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Brazil — Indians don’t take no for an answer


CULTURAL LANDSCAPES UNDER THREAT Largely unheard of until last year, the Munduruku have recently demonstrated cohesive and organised resistance to the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Tapajós River basin, which until recently had been largely ignored by the national and international press. They have been campaigning for their right to be consulted in accordance with the ILO’s 169 Convention (to which Brazil is signatory) and with the Brazilian Constitution’s 231 Article. Pic 1The Munduruku are one of the largest ethnic groups in Brazil, numbering around 12,000 people.[1] In the nineteenth century they dominated the Tapajós River and gained notoriety as skilled warriors. They speak Munduruku, a Tupian language, and live in south-western Pará and in northern Mato Grosso. Although many live in demarcated territories, such as the Terra Indígena Munduruku and Praia do Índio, others have been waiting for official recognition of their land for several years. In November last year, the Federal Police and National Security Force killed Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku during an operation supposed to combat illegal gold mining. The Munduruku believe this was an attempt to intimidate them. Pic 2Earlier this year the government launched the “Operation Tapajós”, which led to the entry of dam-related researchers, accompanied by heavily armed military and police forces, into indigenous land. The Indians, who had not been consulted, protested, leading to fears that there would be a repetition of the violence.

Observing the systematic disregard for human rights and of the right to consultation of the peoples of the Xingu, the Munduruku have taken the initiative and recently led two occupations of the Belo Monte dam, during which time they brought their struggle to the world by posting a series of letters to the government in four languages.[2]

At the beginning of June this year they went to Brasília to meet representatives of the Federal Government. However, Gilberto Carvalho, the powerful head of the President’s office, only received them once – on their second attempt to talk to him, only ministerial advisers came to meet them and their way was  barred by the army.[3] No other minister nor thePresident, Dilma Rousseff – who, in two and a half years in office has yet to meet any representatives of any indigenous group – was prepared to see them. [4] FUNAI’s new interim president, Maria Augusta Assirati, finally met them. They were again barred by police when for the second time they tried to meet Gilberto Carvalho.[5] They received no guarantees that, despite the government’s willingness to consult them, their refusal to accept the dams could lead to their cancellation. “I ask myself”, said Josias Munduruku, “what sort of consultation is this? It isn’t a consultation when the government has already taken a decision it will not back down from”.[6]

 Despite the setbacks, the Munduruku drew up the document translated below.[7] Besides giving their view on recent developments, the document also demonstrates their profound geographical knowledge of the Tapajós basin and the meanings of specific places within their cosmology. They make explicit that the construction of hydroelectric dams not only threatens to destroy the environment and local species, but would also annihilate their singular heritage and history, inscribed on the landscape.

 The Munduruku returned to Pará last Thursday (13/06/2013). “Our fight has only just begun. We are going back to our communities where we will become stronger and ally ourselves with other indigenous peoples so that, together, we can combat the federal government’s lack of respect towards our culture, our beliefs and our rights”, declared Valdenir Munduruku, shortly before departing.[8]

Open Letter from the Munduruku


The Munduruku are the most numerous indigenous people of the southern part of Pará state, currently they are 12,000 individuals. In the past we, the Munduruku, were feared for our fame in the art of group warfare and we had strategies for attacking our enemies. We did not easily give up the pursuit of our enemies and our trophies were human heads that symbolized power. It was rare that we, the Munduruku, lost a warrior during a warring expedition or even in battle. We attacked our enemies by surprise, and thus defeated our rivals and left no one alive except children that we wanted to take back to the village, whom we adopted and incorporated into our clan and treated as kin. The Uksa (men’s house or headquarters) was considered a sacred house, women were not permitted in this space: her duty was to prepare food and serve the men and please them, to respect them. Because in this place important leaders would present themselves: storytellers, animators, singers, players of pipes and flutes, spiritual leaders, shamans, hunters, craftsmen, medicinal plant specialists, interpreters of (premonitory) dreams, messengers and warriors (divided among five squads). Every person had an essential role in society. The women’s duties were to take care of household affairs, prepare food, wash clothes, weed gardens, prepare different kinds of manioc flour, take care of children and teach their sons how to prepare themselves to be able to live in the world, so that by the age of twelve they could take on adult responsibilities and have their own family, and by the same token teach the girls how to take care of themselves and their husbands so as to not remain dependent when they arrive at adult age. With regards to kinship, when a child is born, whether boy or girl, upon birth the child’s marriage is already arranged. Thus when they reach ten years of age they can already marry with no problems. Marriage can happen at first menstruation, after passing through a ritual. Only the mother has the right to arrange marriages for her sons and daughters, because it is she who suffers during pregnancy from the very beginning. The mother also has the obligation to provide medicinal plant treatments. It is the father’s responsibility to hunt and provide for his children all they need for subsistence and security. Until adulthood we, the Munduruku, do not abandon our children, they continue living in the same house. When the parents want their son to go to the men’s house, they decide when it is his destiny to enter the house and to follow the rules (norms), the Munduruku ritual. Even if the young man has no capacity or skill in any art, the shamans teach him the knowledge that has existed for millions of years. There, he becomes a wise and intelligent knower of all medicines, cosmology, stories, sciences, shamanic rites, all the sciences of knowledge, beyond our capabilities! The shamans take care of the functions of the ecosystem of planetary life so that nothing bad happens, they maintain the balance of the perfect functioning of nature. We know how the law of nature works through the teachings of the ancients and how we should respect nature. And animals also contribute because they teach us things that we don’t know, and we can interpret the messages they transmit to us: this is very important. For this reason we respect them and they also respect us, this is how we live in harmony with nature. The animals teach us, they warn us of dangers that are about to happen, whether good things or bad. Non-Indians say these are just superstitions but for is it is real. Those who disrespect nature, they will have to suffer the due consequences of their actions. You should not play with nature: for us, it is very dangerous, and that is why we respect it. All animals have caretakers,  they have mother-spirits, whether fish, or forest animals, birds, plants, fire, earth, wind, waters, even spirit beings, they all have lives. They need to be respected and they are sacred. We have sacred places along our Tapajós river and we, the Munduruku, do not disturb these places. For us, Munduruku, the city of Belém is Kabia’ip: a meteorological phenomenon that controls the dry season. It is a sceptre planted deep in the ocean, and when someone manages to move it a few centimeters, it reacts and causes a change in climate. It should never be pulled beyond its limit, as it would result in grave problems during that season. We recognise this phenomenon when there is intense drought. The city of Macapá is Mukapap: for us this means “passage,” where our ancestors had to cross to the other side of the river where the wild boar, who used to be humans, were transformed by Karosakaybu: he changed them into animals because of their negligence. Pic 3Guanabara Bay [in Rio de Janeiro] is Murekodoybu: the Giant Anaconda, an ancient warrior who taught the arts of war to Karodaybi. His movements are visible in the phenomenon of the tides, when the waves become agitated, and our spiritual leaders, the shamans, are able to hear his voice. Boats cannot cross the bay whenever they want, any carelessness could be fatal, causing shipwrecks to boats and danger to planes as well that cross over it. Alter do Chão [at the mouth of the Tapajós river] is Co’anũnũ’a: it is a mountain from where the Munduruku watched the arrival of the Portuguese when they emerged from the lower Tapajós. From the top of this mountain they observed and announced, using an instrument like a horn, emitting sounds to warn that the Portuguese troops were going towards the Munduruku. In the first contacts with whites, the Munduruku battled the Portuguese troops on what we call the “River of Troops” and in the first battles the Portuguese lost, but later they sent more troops to battle the Munduruku, and this time the Munduruku weren’t able to defeat the troops and made peace and the place of that battle is now called River of Troops (‘Rio das Tropas’). This happened during the middle of the 18th century. Estreito [‘Straits’] is Dajekapap: this is the passage of the boar, it is a sacred place. This place exists under the old Bacabal Mission of the Capuchin monks, known as Montanha. In this place, during the dry season, you can see footprints etched into the rocks, these are the footprints of Karosakaybu when he arrived there soon after his son was carried to the other side of the Tapajós by the herd of boar and he had given up looking for his son. On the right bank of the Tapajós you can see the rock split in the shape of a culvert, this is the boars’ crossing, the path where they descended. Karosakaybu, in dismay, was very upset by the loss of his son and decided to leave a snake there so no one else could commit such hubris. He left a bushmaster snake there to bite anyone who passed through that place. In the same place, a colonial explorer discovered the image of a saint, but he didn’t know the place was sacred and was bitten by that snake and died, and to this day this place can be very dangerous to anyone who passes there. There is another place on dry ground called Cintura Fina (‘Narrow Waist’) where the same phenomenon is observed, this lies between the 180 km milepost and a small mining camp called Vila Rabello along BR-230 on the Trans-Amazon highway. In that place, for the same reason, various accidents have happened because non-Indians have violated a sacred locality. São Luiz do Tapajós is Joropari kõbie: an ancient locality of Munduruku presence, they lived along those rapids. The whites knew nothing about this place. There is a tunnel in the middle of the rapids and some long-time inhabitants, who are not Munduruku, call this huge tunnel the Devil’s throat, and anyone who gets sucked into it by the current and swallowed up will never appear again and no one will ever see them. You can’t disturb the rapids and if you do, disaster will happen. There resides a “mother of fish” in the form of a river dolphin and some people who live there have seen this animal. Thus, the fish are happy to see her and the tapirs habitually jump into the water in that place to encounter the mother spirit. According to the spiritual leaders, the shamans, they warn that absolutely no kind of alteration can be made to that place or it will destroy this sacred locality, which belongs to the mother of fish, or else disgrace will fall unto people’s lives: this is a risk for all societies. But this, a non-Indian will never understand. Cobra Grande [‘Giant Anaconda’] is Sarakaka: located there at the old headquarters of FUNAI in Itaituba, at the mouth of Bom Jardim creek. The Munduruku lived there during the times of the traveling river merchants, who would go to Belém and bring trade goods and camp out there. Sarakaka was the great spiritual leader who possessed many riches and trade goods, he would not approach anyone but shamans and was widely respected. To this day you can find traces of that place and you can still see the banana plantations he left. In this place is a pool where Sarakaka would sink into the water. Remanso da Anta [‘Tapir’s Pool’] is Yukpitapodog’ap Dicõð: this is the pool where Peresoatpu, when he was human, went down to the river to cross to the other side of the Tapajós. He had to transform himself into a tapir to cross the river. His nephew was hunting with him before he transformed into animal form. Every time Peresoatpu took his nephew hunting and left the boy alone, he told him he was going off in the woods to defecate. He would walk some distance from the boy and then turn into a tapir, and when the boy saw the animal he would call out to his uncle, who of course didn’t respond. When the boy arrived in the village he would tell his grandmother what had happened and she would ask, “Why didn’t you shoot it with an arrow?” So one day his grandmother told the boy that next time he went hunting with his uncle, he wouldn’t call out to him. Instead, she advised him, this time, if he were to see the tapir, he should grab it with his own hands. The only way to do so was to stick his hands into the animal’s anus and pull out its intestines. And this is what the boy did. But instead, the tapir clamped down on the boy’s hand and dragged him towards the river. When they jumped into the water, the boy couldn’t hold his breath long and his uncle (the tapir) told the boy that if he was running out of breath he needed only to bite the tapir’s ear and he would come up for air. Montanha dos Macacos [‘Monkey Mountain’] is Deko Ka’a: this is a rocky mountain on the banks of the Tapajós that is considered sacred, the house of the monkeys. They procreate in caves on the rock face, very impressive: you have to see it to believe it. This is above the Crepori river (Kerepodi) which in our language means “River of the Japu bird [an oriole relative].” Escrita do Muraycoki [‘Writing of Muraycoko’], Surabudodot, is on the Crepori river. The writing is etched onto the walls at a height of some 100 meters. This is a mystery designed and left by a highly skilled warrior of that time. One of the very interesting things he left behind is the following: whoever can decipher this mystery will become a brilliant sage and will be bestowed with wisdom, honor, riches and power. Even the craziest Mundurukus guard this secret and none would dare risk their divine treasure, which is well guarded and the man who hopes to arrive at this secret must first seclude himself and purify himself of all pollution, what we call Diðrewat. Fig 1Chacorão is Nomũ: these are rapids at Chacorão where there is an ancient tree right in the middle of the island, and according to the oldest warriors this is an untouchable sacred place. It is the place where Karosakaybu used to fish. A little farther above that waterfall is a whirlpool, what we call a “griddle” (waẽn). Boats that pass nearby risk being swallowed up by it. It is a very beautiful and interesting phenomenon. In the same waterfall is a place known as Marakace, where Karosakaybu used to go to spear fish when he was looking for arrow cane (taquara), taking advantage of that opportunity to fish. São Benedito [‘Saint Benedict’] is Topaða Duk’a: this is a mountain on the left bank of the Tapajós, where the saint is found up at the top of the rock. If you pass by him without offering a greeting or paying tribute your boat could suffer a mechanical failure. Anyone who wants to climb up there can: there’s just one caveat, anyone who is impure will not be able to reach the top and cannot look down, or else they risk falling all the way down. The ‘Waterfall of Seven Stairs’ (Cachoeira de Sete Quedas) is Paribixexe: this is a beautiful waterfall with seven drops in the form of a stairway. This is the place where the dead are living, the heaven of the dead, which is to say, the world of the living, the kingdom of the dead. It is a sacred place for the Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká people, and also where diverse species and sizes of fish procreate, where the mother of the fish resides. On the walls can be seen rock paintings left by Muraycoko, father of writing, inscriptions left for the Munduruku since remote times by the hand of Surabudodot. There are also funerary urns buried at this place, the graveyard of our ancient warriors. There is also a Fig 2portal there that cannot be seen by ordinary men, but rather is only visible to spiritual leaders, shamans, who can travel to another unknown world without being seen. The waterfall is very lovely, by the way, considered one of the seven wonders of the world, the greatest Brazilian heritage. This is on the Teles Pires river, where construction of a hydroelectric dam is being planned in Mato Grosso state. Waterfall of Kerepoca: this waterfall is on the Cururu river, near the village of Santa Maria. One of our most beautiful waterfalls, there occurs the phenomenon of piaba [small colorful fish] reproduction between the months of April and May. Not just piabas, but many species of fish including matrinchã, pacu-açú, pacu, piau and others. The waterfall is 30 meters high and sparrows make nests inside the waterfall and have to pass through the curtain of water and it is very beautiful. It is just not possible to list here all the sacred places that exist in Munduruku territory. There are various others. Near Serra do Cachimbo [‘Tobacco Pipe Ridge’] the existence of isolated Indians has been noted, the residents of the village where the old military landing strip used to be have communicated that there are traces of isolated people in that region, because they found footprints much bigger than those of ordinary people, and during the dry season they saw signs of them such as smoke, making them realize that these people had set fire to natural grasslands. This is on a tributary of the Cururu. Another place with signs of isolated Indians is in the vicinity of the Kabitutu river. A Munduruku hunter on a hunting expedition was captured by them. He stayed with them for about three days. He could not identify them. According to what he said, they shared characteristics with the Nambikuara Indians such as wearing a small rod through a piercing of the nasal septum. When they freed him, they painted him and made him return to his village. The captured Munduruku said he offered them a cigarette lighter and demonstrated how it lit, but they refused and instead showed their more rustic but highly advanced technique of rubbing fire sticks which immediately caught fire. These isolated Indians are found between the Rio das Tropas and the Kabitutu, a region that is little explored by the Munduruku. All Munduruku possess knowledge that they guard within themselves. This knowledge was passed along orally by the ancestors in order that cultural values and ancient knowledge not disappear. All old people are bestowed with knowledge, and for the young to acquire this knowledge they must rigorously obey Munduruku rules: nothing is impossible when you want to achieve perfection. We know when people lie, when they want to deceive us, when people are cunning, ambitious and greedy. We know about their underlying motivations, their economic interests: they have no love for life. Because we have love for people, we know how to respect others, how to share, for us there is no such thing as poverty, we are all equal, we know how to divide with those who have not. There are no rich or poor within our indigenous society, we do not favor some over others and much less discriminate. In our world such things do not exist, just love, respect, peace, humility, sincerity. We live happy without money, without mansions to live in, without material goods. Life is more important, money doesn’t bring us happiness, only disgrace. When we have money, we forget about our relatives, we become egotistical, we don’t care about anyone else. Thus begins the disrespect for other people, we become individualists. When we say we don’t depend on anyone else, it is pure folly. Money is a curse, it makes us forget to look at ourselves and at others. People don’t have time for their families, they only care about their job, their pastimes. They get stressed, they get worried, they don’t sleep well, then can’t maintain a dialog with their family. It is because they forget about those closest to them, those dear to them, they only care about their business. When we stop to think, we begin to look inside ourselves and this makes us open our eyes and begin to see what’s right in front of us, and this brings peace to our spirit, this is very satisfying. We, the Munduruku, this is how we are: we value that which is around us. It is all there in nature, the knowledge humanity has sought for millions of years. So much research is being done, involving scientists, intellectuals, people gifted with scientific knowledge, but they discover nothing about themselves and they remain in the dark about the precious things that interest us. Every day nature gets farther away and hides itself from us because we are destroying it. Such a precious treasure, and people want to turn it into business. How far will they go with this destruction? And all the while we preserve nature, the destroyers tell us — we who maintain the balance — that we are devastating nature. This is totally against our way of thinking, because we never destroy our natural heritage. Only we are concerned about safeguarding nature in order to not be destroyed ourselves. Mankind is not just destroying nature, but also destroying its very own human nature, but they don’t understand this: they are destroying themselves. This is why we see so many disasters happening to planetary life: climate change, floods, droughts and many other miseries in the world. All of our villages are on the banks of the river, our gardens too, our lakes for fishing, during the rainy season it is much more difficult to obtain fish. Only during the dry season is there plenty of fish, because the water drops and the lakes form. There are 120 villages along the banks of the Tropas, Kabitutu, Kadiriri, Tapajós, Teles Pires, Cururu, Anipiri and Waredi rivers and various tributaries. The ancient Munduruku lived on high ground in the savannas, but because of the hardships in those times we had to move to the banks of the Tajapós. There is only one traditional village, Kaboro’a, all the rest are on the banks of the river.

Dear sirs,

Given the facts related above about our situation, we hereby state that we are outraged by the way the Brazilian government has been treating us. We see the disrespect done to our peoples, the Constitution being torn to shreds, becoming invalid, in order for our rights not to be guaranteed by it. Now, our own territory has become a battleground, where we are being exterminated, assassinated at gunpoint by the government’s armed forces. We no longer have the right to scream out and be heard and no one comes to our assistance when we ask for help. The military police should provide us with security and protection. We see that this is not happening, on the contrary. The government is using violence and sending researchers against our will to carry out studies and justify their projects on indigenous lands. We were never consulted and no one told us about the government projects in our areas. And when the government finally talks about dialogue, they are already building dams on our rivers. When we protest against the government’s decisions, they say they don’t accept our decisions, all that matters are their decisions. This is what Minister Gilberto Carvalho said in the meeting on Tuesday, June 4: “Whether you like it or not, the hydroelectric dams at São Luiz do Tapajós, Belo Monte and Teles Pires are going to be built.” And so, what purpose does it serve to now consult with us if our decision won’t be taken into consideration? Where are our rights, our right to be respected?  Even the laws that protect the environment don’t exist any more, the environmental licenses are being given out in full knowledge that the construction projects will impact and destroy nature, even impact the lives of the people who will be affected, and this is not taken into consideration, the risks they will suffer, the life that will never again be the same for them. The life of the forest animals, in danger of extinction, as much as the fish and all biodiversity of life. The Munduruku population and other inhabitants who depend on natural resources, whose subsistence comes from the river and the forest: we want our rights to be guaranteed, the respect for our lives, the respect for our land, respect for our culture. What institution is this, that gives an operating permit and yet is the same institution responsible for protecting the environment? Why do they want to destroy us, are we not Brazilian citizens? Are we so insignificant? What government is this that is speaking against us? And declaring war to finish us off in order to then give our lands to the big landowners, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and mining companies? The government wants to take it away from us because we are not providing them with profits. We already know that the course of the Teles Pires river was shifted by the construction of the hydroelectric dam at Cachoeira de Sete Quedas. We are calling on the government to stop these illegal projects in Munduruku territory. We ask the authorities to speed up the court cases against the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu, the dam at Teles Pires and also at São Luiz do Tapajós in Pará. We were never consulted about this, and yet studies are already being carried out in our territories. If there were prior studies we know nothing of them. May our demands be acted upon urgently: . That the armed forces leave our lands . That research studies be halted . That dam construction be halted . That they explain everything that is going to happen on our lands, and that they listen to us and respect our decision Signed, The Munduruku leadership Brasilia, June 8, 2013
Fig 1 and 2
Florence, H. ‘Tuchaua Mandurucu en costume de fête’; ‘Femme et enfant Mandurucús. Aux bas-fonds appellés Tiacoron, à la Riv. Tapajós, Juin 1828’. In: CCBB, Expedição Langsdorff. São Paulo: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 2010, 192-193.
Pic 1 and 2
Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku’s body is retrieved from the river on 8th November 2012, a day after he was shot in the head and legs by the Federal Police at the Teles Pires village, MT. Photo: Teles Pires community.
Pic 3
Munduruku man observes Belo Monte. Photo: Letícia Leite, ISA
Main picture
Munduruku protest in Brasília, lying on the street and marked as bodies. Photo: Ruy Sposati, CIMI

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