Archive for the 'Xingu River; Environment and Geography' Category

Another Video, YouTube too

A further short has been added to Vimeo, and is embedded below:

This is about the proposed Belo Monte dam, which the Brazilian government is driving through the licensing process with reckless haste.

The Belo Monte dam would be the third largest in the world. As much earth moving would be required to build it as was needed to build the Panama Canal.

Yet the Brazilian government has been trying to railroad the scheme through on a very tight timescale, riding roughshod over the tatters of Brazilian environmental legislation and ignoring the requirements of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Brazil voted to endorse less than a year ago.

A development of this size, with the potential to reverse much of the progress Brazil has made in the last few years in reducing the rate of deforestation, should be fully discussed, with all its ramifications explored in detail to reach a balanced and reasoned decision about its environmental, social and financial viability before deciding if it should be built or if it should be abandoned forever.

This video includes footage from the demonstration and attempts to highlight the problems the scheme will bring to this so-far well preserved area of the Amazon.

For anyone who has problems viewing the Vimeo embeds, the two videos are available on YouTube here:

Belo Monte

Heart of Brazil

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And Finally, the Heart of Brazil Video

It has taken a long time to get together the resources to edit and produce a video based on the footage we shot during the Heart of Brazil Expedition.

The full length cut is nearing completion and should run to about 35 minutes. The video below is a 4-minute trailer. If you would like to purchase a copy of the full video on DVD, check back in a week or two.

Our thanks go to Andy Fairgrieve for his unstinting efforts and the many, many hours he has put in to directing and editing the video.

We would like to thank Sydney Possuelo, the renowned Brazilian sertanist and expert on ‘uncontacted’ tribes, for the interview. We are also grateful to Gerard and Margi Moss for giving their permission for the inclusion of the Flying Rivers animation – see their site www.riosvoadores.com.br .

This version of the short video is uploaded at high quality and may therefore take some time to download, especially on slower internet connections. A lower quality version will shortly be available on YouTube – watch this space!

Belo Monte Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

The Brazilian Environment Agency, IBAMA, now has the EIA for the Belo Monte dam project, and parts are beginning to leak out.

Wading through the mix of academic, governmental and industrial jargon, it is easy to lose sight of the real, actual and immediate impacts that this monstrous project will have on the environment and the people of the Xingu.

The sections I have seen so far cover the impact on the area known as the Volta Grande, and on the diversity and populations of fish species. They make depressing reading. Phrases like “The impact will be irreversible, of the highest significance and of a high magnitude. The duration will be permanent, it will affect the entire cycle, the impact will be immediate and will take effect in the short term. The nature of the impact will be negative” occur several times.

My thoughts go back to our time on the river. We navigated the bubbling, crystal waters of the Volta Grande when we visited the Yudja (Juruna) village of Paquissamba. The river was alive with rapids, and fish were plentiful in the healthy waters. Occasionally, local people, both Indians and settlers, would pass in their boats with a friendly wave.

All of this will come to an abrupt halt if this project goes forward. The rushing, clean water will be replaced by fetid, stagnant pools and lakes full of mosquito larvae and dying fish. The already difficult-to-navigate channels will dry up and become impassable. The rocky riverbed, stripped of its water, will attract the attention of illegal gold prospectors, adding to the environmental destruction.

People who rely on the fish for their daily food will be forced from the area into the fringes of Altamira, to swell the already crowded and insanitary shanty towns which line the urban waterways. Nobody knows what will happen to the Yudja, or to the Arara settlement on the opposite side of the river. The Xicrin of Bacaja will no longer be able to navigate the river from their villages to the town, making the already long and dangerous journey in search of medical help impossible. Having made the Indians reliant on outside help, the government now plans to cut them off from the outside world.

The most productive land, in the areas beside the rivers which are flooded by rich sediment-laden water each year, will disappear below the water, or be left permanently dry and starved of its annual input of natural fertiliser. The people who farm this land will lose their livelihoods and be forced to migrate.

In terms of biodiversity, the impact could not be greater. The Volta Grande attracts adventurous fishermen from all over the world to pursue the rare game fish to be found there. These, some of them endemic, will be dramatically affected; many are likely to die out completely under the environmental stress of such a sudden and profound change in the local ecology.

My loss will be the chance to visit again a place of wild and unfettered beauty, to battle the rapids and to explore the myriad channels, backwaters and islands. But the loss to the local people and to mankind will be greater, the loss of species and the loss of a vibrant ecosystem, which is one of the few areas of the world where Man has had only a marginal impact.

Millions of tons of concrete will change this place forever. We need to fight this environmental crime with all of the weapons available to us.

Hydroelectric Dams: The Indians Unite

In response to the Brazilian government’s stated objective of issuing a license for the construction of the Belo Monte dam in 2009, the Indians of the Xingu have united once again to confront the threat to their lives.

They are planning a large gathering of the tribes, to run from the 19th to the 23rd May. Over a thousand Indians will join with as many local people in the frontier town of Altamira to press the government to refuse permission for the construction of the dam. They will also use the opportunity to voice their objections to other smaller but no less controversial proposals to build hydroelectric plants on the headwaters and tributaries.Small Riverside Community on the Xingu

The Indians will run the gauntlet of gunmen hired by local landowners who stand to see the value of their land shoot up as the area becomes commercialised.

But they will not be prevented from staging a spectacular display of solidarity, resplendent in feathers and warpaint, as they argue their case.

In 1989, after a similar gathering, the government was forced to climb down when the World bank withdrew funding because of the environmental and social problems the dam will cause.

That was at the peak of interest in the environment. The 1989 gathering brought together Brazilian organisations, international charities, and celebrities, including Sting and the late (and much missed) Anita Roddick. Under the watchful gaze of the international media, the gunmen held back.

Altamira, Brazil. Sting with Chief Raoni at the Altamira conference against dams in Brazil.

There were supporters from many other countries. It was a turning point for Brazil, which was emerging from decades of military rule. New Brazilian organisations were forming, and Brazilians were beginning to stand up to the powerful establishment and its nefarious outer fringes, which inhabited the lawless Amazon.

Today, there are many Brazilians active in the fight to prevent the destruction of the Amazon forest. The Indians have organisations of their own, and are better prepared to take on the government. Now they can speak the government’s language, and they understand more of how the Brazilian world which encompasses theirs operates.

Altamira, Brazil. Group of Indian tribesmen with spears and bordunas in a ceremonial dance. Para State.

But it will not be an easy battle. Finance for the dam will come from Brazilian banks, raised on the back of the Government’s Programme of Accelerated Growth. This means that the international money which will be used is one removed from the project, and the ultimate providers of the funding may not know (or care) that their money is being used for a project which has already been condemned as an environmental, social and human disaster.

For more information see our Press Release about the protest meeting.

© Patrick Cunningham

Hydroelectricity in the Heart of Brazil

Hydroelectricity has been promoted as a ‘clean’ energy source, capable of providing huge amounts of electricity without adding to global warming. Brazil already obtains 80 percent of its electricity from this source.

But the reality is that large dams cause immense disruption to the local environment and produce huge amounts of powerful greenhouse gases. These include methane, which is 21 times more powerful in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, which is 310 times more potent.

Dams in tropical areas are especially polluting. In the early years, they produce many times more global warming than the equivalent amount of electricity obtained from burning fossil fuels. Even decades after they were constructed, dams in the Amazon continue to generate more global warming than equivalent natural gas power stations.

Dams begin to contribute to global warming before the ground is broken. Manufacture of steel and cement, the core materials used to build the dams, are both significant sources of greenhouse gases.

Once the dam begins to fill with water, greenhouse gas production reaches astronomical proportions because of the decaying vegetation from the trees and plants which are drowned as the water rises. These produce a surge of global warming in the early years, which reduces over time as the drowned organic matter decays, eventually reaching a more or less stable state.

But this stable state still produces high levels of greenhouse gases. Even taking into account natural processes of decay which occur in undisturbed tropical forests, these levels are high. They are several times higher than in a similar-sized natural lake. And they continue for the life of the dam.

Were the dam eventually to be decommissioned and drained, there would be yet another pulse of greenhouse gases, as organic matter trapped in sediment is exposed to oxygen and is attacked by
bacteria and other organic processes, releasing yet another raft of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

On a local level, dams interfere with the life cycles of tropical plants, insects, fish and land animals, destroying the ecological balance of the river basin. Fish can no longer reach their spawning grounds, mammal migration routes are blocked, the annual inundation of riverside land (which brings with it nutrients to feed crops and natural plants growing beside the river) is stopped, and insect populations are affected unpredictably. Aquatic life is damaged by changes in the chemistry of the water trapped in the reservoir, causing many fish species to decline dramatically. The dams create ideal conditions for malaria mosquitoes, and malaria becomes endemic in the areas surrounding dams.

This is but one of the social repercussions. People already living in the area will be displaced; the worst affected will, as ever, be the poorest. Few of the self-sufficient settlers who live along the banks of the Xingu have proper legal title to the land they occupy – and may have occupied for generations.

The experience of people in a similar situation who were affected by construction of the Tucurui dam, only 250 km to the southeast, is not encouraging; over twenty years after the dam was completed many people have not seen any compensation, and are forced to live a marginal existence in shanty towns.

Large construction projects inevitably attract thousands of migrant workers. They bring with them increased deforestation, increased demands on already inadequate local infrastructure, and increased social stress between the immigrant population and the people already living in the area. The problems worsen on completion of the construction, which leaves the new population largely unemployed. Neither the companies involved in the construction and operation of the dam nor the government are prepared to take responsibility for these problems.

Belo Monte, the latest scheme for the Xingu being promoted by the Brazilian government-owned electricity company Eletrobrás , promises to bring all of these problems to the Xingu, with very little benefit.

Further hydroelectric dams are proposed for all of the tributaries of the Xingu. These so-called ‘Small Hydroelectric Plants’ will have a far from small impact on the river and its people, affecting water quality and flow throughout the Xingu basin. The entire ecology of the river will be damaged, disrupting food sources and transportation.

For the indigenous people the dams will destroy their lifestlyes and their very cultures. We must support them in their fight to prevent this unwanted and unjustifiable destruction.

Further reading:

Philip Fearnside on Greenhouse Gas emmissions

International Rivers: Fizzy Science

© Patrick Cunningham

A Little About the Geography

The Xingu River runs almost exactly South to North, through the centre of Brazil. Its headwaters lie in the State of Mato Grosso, as does the whole of the Xingu Indigenous Park (PIX). The park is divided from the lower part of the river by a series of rocky rapids, covering roughly 400 kilometres, making navigation between the two parts of the river perilous, and only possible in a small boat. The border between Mato Grosso and Pará, the State to the North, lies in this area.

Much lower down river (to the North) lies Altamira, the only town of any size along the entire length of the river, with a population over 85,000. Between Altamira and the Amazon River, the Xingu makes a sweeping bend to the South, East, then back North again, called the Volta Grande (Great Return). This includes a series of rapids and cascades, reducing the level of the river by 90 metres, to more or less the level of the Amazon. The Volta Grande is totally un-navigable, so we will have to transport the boat by land to bypass this stretch.

There is a proposal to build a huge hydroelectric dam at Belo Monte, on the Eastern stretch of the Volta Grande. I will talk more about this in another section.

Below the Volta Grande, the river widens out into what is more or less a lake, stretching a further 180 kilometres to Pôrto de Moz, which lies at the mouth of the river where it meets the Amazon.

The vegetation changes substantially along the length of the river. The headwaters lie in an area known as cerrados, which typically looks like scrubby vegetation with areas of grass. Unfortunately, the headwaters of the Xingu have lost most of their natural vegetation, having been settled for more than two hundred years for cattle ranching. More recently, soya and maize monocultures have destroyed the remaining natural vegetaqtion, turning huge areas into featureless, barren wastes. The only continuous areas of any substantial size where the cerrados vegetation survives lie within protected areas, mainly in reserves occupied by the Xavante and Bakairi Indians.

The south of the PIX is also cerrados, with large open areas of land. As the river flows north the vegetation becomes increasingly dense, quickly turning into what is commonly referred to as rainforest. Scientfically, this is properly known as moist tropical forest; although this term is widely used by scientists, it has no formal definition; it refers to low altitude forests with an annual rainfall of at least 650mm, and no sustained rain-free period.

There are several sub-ecosystems which describe specific types of forest; igapô is seasonally flooded forest on low-lying valley areas, which can have poor and sandy or sometimes nutrient rich soils. Most of the forest is, however, terra firme, lying on land which lies above the flood level of the river. This varies from very dense forest with a closed canopy to more open forest with a rich understorey of lianas, which typically occurs on higher areas. For more details about vegetation and fauna in these areas see:
http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/nt/nt0168_full.html.

© Patrick Cunningham

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

Geography – Headwaters

The Xingu River has several tributaries, which lie in an area of naturally open woodland and savannah known as cerrados. Not as photogenic as the rainforest, the cerrados is in many ways an environmental poor relation. Without the advantage of media focus, cerrados has suffered sweeping devastation at the hands of large scale agriculture.

The history of farming in the cerrados goes back over 150 years. By the time von den Steinen was travelling from Cuiaba to the Batovi river in the 1880s, much of the countryside was already occupied by cattle ranches. However, most of the area between the Rio das Mortes and the Xingu was at that time occupied by the fierce and warlike Xavante. It took a further seventy years to complete the disposession of the Xavante.

In the last fifteen years, cattle ranching has increasingly been replaced by soya and maize. The last remnants of the trees, waterholes and even minor topographical features left to give water and shade to the livestock have been levelled, leaving unbroken, featureless biological deserts. As a result the climate has become increasingly arid, with many springs drying up completely. In areas adjoining river valleys or the edges of plateaux it is easy to see the land surface being eaten away progressively as the soil, freed from the restraininng ties of plant roots, is washed away into the river courses, causing silting of the valleys and sediment pollution of the river water.

Although cerrados does not have the biological diversity of rainforest, many of the plants and insects which occupy this difficult environment have unique properties and produce complex chemicals to protect themselves. Pharmaceutical companies often discover medicinal properties in these chemicals, so the loss of species in the cerrados is no less a disaster than the loss of species in the rainforest.

© Patrick Cunningham

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