As the Brazilian government steps up its efforts to clear the way for the construction of new hydro-electric dams in the Amazon basin, three LAB correspondents travelled to the area to gather first-hand testimony of recent brutal attacks by the police on indigenous communities in Mato Grosso. Five dramatic videos (edited for LAB by Nayana Fernandez) illustrate the events.
7 January 2013
The Brazilian government's Campaign against illegal gold mining in the region may be a pretext to send a stark warning to Munduruku indians.
On the 7th November, in a brutal show of strength reminiscent of the military dictatorship, the Brazilian Federal Police and National Security Guard descended with full force upon the Teles Pires indigenous village in the northern state of Mato Grosso.
The operation involved a helicopter and dozens of men, armed with machine guns and assault rifles and wearing flak jackets. By the end of the day, several people were injured and one man – Adenilson Munduruku – was killed. The police later denied the death but witnesses say that a bomb was exploded at the scene of the crime to conceal evidence. Adenilson's body floated to the surface of the river on the following day.
All of the village’s inhabitants, including the elderly, women and children, were left traumatised after being teargassed and ordered to lie on the ground in the scorching sun without water for many hours. They were not allowed to talk to each other in their own language, Munduruku. Most of the footage filmed on their mobile phones, registering the violence, was destroyed by the police.
The authorities appear to have attempted to cover up the assassination, for the first press reports only mentioned the wounded and described an ambush against the police. It is highly improbable that this ambush actually happened, given that the low-flying helicopter, seen in the surviving footage, would have made it virtually impossible for the Indians to have escaped detection.
The river dredge in front of the village, used to extract gold – which was, allegedly, the reason for the police operation, as mining is not permitted there – was also destroyed with all its contents on board, despite an earlier agreement with the police for these, including a fridge and a gas cooker, to be emptied out. As a result, the river was contaminated by petrol and other chemicals.
What led to the use of indiscriminate violence by the federal authorities against an unsuspecting indigenous village?
The operation was part of “Operação Eldorado” – a campaign to combat illegal gold mining activities along the Tapajós river and its tributaries. The Tapajós river basin is currently the area of Brazil with most gold mining, with over half of the Amazon region’s 110,000 gold prospectors working there.
However, with illegal gold mining so widespread in the region, it seems strange that the indigenous village should have been targeted, as its operation is relatively small. Might there be another reason?
The Teles Pires village is at the forefront of resistance against the construction of hydroelectric dams – seven of which are planned for the Tapajós basin. One of them is being built at the Sete Quedas (“Seven Falls”) rapids, which are among the most sacred places for the Munduruku: for them, the world began there. Now the area is being dynamited for the Sete Quedas dam.
Some even believe that the decision to focus on the indigenous village – when illegal gold mining is widely practised up and down the river – could be connected to the fact that the activity gives them financial independence, which makes them harder to co-opt.
Twenty days before the “day of terror”, as the indians refer to it, a stark warning was issued by Marta Montenegro, the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) representative from Brasília, at a meeting in the town of Itaituba. She made it clear that, if the Munduruku continued to refuse to allow environmental impact studies related to the dams, the government would “meet force with force” and have armed guards accompany researchers. She made explicit reference to the employment of the National Security Guard (Força de Segurança Nacional) and said that the FUNAI would be unable to protect the Indians in such circumstances.
Earlier, a group of researchers had been expelled by Munduruku Indians in an area on the river’s right bank, due to be flooded by the São Luíz do Tapajós dam, the largest of the complex, which will cover over 700 square kilometres in one of the Amazon’s best preserved areas.
The researchers had not asked for permission to conduct their studies in the area because it has not yet been officially demarcated as an indigenous territory, due to official delays. Yet it has been historically occupied by the Munduruku. The meeting in Itaituba on the 17th October was held in order to obtain the Munduruku’s agreement for the environmental
But the Munduruku are only too aware that permitting the studies means another step towards dam construction. In spite of using words such as “dialogue” and “participation”, the authorities have done nothing to suggest that they will give the indians' opposition to the dams the weight and consideration required by Brazilian law and by the international treaties to which Brazil is signatory. So the Indians have no option but resist.
At a time when Brazil’s Truth Commission is investigating the crimes committed during the military dictatorships, including those against indigenous populations who “stood in the way” of large-scale infrastructure projects, some people are asking whether President Dilma Rousseff might be prepared to repeat the crimes of her military predecessors to clear the way
for dam construction in the Amazon region. The immortal motto of Cândido Rondon, the founder of Brazil’s indigenous service, a hundred years ago – “die if need be, but kill never” (indians) – seems to be turning into a faint echo from the past.
Video 1. The body of Adenilson Munduruku.
Video 2: I got to the radio. Many people were shouting.
Video 3: They were shooting very nearby.
Video 4: On the ground, handcuffed with their hands on their heads.
Video 5 They took our phones and destroyed them.