Brazilian Tribes Say Dam Threatens Way of Life Brazil's government wants to harness the hydroelectric power potential of the Xingu River to meet the country's energy needs. But the ancestral inhabitants of the Amazon fiercely oppose plans to build what would be the world's third-largest dam.
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Brazilian Tribes Say Dam Threatens Way of Life

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Brazilian Tribes Say Dam Threatens Way of Life

Brazilian Tribes Say Dam Threatens Way of Life

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The battle is on for the waters of the Amazon. Brazil's government wants to harness the rainforest's mighty rivers to generate energy for South America's largest economy. The ancestral inhabitants argue that their lives depends on the natural resources from those waters. They oppose plans to build what would be the world's third largest dam. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the Xingu River in the state of Para in the Amazon and filed this report.

(Soundbite of running water)

JULIE McCARTHY: Trawling the remote waters of the vast and pristine Xingu River is like scouting Eden. Lush green forests stretch heavenward. Cawing water birds and crickets lead the morning chorus. Hawks loop lazy circles in the sky. There's no trace of man's imprint. A pink-blue horizon bleeds into gray as the Amazon marshals a storm.

A political storm is also gathering over the planned construction of a dam near the mouth of the 1,200-mile-long Xingu that spills into the Amazon River.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language)

McCARTHY: Some 1,000 Indians from diverse tribes converged recently on the small port of Altamira to say no to the Belo Monte Dam. In energy-hungry Brazil, the government says the $6-billion hydroelectric plant is indispensable for the next level of development, but the Indians and their allies say the proposed dam would flood 44,000 hectares of land and destroy a way of life for thousands of indigenous families, farmers and fishermen.

Two decades earlier, they mobilized in this same spot, stopping a series of proposed dams. Cornell University emeritus professor of anthropology Terence Turner has spent his career studying the ancient tribes of the Xingu River and their recurring drama.

Professor TERENCE TURNER (Cornell University): It's like a Dracula movie. Every 20 years or so, it kind of surges up out of the coffin, and you have to drive the stake back through the thing, and make it go away again, but it never really goes away. It keeps coming back.

Mr. GLENN SWITKES (International Rivers): This is the apple of the government's eye. It's going to be the biggest infrastructure project in Brazil at least for the next 25 years.

McCARTHY: Glenn Switkes, of the environmental group International Rivers, says, however, that the Belo Monte dam won't be viable because the Xingu River has seasonal low water levels.

Mr. SWITKES: During maybe three to five months of the year, the turbines at Belo Monte would virtually grind to a halt. So then the question arises: Is this going to be the only large dam on the Xingu?

Ms. SUE CUNNINGHAM (Indigenous People's Cultural Support Trust): It's sacred. It's special. It's their life.

McCARTHY: Sue Cunningham is a trustee of the U.K.-based Indigenous People's Cultural Support Trust. She recently journeyed the length of the Xingu River in a six-month voyage.

Ms. CUNNINGHAM: I had a number of experiences in the 48 villages of women coming up to me with tears streaming down their face - totally naked, painted black, aggressive and nasty, saying: Who are you? Please, whatever you are doing here, tell those people not to construct the dams. Where will I run with my children? Where will I find food?

Ms. TUIRA KAYAPO (Kayapo Tribe Leader): (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: Streaked black, Tuira Kayapo could have been one of those women. At the mass gathering opposing the dam, she wears the plumes of a Kayapo tribe, wields a machete and a sharp tongue.

Ms. KAYAPO: (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: You've come here to make this dam, and you think you can just push us aside, but I'm not afraid, she cries. I'm not a child or an orphan, and together we are strong and we can fight back.

The fact that so few people actually understood what she said in her native Kayapo may help explain the gulf that exists between the indigenous population and the rest of Brazil. Anthropologist Terence Turner interprets her words and explains that this parade of men...

Unidentified Men (Kayapo Tribe Members): (Chanting) (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: ...enters with a chant traditionally used in the sexual rite of passage for young Kayapo men.

Unidentified Men: (Chanting) (Speaking foreign language).

Prof. TURNER: It's one of the most wildly aggressive chants in the Kayapo repertoire. It's their version of, well, showing the flag, so to speak, asserting themselves.

McCARTHY: It foreshadows the reception for the representative from the state's electric power enterprise, Eletrobras. Invited to speak, Paulo Fernando Rezende confidently strolls before the cavernous gymnasium, short-sleeves in a sea of painted chests. PowerPoint clicking, he extols the virtues of the Belo Monte dam then declares, to derision:

Mr. PAULO FERNANDO REZENDE (Representative, Eletrobras, Brazil): (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: The National Indian Foundation will fully participate in the studies affecting the indigenous lands.

The crowd, distrustful of the foundation that has been mired in corruption, roars in ridicule.

Mr. REZENDE: (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: I'll stay all afternoon to answer your questions, Eletrobras' man implores, and closes saying if we stop this hydroelectric plant, we stop Brazil. Who has the courage to say these dams are bad?

Roquivan Alves Silva, for one. He's with the Movement of Dam-Affected People.

Mr. ROQUIVN ALVES SILVA (Movement for Dam-Affected People): (Speaking foreign language).

McCARTHY: If necessary, I will make war to protect the Xingu, he tells the agitated assembly. With that, a mix of warriors and women rises and moves menacingly across the room toward the man from Eletrobras. Suddenly, they're on him.

(Soundbite of angry crowd)

McCARTHY: Machetes and sticks flailing, they push Rezende to the floor, feet from where I'd just slid away. In the melee, the warriors rip his shirt to shreds. The man's right arm is slashed open. Blood pooling on the floor, the Catholic Bishop of Xingu steps in. The gymnasium hangs suspended between fear and euphoria.

Chief Tabata from the Upper Xingu tells me he felt the Eletrobras representative had lied. He says the Paranatinga Dam on the upper Xingu has already changed the flow of water and damaged the spawning ground for fish. Their survival attacked, he says, the Indians attacked.

Chief TABATA (Upper Xingu, Brazil): (Through translator) We have to hurt them. We have to hurt them. They weren't respecting the Indians. We have to hurt them. That's our fight. I want the people, the white people, to understand why the Indians are so angry.

McCARTHY: The injured engineer says he will press no charges. Eletrobras declined repeated requests for an interview.

The Bishop of Xingu, a tireless advocate of indigenous rights, has not lost his belief that ultimately, the Indians will prevail.

Bishop ERWIN KRAUTLER (Xingu, Brazil): In Brazil we have an expression: (Speaking foreign language). Hope is the last to die.

Chief PIRAKUMA YAWALAPITI (Xingu, Brazil): (Speaking foreign language)

McCARTHY: And ticking off the numerous fish that are the life source for the people of the Xingu, Chief Pirakuma Yawalapiti says a world increasingly preoccupied with the environment needs to consider this. We are the ones preserving nature, he says. We are the ones safeguarding the water, the fish and the land. We are defending the Amazon. Julie McCarthy, NPR News on the Xingu River.

(Soundbite of music)

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