningham

São Félix do Xingu to Paquissamba 20th July 2007

Avia Parakanã, of Aldeia XinguFrom São Félix do Xingu we moved on downriver. A long day in the Coração do Brasil took us to within a short distance of the Parakanã village of Xingu, where we made a short visit before moving on to Apyterewa, also of the Parakanã.

These villages lie in what is now the Apyterewa reserve. By the time the reserve was demarcated, a large part had been occupied by settlers and ranchers, and the teams doing the physical demarcation were harassed and threatened by gunmen from the ranches. The Indians today are not able to enter parts of the reserve, where they still encounter armed workers. Efforts by the authorities to remove the illegal occupants have so far been unsuccessful.

We moved on to visit the villages of the Araweté, Asurini and Arara, and the Kayapo village of Kararaô, before arriving in Altamira.

After overnighting in the town, we headed out to visit our last village, leaving Altamira at about 10 AM for a journey which our boatmen assured us would take three hours. Our plan was to return the same day.

Illegal Gold Dredger on the Xingu River.We passed crudely-constructed gold dredgers busily churning up the sediment of the river in their illegal quest for the yellow metal. We also saw the riverside remains of several garimpos at the side of the river.

The river here is treacherous, with stretch after stretch of rock-strewn rapids. More than once the bottom of the boat scraped worryingly over the rocks. Doto, our boatman, reacted quickly to lift the outboard motor clear of the water.

Rapids on the Xingu RiverIt gradually dawned on us that he was searching for the correct channel; we realised that his assurances that he knew the river were not based on fact. As more time passed, it became clear that not only did he not know the correct channel, but he didn’t have the faintest idea of the location of the village.

At this point the river is over 5 kilometres wide, a maze of islands, rocks, sandbanks and rapids. Our progress was slowed to a crawl. Eventually, we came across a local man in a boat, who was able to give Doto some directions; we were on the wrong side of a large island, and we had to re-trace our tracks for several kilometres – still at a crawl – and find the village from the other side.

We shot several rapids, ending up in a dead end. We returned through the swirling water, and I was ready to call a halt and return to Altamira. By now it was after 3 PM, so we were heading for an uncomfortable night somewhere, with no shelter; there was not enough time to make the return in daylight, and the rapids were too dangerous to attempt a night-time navigation.

We took one more turn, heading downstream, looking for a way to cross back to a larger channel we had left some time before. I realised that there was a full flow of water; this was still close to the bank of the river where the village lies. We followed the flow, rounded a bend – and there was the tell-tale collection of dugout canoes!

Aldeia Ipixuna. Arawete arrows.The village bears the same name as another we also visited in the Parque Indígena Xingu; Paquissamba. Like its namesake, it is occupied by Juruna Indians; but there the similarity ends.

These Juruna speak only Portuguese; there remain just a couple of elderly members of the community who are able to speak the Juruna language. They have lost their traditions of dance, body painting and pottery making, and they no longer keep up the tribal traditions of singing and celebrations. They live in houses more like those of their ribeirinho neighbours than those of their relatives in the Xingu Indigenous Park.

We came bearing a message from the cacique of Tuba Tuba, the largest of the traditional Juruna villages in the Parque Indígena Xingu. He sent with us a gourd vessel painted with traditional Juruna designs, the same ones they use in their body painting. He asked us to deliver an invitation to the Juruna of Pará to visit his village.

The invitation was received by Manoel, the cacique of Paquissamba, with a mixture of pleasure and shame; he was very happy to receive the invitation, but he was ashamed that he could not speak the Juruna language, that he knew none of the dances or songs. We assured him that he had no need to be ashamed, that the invitation was from the heart. He promised us that he would take up the invitation if he had the opportunity.

We stayed the night in the small village, which straggles up a hillside from the river bank, an untidy collection of wooden houses, some of which have been abandoned by inhabitants who have left to live elsewhere. The roof of the school is falling in, so the children have their lessons in an open-sided hut opposite the health post. During our visit, there was no water because of a problem with the pump from the well.

Inside the houses, the people had more material goods than we are accustomed to seeing; furniture, televisions, DVD players, sound systems, cookers, cutlery and crockery. The houses had more the feel of non-Indian houses than those found in most of the other villages we have visited.

We found the village keen to be involved in agricultural production; cacau, black pepper (pimenta do reino), and even cattle. But the village is isolated, and has little access to the materials and expertise needed to set these activities in action.

Patrick Cunningham at the helm of the Coração do BrasilIt was in a strange way fitting that the last village we visited should be the most aligned to mainstream Brazilian culture; this was our transition back to Brazilian life.

We returned to Altamira the next day, since there are impassable waterfalls just a little further downriver. The return journey took a little over four hours, and was much less eventful than the previous day.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Altamira to Porto de Moz

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

A-Ukre 13th July 2007

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Commandante Pereira, owner of PEMA air taxis.To reach the Kayapó village of A-Ukre we had to fly. Our budget for the expedition is very limited and did not include the high cost of chartering aircraft, but we had been introduced to Pereira, who runs PEMA, the air taxi service in Ourilândia which is used by the Indian health service. When we explained the expedition to him, he arranged for Fernando, on of his sons, to fly us in to A-Ukre and wait for a few hours while we held our meeting with the village, and he gave us a discount which made the flight possible.

The small plane took off from Ourilândia, just a few kilometres from Tucumã. We flew over many kilometres of almost total deforestation, where the trees have been felled and burnt, supposedly to provide cattle pasture.

The curious thing was that we saw very few cattle on all this land; so why have all the trees been felled, and for what has the precious Brazilian biodiversity heritage been sacrificed? It seems that the landowners have done this in order to make fast money be re-selling the land which, perversely, is more valuable once it has been stripped of its natural riches, in a binge of deals based on spurious claims of ownership; just 25% of this state’s land is properly registered.

After many kilometres, we reached the boundary of the Kayapó reserve, where the denuded landscape immediately gave way to the richness of the unbroken forests which stretched to the horizon in front of us.

Arriving at A-UkreWe dipped down low over the treetops, aiming for the tiny exclamation mark of an airstrip stretching away from us in the distance. As soon as the plane came to a halt it was surrounded by curious faces, and we were taken immediately into the centre of the village.

This was one of two villages which had been involved with the Body Shop project to commercialise the production of Brazil nut oil. Although the project came to an end two years ago, it had the beneficial effect of diverting the village at an early stage from their involvement with logging companies. As a result, the village avoided the worst effects of contact with the loggers, and we found them keen to re-start nut oil production. This made a refreshing change from the complaints and demands for money we had heard in other Kayapó villages.

The difficulty is that there is a limited market for the oil, and since the Body Shop project ended there has been no buyer prepared to pay enough to justify the high cost of transporting the oil out of the village, which can only be done for most of the year by air. The village today has lost the income from the project, and has not managed to replace it, so they are in a difficult position; they have become used to having a certain level of purchasing power, and to do without that after many years is hard.

A-Ukre Village from the AirBut at least they were not left totally dependent and incapable of managing their own affairs, as were the villages who dealt with the loggers over a longer period. Here, at least, we found just a glimmer of hope for the future, though they will need help to find an alternative source of income, either a buyer for the oil or another product which they can sell for a high enough price to make it worthwhile delivering it to market; with no money and with no means of communication, and little understanding of the commercial world, they are not equipped to start looking for buyers.

A-Ukre is a village Sue visited many times about fifteen years ago. Then, it was full of optimism for the future, a traditional thatch and timber circular village with a lively culture. Today it consists of a square of close-packed identikit wooden houses with corrugated roofs, with a few of the more traditional people still living in houses of adobe and thatch outside the square, where the old circle used to be. The village has a subdued feel to it, and one senses that it has somehow lost its way and isn’t able to find it again without help.

Child with traditional body paint and beadworkThere are people trying to help, but the piece of the jigsaw which is missing is the person who can find markets for their production of Brazil nut oil. Without a viable long-term market, the village will never become self-sufficient, and its people will never learn the skills needed to make the best of their growing relationship with mainstream Brazilian culture.

We left A-Ukre with very mixed feelings. While it was good for Sue to be able to catch up, even briefly, with old friends, we couldn’t help feeling that the progress which the Body Shop project brought was limited and to some extent transitory, capable of being quickly reversed once the project ended. The village was never really able to establish a viable commercial operation, and they never had a chance to learn enough of the skills they need for the future during the life of the project.

As the plane gathered speed along the short landing strip there were tears in both our eyes. Because of the cost of the flight, the visit had been just a couple of hours, and for Sue this was painful. For me, although this was my first visit, I knew so many of the people from their photographs that I felt a mixture of regret for the village I had never known, and sadness for the difficult situation in which I found the village of today.

In the plane with the Caciques of A-UkreOur plane climbed over the riot of green that is the forest which the Indians still protect. What might happen if they were no longer living there was driven home for me as we flew over a huge bite eaten in to the reserve from its northern boundary. Our pilot explained that this area had been invaded by a fazenda (ranch) about ten years ago; it took until two years ago for the Federal authorities to enforce the law by removing the invaders. By then all the trees had been stripped. It will take a generation for the forest to re-colonise the land.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Paquissamba

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

Loggers and Indians 7th July 2007

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Roadside RepairsFrom São Félix we took a bus to Tucumã, four hours away. We then went by camionete pick-up to the riverside on our way to the Kayapo villages which are located along the Riozinho River. The journey should have taken three or four hours, but the steering of the vehicle gave way halfway and we were left in the mid-day sun for three hours while our driver found a lift back to Tucumã, unearthed a mechanic (it was Saturday), and returned to carry out a roadside repair.

As a result of the delay, we arrived at the river as darkness fell, leaving us with a night-time boat ride of three hours. It was a wonderful night with a full moon and the Kayapo boatman knew the river like the back of his hand, so we were able to really enjoy the experience. We arrived at Kikretum after ten o’clock; apart from a couple of televisions, the village was quiet.

Aldeia KikretumNext day was a revelation for us. We are used to small villages of around 200 to 300 people; Kikretum has 800! The village is an uneasy mix of traditional and brick houses; in the past the village traded large numbers of mahogany trees for the construction of the brick and tile houses, and other trappings of white society.

The brick houses were built in a large circle in the traditional way. Today, many of them are deserted and crumbling. The village has reverted to building the much more comfortable and appropriate traditional thatch and wood or adobe houses, most of which are in a new circle inside the brick houses. At a first casual glance, the village is traditional Kayapo; it is only on further consideration that the brick houses can be seen.

The village shows just how transitory are the supposed advantages the Indians gain from their liaisons with loggers and illegal gold miners (garimpeiros). For a few short years, this was a village apparently in transition from a traditional way of life to something closer to mainstream Brazilian culture. But the appearance was deceptive; with no long-term source of revenue and no income-generating employment, the ‘progress’ came to an abrupt halt as soon as the loggers disappeared from the scene.

By the time this happened, there were no more mahogany trees worth extracting in the area. In fact, the trade was ended by a change in the law to prohibit the export of quality timber (madeira de lei), combined with action by IBAMA (the government Environment agency) and the Federal Police. But even if this had not occurred, the income would have continued for only a few more years, until the useful timber was exhausted.

The relationship between the village and the loggers was heavily loaded on the side of the loggers. But Kikretum was not the only village drawn by the promise of easy money and the trappings it could bring.

The logger would befriend the Cacique over a period of time, carefully cultivating the ‘friendship’ with generous gifts. In some cases, the result was a drunken cacique.

Aerial View of A-Ukre VillageThen the logger offered the infrastructure; “Wouldn’t it be better for you if you had nice houses like you see in the towns? Your old thatch and wood houses catch fire so easily, and you have to build new ones every few years. You’d have these for ever. Tell you what, I’ll build them for you! Just sign this piece of paper….”

The piece of paper was a contract, valuing the houses at an inflated cost, and putting in place an exchange for timber, which was conversely valued at a very low price. Thus the trading relationship was established. It continued; whatever the village needed, the logger would provide. “Oh Cacique, just sign this piece of paper to say you received R$2,000……”. But the Cacique signed a blank piece of paper; his ‘friend’ would fill it in later “…when I have some time..”. And when he came to fill in the receipt, he would put R$5,000, R$10,000 or whatever he felt like putting.

The Cacique returned to the village triumphantly laden with food, tobacco, televisions, sometimes beer or cachaça – and without leaving any money in the village bank account. Soon the food had run out and he returned for more money, always signing away more timber. The televisions required electricity; the logger installed a huge generator, which required a constant supply of fuel.

Men in Kikretum VillageWith such easy money, the villagers no longer needed to maintain their plantations. Their diets changed, replacing the fresh foods of the forest with dried and packaged foods from the towns. Manioc and sweet potatoes were replaced by biscuits and Coca Cola. Soon their teeth were rotting, their children were suffering from malnutrition and their health was in a descending spiral from lack of exercise and an impoverished diet.

By the time the loggers were removed, the Indians had become dependent on the things the easy logging money brought. Now, with no income to maintain the houses, the generators and the televisions, the Indians are unhappy. They blame everyone; FUNAI, IBAMA, President Lula. Each village wants a bigger slice of the available resources.

Men of Kikretum Village watching a football match on TVOrganisations like Floresta Protegida and Instituto Raoni are trying to help these villages to develop alternative sources of income, but it is an uphill struggle. Most sustainable products do not generate a high price, and their extraction or production requires some effort on the part of the Indians. There are successes, but they are hard to maintain, needing constant inputs of resources and organisation.

Markets are difficult to find and can be fickle, disappearing overnight and leaving the villages dispirited and demoralised. The Indians have no way of finding markets for themselves, other than through the local middlemen who pay only a fraction of the value.

What the Indians need is someone dynamic with experience in marketing to find markets for them and carry out the administrative necessities which dealing with the commercial world brings. The non-governmental organisations are not well-equipped to perform this function, but the right person could improve the lives of many villages.

And in some places the loggers are back. Now that so much of the non-Indigenous land has been denuded of its trees, even the less valuable timbers are rising in price, making invasions and deals with gullible villages viable once again.

Maria Kayapo, widow of Cacique Tuto Pombo.There are many Indians in the villages who recognise the failings of the logging years. The women are returning to the plantations, and many of the men are embracing the new projects with renewed energy. Their diets are improving once again, driven by necessity rather than by desire.

With help, the new future will be one which is truly sustainable, and which will enable the Indian communities to maintain their traditions and return to the good health of their old way of life, yet give them the buying power for the things they need to purchase.

With help, the new sources of income will be properly managed to benefit all of the communities instead of benefitting the few and bringing divisions and friction to the villages.

With help, the people of the villages will learn the lessons needed to make sense of their relationship with the people and the goods of the mainstream Brazilian culture.

But without help, the future contact with Brazilian society will bring more division, more bad health, more cultural damage and more destruction of the environment.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: A-Ukre

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

Frontier Towns 4th July 2007

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São Félix do Xingu: Churches are on every street.São Félix do Xingu has had a chequered history. It sits at the junction of the Fresco River with the Xingu, close to the geographical centre of Brazil. Ferries cross both rivers, giving access to areas of land which are nominally protected under Brazilian law, but are some of the most intense areas of deforestation in the world. São Félix grew rapidly from a few houses in the middle of the last century as the timber industry moved into the area.

Today São Félix is a thriving little town, deriving its income from the many cattle ranches which have been torn out of the forest, and the timber which is felled in the process. The internet cafés and computer shops sit uncomfortably next to stores providing saddles and horse-drawn carts. There is an evangelical church on every street, and the town is dominated by a large Catholic church.

Street sign in São Félix do XinguBut São Félix has another side. There remain several large landowners who still use gunmen to frighten away, and occasionally kill, any of their workers who have stepped out of line. Sometimes the violence penetrates to the heart of the town, and the citizens witness the gory end of a gunman who has displeased his boss, right on their doorsteps.

In a recent report, the national newspaper O Globo told of the violence, citing the murder of Pedro Lira following a disagreement with a local landowner. The 23-year-old farmer’s ear was cut off to prove to the person who ordered his murder that the crime had been carried out.

IBAMA , the government environment agency, has no representation in the town. The illegal logging trucks roll through the town with depressing frequency. They are easy to identify; they are ancient and decrepit, and bear no registration plates. If by any remote chance they were to be apprehended, the vehicle might be seized but the owner could not be traced; the drivers are all too aware of their bosses’ reputations to offer any co-operation to the authorities in identifying those behind the destruction.

Illegal logging truckThese are no small-scale backwoods operations. The richest landowner keeps a helicopter at the airport and buzzes above the town just for pleasure during his occasional visits.

It is said that one of the most dangerous men in the area recently arranged for his criminal record, complete with outstanding charges, to be ‘cleansed’; this can only be achieved by someone with connections at the very highest level of the Federal government. The names of senior members of the government are frequently cited as having large holdings of land in the area, albeit often in the names of third party nominees.

Flying over the area reveals the extent of deforestation. There is a law in Brazil that the owners of land in Amazonia may not deforest more than a fifth of their land; yet our overflight let us see that the converse is true; in many areas outside of the indigenous reserves, barely a fifth of the land retains its forest cover.

A further paradox; the density of cattle on the land we flew over seems to be very low. In the past, we would see huge herds of cattle; nowadays there are just a few head spread out over a large area. Admittedly this is merely a casual observation, but it seemed very obvious to us that something has changed in the forces driving land ownership and use. Perhaps buying and selling the land through whatever corrupt channels lead to large funds of government money has taken over from husbanding cattle for meat or dairy produce as a more profitable activity?

Sign at the entrance to Ourilândia do NorteIn the interior town of Ourilândia do Norte, the mining company Onça Puma is preparing to mine a huge reserve of nickel. While mining its mineral wealth is a vital source of income for Brazil, past experience has shown that such activities attract large numbers of people into an area, and result in increased destruction of the forest. In this area where there is already a ‘black hole’ of governance and where laws are ignored rather than flouted, this new development can only be considered dangerous.

The Brazilian authorities must shoulder their responsibilities and bring the policing and regulation of this area out of the Wild West and into the twenty-first century. At present, the activities in this area more than outweigh all of the very praiseworthy efforts of Brazil to protect the Amazon environment.

Street in São Félix do XinguThe huge mining companies – Onça Puma is a subsidiary of Compania Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), the second biggest mining company in the world – must also be seen to be improving their environmental performance. With their wealth and power, they can no longer ignore their responsibility to minimise the impact of their operations on the wider environment, or ignore the social and economic effects on the local community. CVRD should be pressing the government to intervene to put an end to the deplorable illegal practices which are devastating this area.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Loggers and Indians

Please consider making a donation to IPCST to support our work with the indigenous people of the Xingu. Click here.

Jurunas and Kayapos 22nd June 2007

UPDATED: Click here: to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.This is the last of three posts all published on the same day, though written over the last four weeks. Please scroll down to see the other two posts.

After I wrote my last article, we travelled a further day without seeing another human being.

A tyre from a logging machine at the end of an abandoned logging road.We did, however, encounter the detritus of a lamentable piece of local history. We saw on the banks of the river the terminal ports of a number of roads which previously threaded their way through the forest, bringing logs of mahogany illegally felled in the Indian reserve to the river.

They can be identified by the mess they leave behind; a huge discarded tyre from one of the machines used to drag the trunks through the forest, a corroded diesel engine piston, a makeshift barbecue grill of perforated metal, a length of yellow hose, and the untidy shreds of the black plastic used for the crude shelters thrown together by the workers.

Mercifully, the roads we saw were all overgrown with several years of undergrowth. Clearly the loggers are long gone, at least from this area. Whether this is the result of effective government enforcement action or simply because all of the most valuable trees have been removed is open to question.

Cacique Yaiya Juruna of Tuba Tuba village.As we moved down the river, Paulo, our Juruna boatman, pointed out the locations of old Juruna villages, including the place where he was born and spent his childhood.

Two centuries ago, this part of the river was the domain only of the Juruna, a peaceful ethnic group who built their villages mainly on the many islands. But they were constantly attacked and harassed by the belligerent Kayapo, who hounded them upriver.

When German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen navigated the river in the 1880s, the Juruna still held out. He traded with them for replacement canoes for his expedition, and Juruna boatmen helped him with their incomparable knowledge of the river.

By the 1940s, when the government-sponsored Roncador-Xingu expedition began to build contact with the Indians in the area, the Juruna had been driven far upriver into Mato Grosso State. Today, many Juruna live in the towns of Pará State, but there still remain several traditional villages inside the Xingu Indigenous Park, the largest of which is Tuba Tuba. We found the Juruna to be very sympathetic and supportive, and they have a great sense of fun; in Tuba Tuba, Sue danced with the women well into the night.

Ireroko Kayapo, a teacher at the Pukarankre village school.The Juruna want to return to their old areas, in what is today the Kayapo reserve of Mekragnoti. Nowadays the ethnic groups have a more peaceful relationship, and the Kayapo support the proposal. This would reunite the diaspora of Juruna spread out over two states back in their original home in Pará, removing them from the misery of life on the fringes of the frontier towns and reinforcing and rebuilding the strong traditional culture we witnessed in Tuba Tuba. With their colourful festivals and clearly identifiable body paint and decoration, the Juruna could become a symbol of Pará’s integrity and culture.

After our two days of isolation we reached the Kayapo village of Pukararankre. Sited at the foot of a steep hill above a side channel of the Xingu, hidden behind a densely forested island, this is a traditional village of small thatch, timber and adobe houses. We joined with the village as they danced, enjoying the entrancing rhythmic chanting and the intricate designs of their face and body painting. Sue was briefly abducted by two smiling women, retuning with her arms adorned in the artistic linear pattern typical of the Kayapo.

In the evening it was the turn of the unmarried warriors and girls. They sang, they danced. It was obvious that the outward appearance of a well-established ritual included plenty of opportunity for social interaction as boys and girls flirted and laughed. I thought again about how much our society has lost with the dismantling of this kind of structured social occasion. In the age of the television and computer, there are lamentably few opportunities for our teenagers to meet in a controlled yet exciting atmosphere of fun. Watching these young people really letting go and enjoying themselves was sheer joy. In the end, we felt that they needed the field to themselves so we retired to our hammocks; but we could hear the party going on for hours!

On our last day in the village, we decided to climb the hill to get an overview. Close to the top, I lost The view of Pukarankre from the top; almost worth the pain!my balance and slipped, badly bruising my ribs, to the point where I thought they may be broken. I am now taking regular doses of painkillers, but it still hurts when I twist and I am unable to lift anything heavy. We have arrived in the town of São Felix do Xingu, so I am able to rest for a few days while catching up with internet-related work. The local hospital has an X-ray machine but the doctor informed us that they had been waiting for weeks for supplies of the chemicals necessary to develop the X-rays. In a town of uneven roads and motor bikes this omission must be making life difficult for the only orthopaedic specialist in town.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Frontier Towns

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The Story Continues; 15th June 2007

UPDATED: Click here: to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

….And So the Story Goes

A few days ago, FUNAI officials arrived in Metuktire from Kremoro with more detailed information about the situation there.

It now seems that the presence in the village of a large group of previously uncontacted Kayapo was an embellishment. In fact, the maximum possible number is three.

Near Metuktire village. A machete left by the team trying to establish contact with the group of uncontacted Kayapo.The only people to have claimed to have seen them are the two brothers, Beprytire and Bepro, who repeatedly pleaded for the rest of the village to keep away from the house where the group were supposedly staying. Eventually they said that the three had fled back to the forest because they were disturbed by the arrival of an aircraft, leaving no incontrovertible evidence of their visit.

There remains the evidence of their voices, recorded between the 27th and 31st May. The recordings have now been taken to FUNAI Brasilia for analysis, and should ultimately establish exactly how many there were, stripping away any exaggerations added by the two young men.

If this is a hoax, it will have been a huge waste of the lamentably restricted resources allocated to the agency by the government. But a FUNAI source has said that they believe that a contact did occur, though not on the scale previously stated.

The Xingu River is unbelievably beautiful in this isolated stretch.We left Metuktire the day before yesterday. We negotiated the two most difficult sets of rapids, the von Martius and the Pedras. The previously placid river has given way to a series of rocky stretches, each of which is especially perilous at this time of year. In the dry season, the channels are easily seen; in the wet season the whole of the river is deep enough to navigate. But at this time of year the water covers the whole width, with many treacherous rocks lurking just below the surface.

The water bubbles and ripples over the rocks, sounding happy and strangely relaxing despite the dangers it hides. The rapids look deceptively mild, but the currents they generate and the rocks they hide are unpredictable.

One of these rocks caught our propeller and took off the tip of one blade, throwing it out of balance. We carry a spare, but there are many more rocky stretches and we risk being left with only a paddle to continue the expedition.

Xingu River. Rounded rocks tower over the banks of the river.The river here is breathtakingly beautiful. Yesterday we passed many islands, interspersed with huge rounded boulders, the broken remains of rocky outcrops and occasional sandy beaches. I am continuously humbled by this wonderful experience. Here, right in the centre of a thriving modern country, we spent the entire day yesterday travelling along one of its largest rivers, in an area of outstanding natural beauty – and we did not encounter a single person the whole day.

Tucunare Fish ready to cook.As I write this, I am sitting on a small sandy island early in the morning. To left and right the morning mist lies like a blanket over the slow-moving water, with green walls of forest gradually appearing on the other side, their tops still hidden. Our boatman Paulo, a Juruna Indian, has already been at work and has caught a large Tucunare fish for our meal. This is now grilling over an open fire. We look forward to the feast; yesterday’s fish was piranha, which is full of bones and much less appetising.

Last night we were woken occasionally by the sound of our neighbour, a medium-sized caiman, as he hurled himself into the water after some unsuspecting prey. This morning we investigated his movements; his footprints showed that he never ventured further than the edge of the beach.

The night before, our camp was visited by a pair of tapirs, which arrived on the island from the bank of the river, stayed briefly, then swam away again. We didn’t see them, though there were occasional noises, but we identified their footprints the following morning just twenty metres from the tent.

As we move along the river we encounter frequent river turtles, and we see the splash of jumping fish. Sometimes a large bird accompanies us for a stretch, gliding effortlessly alongside before diving into the water to feed on the plentiful fish of the river.

One of our island campsites.Sitting here I feel incongruous, laptop on my knee, typing diligently, though bites from the pium which infest the rocky areas continuously remind me of where I am. The pepperpot of tiny wounds which started on my feet in Metuktire now reach up my legs to my thighs, and the itching is becoming intolerable. When we are travelling along the river the wind of our speed gives us a welcome respite, but as soon as we stop the insects begin to feast on our blood. We have to decide either to cover ourselves with long trousers and shirts with sleeves, or to put up with the bites; here, our repellent is largely ineffective; probably the advertising of the manufacturers has not reached the insects in these parts.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Jurunas and Kayapos

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Metuktire 7th June 2007

UPDATED. Triumph! On our return to São Félix do Xingu we find they’ve improved the Internet connection, so I’ve managed to upload some pictures. Click here: to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

Me being painted ready for our anniversary party in Metuktire village.

Today is our wedding anniversary. We are spending it in the Kayapó village of Metuktire, close to the Von Martius waterfalls. We can hear the sound of water rushing over the rapids towards the Amazon, our final destination; it still seems very, very distant.

This part of the journey is over completely different terrain, full of rocks and rapids. For the first time, the river will form the boundary of the indigenous reserve, instead of passing through it. We will at times have deforested farm land on the right bank and forest only on the left. In this area, the Indians have sometimes come under fire from aggressive fazendeiros, fishermen and gold prospectors (garimpeiros).

Metuktire village suffers from far too many insects which bite, mostly pium, tiny black flies which leave a very itchy and inflamed bite with an alarming, almost black dot of a scab in the centre. Mercifully, these do not carry diseases like malaria, but they bite morning, noon and into the evening.

Repellents are partially effective, but the best protection is a thick application of oil, which the Kayapó use. The flies die immediately they settle on the oil. The problem with this is that it makes doing practically anything impossible, because my hands are permanently slippery. Yesterday, I helped our host, Cacique Waiwai, to repair his boat. I had great difficulty handling the tools, and today my feet look like an angry pepper pot of red with black dots.

A House in Metuktire village.The village follows the traditional circular pattern with a nobe, or men’s house, at the centre. Last night we stood in the middle of the circle, admiring the stars. The cacique joined us to explain some of the Kayapó cosmology; the love affair between Venus and a  Kayapó warrior; and the line of stars climbing skywards which guides the growth of young  Kayapó children.

Metuktire is the closest village to the site of an aeroplane accident last year involving a Gol Boeing and an executive jet which cost the lives over a hundred people. The wreckage of the Boeing came to earth in a remote region of forest, and the people of Metuktire were the first on the scene, arriving the day following the accident after an arduous trek through the forest.

Waiwai Txucarramae, our host in Metuktire village.The scene was terrible. We very quickly realised there were no survivors,” said cacique Waiwai, one of the first to reach the wreckage. “There was very little we could do. There was nobody alive; there were bodies everywhere. It was very sad, and we were very badly affected, because we wanted to help. All we could do was to make a clearing in the forest so that the army could land their helicopters. Once they were there, they sent us away.”

For the Kayapó, to bury their dead properly is very important because they believe that the spirits of their forefathers continue to inhabit the forest. Burial rites continue for may months after a person dies, so the main concern of the rescue party was that the bodies of the victims of the accident would be returned to their relatives for burial.

The village neighbours Kremoro, where recently an uncontacted group made contact (see last week’s report). Kremoro is more than a day’s journey on foot from here, but our hosts are keeping in touch with developments by VHF radio.

A few days ago, two aircraft arrived in Kremoro carrying FUNAI sertanistas and officials. Unfortunately, the arrival of the aircraft panicked the uncontacted group, who fled back into the forest. They have reappeared sporadically, but have not returned to the village. They had told stories of being shot at by white people, so their reaction is entirely understandable.

Sue sharing a joke with Bebkwa TxucarramaeBack in Metuktire, the village has decided to put on a party for our anniversary. I am at this moment sitting in the radio room with Cacique Waiwai, who is now painted in full with strong black lines running from neck to waist, his legs black to the ankles ready for the party. Sue and I feel very honoured that they are doing this for us; the Kayapó are a very proud and confident people, and it takes time to gain their respect and acceptance.

The young men playing football in Metuktire village.Metuktire is the home of Raoni, who travelled the world with rock star Sting to raise support for the demarcation of the Mekgranoti reserve in the early 1990s. Raoni is in Japan this week; he continues to fight for the rights of his people. He will return here, to his recently-completed traditional house of wood and palm thatch, in a few days. If we can, we will delay our departure until he arrives, because we promised to visit him in his house the last time we met, but it is not clear exactly when he will reach the village.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: The Story Continues

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A few days ago, a previously unknown group of Kayapo Indians emerged from the forest to contact their relatives in the village of Kremoro. Although it is only 50 kilometres from the Xingu River, the Heart of Brazil Expedition cannot reach the village because there is no access overland or by river.

The first contact was made by two men who approached the house of Bepro, son of one of the Benajures (village chiefs). He went to find out what was causing noises at the back of house late one evening, to find two strange Indians, who beckoned for him to follow them into the forest. He started to follow, and had a brief conversation before becoming frightened. Having gone out without his torch, he was afraid that these were the ‘wild Indians’ he had heard rumours about, and that they were luring him  away from the village to kill him.

Bep’ and Patxom Txucarramae talking abut the arrival of the uncontacted group.Some days later, the unknown Indians came again to the village, making noises behind another house. This time they disappeared back into the forest before anyone could catch a glimpse of them.

Bepro and his brother Beprytire decided, against the advice of the rest of the village, to go into the forest to look for them. They soon found them and had a brief conversation, during which they established that the strange Indians were Kayapo, though they spoke an archaic version of the language. The newcomers were obviously nervous and asked if the other villagers would come after them and kill them. Beprytire answered that the Kayapo today don’t fight with other Indians, and that they would be safe. Nonetheless, the newcomers became more agitated and disappeared again.

When the brothers returned to their village they were greeted with disbelief, so the next night they went out again, this time with an audio recorder. Again they talked to the newcomers, beginning by now to establish a little more trust. The newcomers told them their people were worried because they knew the forest was being destroyed nearer and nearer to their village, and although they had built it under the canopy of the forest, they were afraid they would be discovered and killed.

Young Kayapo Indians listening tensely to the radio.This time when they returned to the village, the brothers had the tantalising sound of the newcomers’ voices to prove they existed. The village was thunderstruck; the old men re-told stories about a split in the village which happened in the 1950s, when three families disappeared into the forest. One family was later accounted for when they were found dead from disease, but the other two disappeared. Could it be that this group was one of those families?

Benajure Megaron Txucarramae was contacted by radio at the regional FUNAI government Indian agency where he is Director, and the village began to try to encourage their new-found relatives to come into the village. Little by little, they enticed the two Indians to come nearer. The two were joined by others, until there were eleven in all.

Eventually the newcomers ventured into the men’s hut in the centre of the village. The people of Kremoro decided that they should make them welcome in the traditional way, so they painted themselves and began to dance. This brought an unexpected reaction; the newcomers broke down and cried. They said that it was as if they were coming back to life after the years of isolation in the forest.

Little by little, the number of people grew.

The next day there were 36.

Today, Kremoro is hosting 86 visitors, all speaking a strange, old-fashioned dialect of their language, all naked, the men with penis sheathes and seven of them with large lip-plates, the women with their heads shaved on top. The newcomers are talking about long-dead relatives who they had left behind, and the villagers of Kremoro are both excited and at the same time pensive. The newcomers are now more confident, but they will still only talk to the two brothers who initiated the contact.

The few people from Kremoro who are in town are glued to the crackly radio which is the only direct communication with the village. When the radio transmitted a recording of the newcomers’ voices and singing they became emotional, some with tears in their eyes, some with faraway expressions.

Puiu Txucarramae, Megaron’s second-in-command, cried out and thumped the table in excitement:
“Everyone was emotional; I was listening, and I said to myself , no, I have to leave, because it was making me…very…very…sad; so I had to leave, because their words were very old-fashioned, very good words with great weight. So I became very emotional, and I had to leave the radio room and stop listening, because I was almost crying.”

Young men from Aldeia Kremoro crowding round the radio for news.Even the young men were emotional. Bep’ Txukarramae: “It’s as if they are the spirits of our ancient ancestors, and because of the courage of our friends who established contact and spoke to them, they have now come back to bring much happiness to our village and our people. My grandparents told me about the time long ago when there was a disagreement in the village, and some of the people ran away into the forest.”

Patxom Txucarramae takes up the story:
“After they separated, one group – our parents – was contacted by the sertanista Orlando Villas Boas. But the other group, which is the one that has appeared now, remained isolated in the forest. It makes me very happy to know that more than forty years later they have survived, and have come back. It’s good to know this, because these are our relatives. They know lots of things that we have forgotten. Their language is much more original than ours. When I heard them talking on the radio I didn’t understand much of what they said, but my uncle understands them much better.”

Benajure Megaron (facing, left) discussing the uncontacted Indians.Megaron is trying hard to avoid the disasters which have occurred with depressing regularity when other tribes have been contacted for the first time. He has ordered an initial ban on all movement into and out of the village, except for a carefully-selected medical team.

Having lived for so many years free from exposure to infections, these people will have no natural immunity to the diseases of the white man. They are particularly vulnerable to measles, influenza, chicken pox and pneumonia, any of which will kill the majority of infected non-immune people within days.  Even the common cold can be a killer.

It is therefore essential that the hard-won trust of these people is not betrayed unwittingly by the introduction of diseases which may wipe them out. The team establishing contact is using all possible measures to prepare for the eventuality of illness, and to build immunity to the most serious disease by an immediate programme of vaccination. This process will continue for many months – even years – and will without doubt involve periods of intensive caring for the newcomers during bouts of illness.

The Indians who have emerged from hiding in the forest face a tough period of adjustment to the realities of modern life, which even for the Kayapo of Aldeia Kremoro is very different from the lives they are about to leave behind. One day, Sue and I hope to visit them, without the worry that we may be harbouring some everyday illness which could be fatal for them. In the meantime, we wish Benajure Bepkyre, his wife Bekwyjmrati and their people all the best at this difficult time.

© Patrick Cunningham

 ⇒Next: Metuktire

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Dams, Soya, and More Dams

Click here: to go to a slideshow of images relevant to this post. To return, simply close the slideshow window. The slideshow may take some time to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

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

⇒Next: Uncontacted!

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