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Intro: Since 2007 successive PT governments have invested heavily in infrastructure under the PAC (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento) or Growth Acceleration Programme, the brainchild of the current president, Dilma Rousseff. Over US$300bn was invested in PAC 1 (2007-2010) and even more – about US$580bn – is to be spent in PAC 2 (2011-2014). One of the tragic consequences of this rapid construction has been the destruction of precious cultural sites.

Civil society despairs at unprecedented destruction of Brazil’s cultural heritage in the country’s rush to economic growth
By Bruna Rocha*

gravuras_1Engravings on the Pedra Escrita site.A largely ignored effect of Brazil’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Programme – PAC) is the annihilation of large swathes of its rich pre-colonial, historic and living cultural heritage, much of which is as yet little-known. The surge in hydroelectric dam construction in the Amazon region is particularly to blame because of the sheer size of areas involved, and the fact that in the past, riverside areas were often settled, in some areas heavily.

Such places have frequently received little or no previous research by archaeologists, who are called in at short notice to perform salvage work. Although Brazil’s historic heritage is protected by national law, the state agency responsible – the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, IPHAN – is understaffed and overwhelmed by the recent boom in demand for authorisation permits for archaeological work in areas to be impacted by construction.

The devastating effect upon living populations whose systems of knowledge and memory transmission are oral, and thus based on specific geographical referents, has not been accorded due attention or value in mitigation considerations. Displacement to towns, where forest peoples tend to become unskilled labour, sounds a death-knell to ways of life transmitted over generations.

Many would argue that Brazil’s cultural heritage laws are sound, allowing for the rescuing of historical and archaeological samples before sites are destroyed; such samples are then studied and may be displayed in museums. This framework is only a partial solution to South American contexts, however. Local populations, who live on or by archaeological sites, have frequently developed their own relationships to heritage and incorporated it in their local narratives. By “rescuing” samples and removing them to far-off museums while displacing local inhabitants, the relationship local people have to their land and to the past in the form of archaeological remains is frequently ignored.

Some archaeological sites are too large to be salvaged adequately, and the removal of samples means decontextualizing them. A case in point is the Ilha dos Martírios – one of the country’s largest rock art sites – and related sites situated on the Serra das Andorinhas, in the municipality of São Geraldo do Araguaia, southeastern Pará state, on the frontier with the state of Tocantins. This area lies in the transitional zone between the Amazon and Cerrado (grassland) biomes, and is home to Sororó, Apinajé, Mãe Maria and Xambioá indigenous territories as well as the Pé de Morro and Projeto Baviera quilombola (descendants of runaway slaves) communities. The great biodiversity of the area has led to the installation of conservation areas and state parks. However, the government has recently indicated that a project to build the Santa Isabel hydropower dam will go ahead.

ilha_dos_martrios_1Engravings on the Ilha dos MartíriosThe Brazilian Archaeological Society, independent researchers, NGOs, local people and civil society have campaigned for the preservation of the area, which they qualify as unrivalled in terms of heritage and biodiversity. In 2009, the project was called off by Brazil’s environment agency, IBAMA, which ruled the consortium’s environmental impact studies to be insufficient. But in an unexplained U-turn, IBAMA have recently informed the consortium of companies, which include Alcoa, BHP Billiton, Camargo Corrêa, Vale and Votorantim Cimentos that the technical studies conducted so far are acceptable and that they may proceed to the following stage in the process: consulting the local population. In an extraordinary ruling, the country’s National Agency for Electric Energy (ANEEL) has given the consortium a 34-year concession to the enterprise. The consortium has declared that a newer project will flood a smaller area.

Nonetheless, damming the Araguaia river will wipe out irreplaceable pre-colonial and historic heritage – currently 114 archaeological sites have been registered which would be impacted by dam construction –, as well as displacing local indigenous and traditional populations.

ilha_dos_martrios_2Engravings on the Ilha dos MartíriosAccording to archaeologist Edithe Pereira of the Goeldi Museum in Belém, the Ilha dos Martírios boasts over three thousand rock engravings. In the eighteenth century, bandeirantes in search of gold came across the island, and interpreted the rock art to represent moments of Christ’s martyrdom, thereby proving the New World had known Christianity. The rock art motifs show similarities with that found in central Brazil, pointing to possible long-distance communication or movement of indigenous groups in the ancient past. In a demonstration of local people’s relation to this heritage, some of the representations have been named by them as machados (axes) and santas (female saints). Besides the wider area’s famous rock art, which includes paintings and engravings, pottery and stone tools have been identified in hunter-gatherer camps and horticulturalist settlements, the latter possibly related to the Tupiguarani ceramic tradition.

Corpses of “disappeared” guerrillas, who took up arms against Brazil’s military dictatorship, are also known to have been buried in the environs of the Araguaia river. Dam construction could forever frustrate the search for the bodies by human rights organisations and family members.

Arjun Appadurai once wrote that the past is “a scarce resource”, which provides a “code for societies to talk about themselves, and not only within themselves”. In its stampede to the future, Brazil is trampling over its past, and thus, over what is perhaps its most valuable resource: its culture.

* Since 2007 Bruna Rocha has worked on archaeological sites in the Brazilian Amazon in the states of Amazonas, Rondônia and Pará. She currently researches pre-colonial occupations on the Upper Tapajós River.


Photo credit: PEREIRA, E. Arqueologia na região da Serra das Andorinhas. In: Paulo Sérgio de Souza Gorayeb (ed.), Parque dos Martírios-Andorinhas: conhecimento, história e preservação. Belém: EDUFPA. p. 130-151. 2008.

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