This article is adapted from the Fall 2015 print edition of Americas Quarterly. To subscribe, please click here
As our boat nudged down the Tapajós river, the hypnotic sameness of the Amazon was shattered by the splash of small bodies.
A half-dozen children from the local Munduruku tribe had been dangling from trees along the river’s shore. Seeing us approach, they jumped into the dark water, clambered aboard our boat, and began examining whatever caught their eye: a baseball hat, a notebook, a tube of sunblock.
Their curiosity sated, they dove back into the river without a word.
The message was clear: This is their home. This is their land.
This stretch of Brazilian jungle is on the front lines of the latest epic battle between conservation and development in the Amazon. The village of Sawré Muybu, where these children live, would be inundated as part of President Dilma Rousseff ’s plan to build five huge hydroelectric dams on the Tapajós. The dams would provide 10,700 megawatts of clean electricity, enough to power more than 10 million homes and help keep Brazil’s constant energy shortages from holding back its economy.
Such confrontations are not new. But they are evolving. Both the Munduruku tribe and the Rousseff administration have learned from recent battles such as the one over the Belo Monte dam complex, some 370 miles to the east, which became an international cause célèbre.
This time, the government has vowed to take all necessary measures to prevent another debacle. It has said it will conduct an environmental impact report, consult the indigenous groups living in the area, and take into consideration the needs of traditional riverside communities.
However, the people of Sawré Muybu told a different story when Americas Quarterly visited earlier this year. And, unlike previous generations of indigenous peoples, they are using every legal, political and symbolic means available to fight back and preserve their way of life.
Our party hiked up a steep, wet trail from the water’s edge and approached the village. Under a thatched roof, a young man and a boy bent over two large roasting pans, using large wooden paddles to slowly stir the mounds of drying manioc flour within.
The moist air was rich with the flour’s nutty, starchy scent. Behind the roasters was a large tub where more roots lay soaking before being pounded, wrung out, and then transferred to the roasting pans.
Looking on were several kids, a dog, and a few adults, including Antonio Dace Munduruku. A soft-spoken, unimposing man in shorts and flip-flops, he was in charge while the village chief traveled to Brasilia, the capital, to meet with government officials about the dam. He was also firm about not speaking to strangers. After we reassured him we had the chief’s authorization to visit — we had crossed paths on the river and spoken — he finally agreed to talk.
“They say this dam will bring development, growth. Not for us,” Antonio said.
“Our strength is in this land. We lose and we begin to lose everything else: our culture, our language, our dignity.”
Time for more drastic measures
It is the first and largest of the five planned dams — the $9.9 billion São Luiz do Tapajós — that would swallow Sawré Muybu. The Munduruku have been battling for nearly 15 years to have the land around their village officially demarcated as an indigenous reserve, which would make it easier to fight the dam. Brazil’s 1988 constitution is also on their side: It demands they be consulted before land is exploited for resources, and says they can only be removed in cases of catastrophe, epidemics, or to protect national sovereignty.
As recently as 2013, it seemed they had won their battle. A report by FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, concluded this territory was “necessary to the physical and cultural reproduction of the Munduruku who live on it.” But the step that would make this designation official — publication in Brazil’s Federal Register— never happened.
Brazilian bureaucracy is infamous for its delays, but the Munduruku were suspicious of the government’s real motives. They sought help from the state public defender’s office, which ordered FUNAI to publish in the Federal Register or face a daily fine of 10,000 reais, or about $3,000. The agency countered that continuing the process would be too expensive, starting a legal back-and-forth in federal court that is still ongoing.
Finally, in October 2014, the Munduruku’s worst fears were confirmed — directly from the mouth of Maria Augusta Assirati, then the president of FUNAI.
“The report is on my desk, ready to be enacted,” Assirati told the Munduruku during a video-recorded meeting in Brasilia. But she couldn’t go ahead, she said, because “as you know, there is a proposal to build a hydropower plant, which will include a dam to generate energy. And that dam is very close to your land.”
Nine days after that startling admission, Assirati quit her job, alleging personal reasons. In her first interview after leaving, she said she was “tremendously unhappy” to work under an administration that had nearly paralyzed the work of FUNAI.
“We were told that no demarcation at any stage…would go forward without the evaluation of the Ministry of Justice and the chief of staff ,” she told Agência Pública.
Around this time, the Munduruku began resorting to more radical steps. When researchers working on an impact report entered their territory without their authorization, they seized three biologists. Last year, 90 of them invaded the regional offices of FUNAI to spur the agency into action.
The federal government reacted by sending in dozens of Federal Police troops equipped with high-powered weapons and helicopters to rescue the biologists, and using law enforcement to accompany surveyors.
Antonio said the village no longer trusts the government or its emissaries. “The government is not playing clean,” Antonio said. “They don’t follow their own laws.”
The economic imperative prevails
The tale of why these great dams are deemed necessary is rooted in a complex tangle of Brazil’s recent economic growth, policy mistakes and geography. Brazil’s massive river network, which spans an area as large as the continental U.S., already generates more than three-fourths of the nation’s electricity. With 60 percent of its potential still untapped, it is an obvious target for new development.
Hydroelectric power has become more controversial in recent years, mainly because of environmental concerns. Some dams have even been dismantled in the United States. Yet proponents of expansion, including President Rousseff, argue Brazil’s development needs are pressing.
“Brazil is blessed in that it can generate energy from the strength of its rivers,” Rousseff said last year during her weekly radio address, “Coffee with the President.”
“Our country is growing fast, and needs to grow more so that all Brazilians have access to the benefits of the modern world,” Rousseff continued. “We need to expand industry, generate many jobs. For that to happen, we need energy.”
On the heels of strong economic growth that pulled tens of millions out of poverty during the past 20 years, Rousseff ’s government said Brazil needs to grow its generating capacity of 121,000 megawatts by nearly 6 percent every year through 2022.
However, government mismanagement compounded by drought has left the energy sector in turmoil. Due also to high taxes and delays in building new projects, Brazil’s energy is the most expensive on the planet by some measures.
“We’ve had a series of grave errors in the sector, with a corresponding loss of competitive advantage for Brazilian industry,” said Claudio Sales, president of the think tank Instituto Acende Brasil.
As a result, Brazilians will see their electricity bills go up by about 50 percent or more this year, Sales said. That backdrop, plus the fact that most of Brazil’s population lives far from the Amazon along the southeastern coast, may explain why battles against new dams don’t get much attention nationally. Recession and Rousseff ’s political troubles tend to grab most of the headlines. The Mundurkus are, in a sense, on their own.
Environmental spin room
An hour’s boat ride from Sawré Muybu, Pimental is a fishing village of about 700 people with a mix of indigenous, European and Afro-descendant residents. Here too, the land would be flooded if the São Luiz do Tapajós dam goes forward. But the prospect of jobs and compensation payments is tempting some villagers anyway.
A government study predicted construction could bring 13,000 workers to the area. “Some people are hopeful. They think that with all this big money circulating, some of it will come their way,” said João Pereira Matos, a local merchant.
Today, most Pimental residents survive from the forest and the river that surrounds it, from the muscular tucunarés fish they wrestle out of the river to the armadillos, wild pigs and tapirs they hunt. Along Pimental’s beaten-earth streets, residents lead an austere, self-sufficient life in simple wooden or wattle-and-daub homes.
Many have a little garden where they grow manioc and a few vegetables; they know where to find a Brazil nut tree, bananas, murici and other jungle fruit. Matos questioned whether giving all that up would be worth the payoff. “No one here has any book-learning. Maybe one or two will get a job in construction. The truth is that away from this land, they lose their ability to survive.
“This here is a place where you can raise your children,” he added. “We don’t want to be another Belo Monte.”
The comparison to Brazil’s most infamous hydroelectric project comes up a lot here. Confrontations over Belo Monte became so heated in the late 2000s that movie director James Cameron took up the cause and called it “the real-life Avatar,” a reference to his film about ecological disaster and its consequences. São Luiz do Tapajós could be deemed a sequel: Many of the companies involved in its construction are the same.
This time around, the consortium hired a public relations firm to produce a series of full-color pamphlets with titles like “Questions and Answers About the Viability Studies for the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam.” Seemingly every villager has a copy, often tucked away in little plastic bags to protect them from the dirt and humidity. Yet few profess to fully understand — or believe — what’s inside.
No amount of PR can spin away the environmental concerns related to the project. Even by the Amazon’s high standards of eco-diversity, the Tapajós Basin stands out, said Adrian Barnett, a British rain forest ecologist based at INPA, the National Institute of Amazonian Research, who has been working in the region since the 1980s. This river has been cutting its course for over 100 million years, and “has ecosystems that have been around longer than mammals, let alone mankind.”
Numbers are poor descriptors of the diversity of life, but in this case, they provide a snapshot: There are 682 types of birds in the Tapajós Basin, three of them threatened; 95 types of mammals, of which 13 are threatened; 352 kinds of fish; and 302 species of butterflies.
Much of this life is highly specialized. There are fish that exist only in specific sections of rapids, birds that thrive only on certain river islands, terns and skimmers that nest in the sand banks that are exposed only during the dry season. The flora includes bushes with tiny leaves that withstand the scorching heat of the dry season and claw-like roots that can last months underwater, resisting the torrent of the wet months.
This dam, like the dams on the Madeira and the Xingu, would use a “run of the river” design that circumvents the need for the enormous reservoirs of the past. But the São Luiz do Tapajós alone would still cover about 180,000 acres, according to the official Environmental Impact Report.
Barnett said any design that significantly holds back the river’s water “could have impacts out of all proportion to the size of the construction.”
“The price of progress”
After spending time in the Amazon, I came away with the impression that development would once again win the day—just as it did at Belo Monte. One of the questions driving my visit was whether conflict over that dam, with its negative international repercussions and costly delays, had encouraged a new approach to massive projects. But traveling along the Tapajós suggested that many officials and everyday people alike continued to see preservation of natural diversity and cultural wealth as costly hurdles to economic development, and not as equally valuable national priorities.
In places like Itaituba, a town of 130,000, you can see the results of past trade-offs. Itaituba grew in bursts, fed by the region’s economic boom-and-bust cycles: rubber, gold, then megaprojects like the TransAmazon Highway, which bisected the town in the 1970s.
Like the TransAmazon, which decades later is little more than a rutted dirt track, Itaituba has an air of unfulfilled promise. Sewage runs in troughs through the town and into the Tapajós River, which is also the town’s potable water source. Streets are unpaved, and on neglected corners, trash piles up. Yet people like Valmir de Aguiar, Itaituba’s former mayor and the region’s biggest businessman, have made a fortune from cattle, gold mining, real estate and construction.
He sees a similar bonanza — of workers, investors and entrepreneurs — from the new dam at São Luiz do Tapajós.
Demand for fuel doubled from 2014 to 2015, and de Aguiar expects it to double again soon. As a man of foresight, he is already snapping up property, building a new hotel, another gas station.
“Itaituba is going to double in the next few years,” he said. “Is that going to bring along some problems? Of course. But that’s the price of progress.”
Barbassa is an award-winning independent journalist and the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as Rio de Janeiro correspondent for the Associated Press. She currently lives in Switzerland.