Brazil: Munduruku People Fear Annihilation

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. Because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of the opinions opposing the project get aired in the BRailizan media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and here shed some light on the heated debate shaping the future of the Amazon.
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Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

“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,”

Krixi Biwūn (or Valmira Krixi Munduruku as she was baptized) is a 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 authority on a range of subjects, 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 along the Teles Pires River. In 2013, the consortium responsible for the construction of a large, 1.8 megawatt 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 with explosives, 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 the indigenous language as Paribixexe, Sete Quedas is a sacred site for all the Munduruku.
 
The Teles Pires hydroelectric dam under construction. Rapids on the Teles Pires River. The cultural impacts of the destruction of Sete Quedas, a sacred site comparable to the Christian “Heaven”. Photo by Thais Borges

Dynamiting Heaven

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 explosion 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, a major Tapajós tributary. 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.

Cacique Disma by Maurcia Torres
 
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, they have lived in a fixed abode. They still collect seeds, tree bark, fibres, timber, fruit and so on – and use them to build their houses, to feed themselves, to make spears for hunting, to concoct herbal remedies, and so on.

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, they 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, which they happily incorporated into the decorative garment.

Today that custom continues. Almost all young people have mobile phones, and appreciate their usefulness. They have installed an artesian well in Teles Pires village and now have running water in their houses.

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 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 (ILO) 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. “Four dams are being simultaneously built. 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” The sacred site of Sete Quedas, which had been left outside the boundary of the indigenous territory, lay in the way of the São Manoel dam.

Unlike the Belo Monte mega-dam, which was extensively covered by the Brazilian and international press, the Teles Pires “projects were ignored”, Millikan says. The government did carry out a public hearing in which the indigenous community could raise questions  and every speaker expressed opposition to the dam. Even so, the dam went ahead. With time the Munduruku became increasingly reluctant to take part in these consultations, saying that their views were simply ignored.

Munduruku warriors. A proud indigenous society, today numbering 13,000,  Photo by Mauricio Torres

When they protested, 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. Rodrigo Oliveira, an adviser in Santarém to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) made this clear in an interview with Mongabay: “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. It sued the Brazilian government, and federal courts on several occasions stopped work on the dam. However, 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 and used a legal instrument known as Suspensão de Segurança (Suspension of Security), which was instituted and widely used by Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85). It 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 “national economy”.

According to Prosecutor Luís de Camões Lima 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.”

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.  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. 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.”

A creek, like many small waterways that will be drowned, destroying fishing grounds and vastly altering ecosystems. Photo by Thais Borges

Francisco Pugliese, an archaeologist from the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay that had 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 fathom out the best way of protecting their sacred site. To make the situation even worse, he went on, 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. 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.”

Elder Eurico Krixi

“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.

Photo by Thais Borges. Marcelo, Munduruku Indian

The indefatigable MPF has carried on fighting. In December, it won another victory in the courts, 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 unlikely to be enforced because it will be reversed by a higher court using the “Suspension of Security” instrument. Indeed, no judicial decision regarding the dams will be respected by the government until the case is judged by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, which will probably take decades. In pratcial terms, what the tribunal decides will be irrelevant, for the Teles Pires dam is already operationl and the São Manoel dam will come on stream later this year (2017).

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 are saying, 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.

“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.”

This article was written by one of the experts at Latin American Bureau. For more great articles visit www.lab.org.uk
To hear powerful testimony from the indians talking about their predicament, go to: https://youtu.be/sw_xuyfVulY