In 1989, Tuira Kayapó sent a clear message that caught the attention of millions around the world. She brandished her machete in the face of a government official who was trying to convince indigenous leaders to accept a mega-dam project in the Amazon. Tuira slid the dull side of the machete across his cheeks and made it clear that damming the Xingu river would mean a declaration of war by the Kayapo. The footage showing her audacity and defiance was a powerful message that undermined support for the project.

Photo: Potássio Nēne/Estadao Contuendo 1989

The fight against the dam was led by the Kayapo indigenous people and local activists and began as soon as it was first proposed in 1975. The first phase of resistance culminated in 1989 when the Kayapo staged an impressive protest in Altamira. During the protests, Tuira spoke with the pride and the audacity the Kayapo are known for: 

Electricity won’t give us food. We need the rivers to flow freely. Don’t talk to us about relieving our ‘poverty’ – we are the richest people in Brazil. We are Indians.”

(See “Adios Amazonia?” in the ecologist, Vol 19 No 2, March/April 1989)

The Kayapo stood united and won the battle. Their defiance was instrumental in convincing the World Bank to withdraw funding.

But they lost the war

A few years later the Altamira hydro dam project on the Xingu River arose again and so indigenous resistance continued. In 2010, after two decades of petitions, protests in Brazil and around the world, as well as multiple court hearings, the construction of the Belo Monte dam at Altamira was approved under president Lula. In a letter to the President, Kayapó leaders said:

‘We don’t want this dam to destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia and which we can still preserve’. – source

Cacique Raoni holding his petition against Belo Monte in Paris 2011, Photo : Gert-Peter Bruch

Cacique Raoni traveled to Paris in 2011 to raise international awareness about the threats facing the survival of indigenous people and the Amazon forest in Brazil including the dam.

As it’s most often the case, economic interests prevail over human rights, the environment, and the opinions of scientists. The third biggest dam in the world was built in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, on the wild Xingu river. After pouring 3 million cubic meters of concrete and diverting most of Xingu’s flow through its turbines, the dam flooded 500km2 of rainforest and displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people. Nicknamed “Belo Monstro” (The Beautiful Monster) the dam has exacted an array of devastating consequences for the regional and global environment, for the local population. 

Flood and drought

The Xingu River forms a major aquatic ecosystem that enriches the forest ecosystem it flows through for some 1,700 km. The river is home to innumerable aquatic species adapted to dramatic natural fluctuations in water level and unique to the region. 

Inevitably, dam construction was going to have a serious environmental cost. Yet, the damage goes far beyond the flooding, In fact, the government advertised a reduction in flooding of indigenous lands from 1200 to 500 km2 under a new design. But reduced flooding did not protect these lands from destruction.

Belo Monte takes advantage of a large bend in the Xingu River by creating a shortcut in water flow to flow to the turbines on the other side of the bend. The dam didn’t flood the land of the Yudjá tribe, (meaning: the people of the river), it dried it out.

The ecological balance of the river is disrupted by the low water flow caused by the dam and the retention of nutrients and sediments as well as the blockage of fish migration. In February 2021, the operator of the dam received permission to reduce the flow through the Big Bend (Volta Grande) of the Xingu for an entire year down to only 13% leading to severe consequences for the ecology and traditional peoples living along the Xingu.

This image from the Earth Observation Unit of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) illustrates the diversion of the Xingu River into a man-made channel (at center), resulting in lower water levels in the Big Bend (pictured on the right in red). Photo credit: Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA. Source: mongbay

Many fish species such as the plant-eating piranha; endangered white-cheeked spider monkey; and threatened turtle species such as the Arrau River turtle lost their breeding grounds. Fishing communities have been devastated by the decline of fish and turtle populations.

,Arrau River turtle, Photo: Wilfredor

“The Volta Grande will turn into a cemetery. A cemetery of fish, a cemetery of dead trees,” Bel Juruna, of the Juruna (Yudjá) Indigenous people quoted by mongbay

Not a ‘green’ energy source

Hydropower is still regarded as a renewable energy source, but dams do emit greenhouse gases. Plant matter, initially trapped under the water or later brought into the reservoir by the currents, results in the emission of significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Dams in tropical regions have the highest emissions, due to deforestation and methane production. Researchers estimate that 83% of methane emissions of all dams occurred within tropical climate zones.

The growth of algae is another major issue. During the dry season when reservoir levels are low, algal blooms harm many aquatic species. The retention of sediments and nutrients and the low oxygen environment at the bottom of the reservoir causes the transformation of mercury, naturally present in the soil to a poisonous form, damaging the environment and the local communities. 

The displacement of indigenous people and the destruction of their livelihood also have direct environmental consequences. The construction of roads and the influx of workers have impacted the entire region surrounding Belo Monte, with deforestation levels soaring throughout several indigenous territories. Without its indigenous guardians, the rainforest is far more likely to fall prey to the ever-expanding beef and logging industries. 

Hydropower development in the tropics is anything but green.. The negative impacts on in biodiverse forests and  pristine riverine ecosystems are similar. 

The final bill is not yet in

The construction of the dam cost 18 billion dollars and was supposed to massively boost Brazil’s energy production. In reality, the externalities it created will likely never be repaid with the underwhelming amount of electricity it produces.

The turbines were built to generate up to 11.000 MW per month, but they never came close to this figure, even during the high water rainy season.  The mid to upper Xingu River flows through a region that experiences a strong 4-5 month annual dry season which is increasingly exacerbated by climate change and deforestation. The Xingu just doesn’t have enough water to generate the power promised by dam supporters. This overestimation of Xingu’s flow and impact of drastic seasonal water level fluctuation was repeatedly highlighted by environmentalists. The maximum power generated in a month never surpassed 7000 MW, while during the low water dry season this figure averages a meager 540 MW.

 The Destruction of Traditional Communities 

The impact of the Belo Monte dam on the indigenous and other traditional forest people (descendants of rubber tappers) of the region was devastating. It’s a process repeated across the Amazon where infrastructure projects, mining, logging, and ranching spread into primary forest. As well as devastation of natural ecosystems, with roads and machines, comes disease, alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, to communities without experience with these foreign social ills. The city of Altamira, located close to the dam construction site, saw its murder rate increase by 147%, making it the deadliest city on Earth in 2015.

The promises of economic opportunities for displaced indigenous people quickly reveal their emptiness. Outside the forest indigenous people are thrown into a world they do not understand and are ill-prepared to navigate. Their knowledge, skills, culture, and identity are tied to the forest, and without it, they are left impoverished and alienated.

“I had a better life than anyone in São Paulo.  If I wanted to work my land, I did. If I didn’t, the land would be there the next day. If I wanted to fish, I did, but if I’d rather pick açaí, I did. I had a river, I had woods, I had tranquility. On the island, I didn’t have any doors. I had a place … And on the island, we didn’t get sick.” – an indigenous man speaks about the effect the dam has had on his life. His story is the norm for displaced indigenous peoples.

Indigenous fishing communities rely on the health of the riverine ecosystem for their survival. Photo: Martin Schoeller

It’s impossible to calculate the real cost of the dam, as ecological and social externalities keep rising. Once the forest is cut there is no going back. The damage cannot be undone, rainforests take a long time to recover if ever, and in any case much longer than we can afford. Brazil and the Amazon region are the first victims of the destruction of the rainforest. While companies and elites are cashing-in quick profits, the bill they leave will continue to be paid by everybody else. Most projects involving massive environmental destruction are sold to the public based on exaggerations, denial, and lies. The international community and civil society should remain vigilant and organized. 

Bigger than the monster 

Hydropower development is far from being the only threat to this unique riverine ecosystem: predatory fishing, logging, mining, farming, and cattle ranching all pose a deadly threat to the fine ecological balance in which countless species have evolved for millennia. Belo Monte is one of many gruesome examples where short-term economic development prevailed over the efforts of indigenous peoples and activists.

The early victory of the Kayapo time, but in the end industry won. A powerful image such as a Kayapo woman, Tuira, holding a machete to the face of a government official can galvanize the world’s attention for a moment, but the struggle between the indigenous cultures and capitalism cannot be won by indigenous people on their own.

A 2019 photo of Tuira Kayapo by katie_maehler

World leaders have pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, but we cannot afford to wait to see if they implement their promises. We should learn from past mistakes and find ways to support indigenous peoples across the globe, for they are defending our common future.

The Belo Monte dam didn’t flood or dry out Kayapo land, goldminers, loggers, and farmers are kept at bay. The Kayapo remain unconquered. They fought for their rights and earned ratification of their traditional territories forty years ago. They remain unconquered and continue to protect their vast forested territory through alliances with environmental NGOs which provide the tools to meet the threats of the 21st century.

“The Brazilian Amazon has the highest concentration of indigenous peoples in the world. Recently, the Brazilian government sent a bill to Congress to regulate commercial mining in indigenous lands.”

“This work analyzes the risks of the proposed mining bill to Amazonian indigenous peoples and their lands. To evaluate the possible impact of the new mining bill, we consider all mining license requests registered in Brazil’s National Mining Agency that overlap indigenous lands as potential mining areas in the future. The existing mining requests cover 176 000 km2 of indigenous lands, a factor 3000 more than the area of current illegal mining. Considering only these existing requests, about 15% of the total area of ILs in the region could be directly affected by mining if the bill is approved. Ethnic groups like Yudjá, Kayapó, Apalaí, Wayana, and Katuena may have between 47% and 87% of their lands impacted. Gold mining, which has previously shown to cause mercury contamination, death of indigenous people due to diseases, and biodiversity degradation, accounts for 64% of the requested areas. We conclude that the proposed bill is a significant threat to Amazonian indigenous peoples, further exposing indigenous peoples to rural violence, contamination by toxic pollutants, and contagious diseases. The obligation of the government is to enforce existing laws and regulations that put indigenous rights and livelihoods above economic consideration and not to reduce such protections.”

This abstract comes from a study out of the Environmental Research Letters Journal published on October 9th, 2020. We encourage you to read the full article by clicking below. 

FULL STUDY HERE

GLobal wildlife conservation: guest blog

 

The Spirit of Survival – Written by: LINDSAY RENICK MAYER from Global Wildlife Conservation Original Blog

 

Kayapo Indigenous People Call on World to Help Protect Amazonia Against Extractive Industry, Brazilian Government

Silent.

That was how the Kayapo Indigenous people approached the illegal goldmining camp that had, for months, been destroying part of the Amazon rainforest, home to countless animals and plants, and polluting the nearby river in the Kayapo’s ratified territory of Bau.

As 17 Kayapo came upon the camp in mid-October, after traveling for two days by boat and then by foot, any noise would have been drowned out anyhow by the goldminers’ hydraulic machines. Their actions resulted in the peaceful removal of the trespassers from the land, which was accessible to these outsiders only by plane, and the complete dismantling of the camp.

“The area the goldminers destroyed is very large and the streams are badly damaged,” said Bepmoro-I, from the village of Bau located in Bau Indigenous Territory. “It’s awful there. But we blocked off the airstrip and so now the streams and forest will begin to recover. If goldminers come back, we will go and remove them again.”

Kayapo wait with goldminers from the illegal “Novo Horizonte” illegal gold mine in the Kayapo Bau territory. The air strip supplied their camp and here the goldminers wait to be picked up by their employer.

This is not the first time the Kayapo have had to remove invaders from 23 million acres of their rainforest and savanna territory in the southeastern region of the Brazilian Amazon, an area the size of the state of Virginia. For more than 40 years, the Kayapo have fought off many outsiders looking to exploit their natural resources. They have done so with the partnership of multiple NGOs, including Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, and GWC partner, the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

The removal of the goldmining camp came against the backdrop of a Brazilian Federal Government that has been considering a bill this year that would effectively legalize goldmining and other extractive industries in Indigenous territories across Brazil. This marks the latest in an onslaught of threats to Brazil’s Indigenous People’s cultures, lives and land, and to the wildlife and ecosystems that they protect.

A Message to the World

The Kayapo are anything but silent against the congressional bill, Proposed Law 191/2020, that could significantly weaken protection of Amazonia, and they want the world to know what is going on.

More than 6,000 Kayapo from 56 communities of the Bau, Capoto/Jarina, Kayapo, Las Casas and Mekragnoti Indigenous Territory, the Indigenous organizations Associação Floresta Protegida, Instituto Kabu and Instituto Raoni recently published a declaration expressing their opposition to the bill.

“How could we be in favor of such an activity that profoundly negatively impacts our environment, society and communities?” the letter asks. “How could we deprive our children and grandchildren of a vital territory that supports our livelihoods, autonomy, customs and traditions, as guaranteed by the federal constitution? We appeal to all Brazilians and international society to support our struggle to protect our forest and demand that the government respect the federal constitution and our right to use our territories according to our customs; as well as the right of all people to an ecologically balanced environment.” [READ THE FULL STATEMENT FROM THE KAYAPO]

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro introduced the proposed law in February of 2020 to open up demarcated territories to the extractive industries of mining, oil and natural gas. Two other proposed laws would have similar devastating effects: one aimed at the establishment of a general environmental licensing law, which would essentially allow industry to easily obtain licenses for environmentally damaging extractive activities easily—even through self-declaration (PL3729/2004); and another that would grant amnesty to invaders and in essence encourage deforestation and land-grabbing (PL 2633/2020).

“I have long admired the great courage of the Kayapo and their undying commitment to protecting their traditional lands, ever since I first visited them in 1991 with Barbara Zimmerman to help her establish her long-running program to work with these amazing people,” said Russ Mittermeier, GWC Chief Conservation Officer, who has visited the Kayapo lands and other parts of the Xingu region a number of times over the past three decades.  “If the Brazilian government opens indigenous territories such as those of the Kayapo and their neighbors to legal goldmining and logging, this could signal a death knell for the magnificent forests of Amazonia and the great and wonderfully diverse Indigenous Peoples who call it home. The vast forests of Amazonia are critical to the health of our planet, and the Kayapo and their fellow indigenous peoples are its most important guardians.”

We Won’t Give Up’

The Kayapo protect more than 2,000 kilometers of heavily threatened borders around their territory. Kayapo land represents the last large block of forest in the southeastern Amazon and stores an estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon. It is hard to understate the critical importance of the Amazon rainforest—one of the world’s five designated High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas and home to one-quarter of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity—to the health of the planet, and the critical role that the Kayapo and other Indigenous communities play in protecting it. An estimated 20 million Indigenous people from more than 350 Indigenous groups call the forests of Amazonia home and depend on their natural habitats and resources for their livelihoods and culture.

(Photo by Antonio Briceno)

Yet the forests of Amazonia continues to come under serious threats. Deforestation in 2019 and 2020 was the highest it has been since 2008 and represents a doubling in forest loss over 2012. Amazonia has experienced some of its worst fire seasons in the last two years, a result of previous deforestation, primarily for the expansion cattle ranching and cattle feed crops (soybeans), leaving a drier local microclimate. The fires themselves are often purposely started to clear land for agriculture, mostly cattle and cattle feed for export to the United States, EU, China and other countries.

“The Kayapo face today face what Native America Tribes faced in the mid-1800s: an infinitely more numerous and better armed capitalist society building along their borders and slavering to devour their land no matter the law,” said Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. “The difference is timing: in the 21st century there exist indigenous rights, international media, the internet and NGO Indigenous allies. We are about to see whether these factors help the Kayapo to save themselves and a vast tract of Amazonia forest upon which their culture and livelihoods are based. If the Kayapo can win, if they can hold out, then I think that anything can be achieved in the conservation of our planet.”

For the Kayapo, beating these bills, which the Brazilian Congress could vote on as early as February, and continuing to protect the forests of Amazonia is going to depend on the willingness of the rest of the world to help safeguard this irreplaceable place. But no matter what, the Kayapo say that they are not going to give up.

Photo by Cristina Mittermeier

“We won’t stop doing this work. We won’t give up. We are going to keep fighting,” Bepmoro-I said. “We would like the entire world to see our effort, the work of the Kayapo people to protect our land and our culture—and help us with the resources we need to continue protecting our land and rivers.”

You can help. Make a donation to the Kayapo Fund today at Kayapo.org