We are in the Community of Mangabal, on the banks of the Tapajós River. We are with Pedro, who is 53 and he speaks with devotion about his family: his father David, deceased a long time ago while he was working as a gold miner; his uncles, Simar and Álvaro, who showed him the secrets of the jungle and the river; and his grandparents, Seu Abimael and Dona Zila, descendants of the the first non-indigenous settlers in Mangabal and the couple behind this particular family saga. We are on the river bank, visiting the graves of some of these people in the family cemetery. Odila, Pedro’s mother and one of Abimael and Zila’s daughters, shares this moving moment with us. She is 78 and she brought her ten children up in this community. A daughter and a granddaughter are with us too: three generations concerned about their future. Every inch of the land they belong to is threatened if finally everything is flooded by the water that surrounded all their live, the water that will rise if the hydroelectric dams of the Complexo Tapajós (Tapajós Complex) are finally built. Among many other things, they are worried about what will happen to the relatives and friends who are buried in this cemetery: the image of dead bodies rotting at the bottom of the river scares and horrifies them.
As the family is unveiling their story, we pay a visit to the house where Odila was born in Lage de Mangabal, and then to Jatobá, the place where she brought up all her children and finally to Sapucaia, the place where she and her husband built a house and which she vows she will never leave. And we go on chatting with her as she cooks. Everywhere we go, we are welcomed with smiles and food. The inhabitants of this community are hospitable, peaceful people. So it is hard for them to understand the sudden eruption of uniforms, weapons and helicopters, as the Força Nacional, a military force created by the Federal Goverment to take action in extraordinary or extreme situations, arrives in their community. For the last few months they have been living in a strange state of tension caused by the presence of these soldiers.
The government says that the Força Nacional is needed to guarantee the safety a group of scientists who are in the communities carrying out the economic, social and environmental research required by law before a hydroelectric dam can be built. Subcontracted biologists are in Mangabal carrying out the first phase of the environmental impact study for the Jatobá dam, one of three large dams the government is planning for the mainstream of the Tapajós river. A few months earlier, an indigenous group, part of the 13,000-strong Munduruku people, expelled biologists from their village, Amanhanã, in the municipality of Jacareacanga, where scientists were carrying out similar research. The government is now providing military protection to all the researchers.
The researchers work for Concremat, a private company subcontracted by Grupo de Estudos Tapajós, a unit set up by the companies that make up the consortium behind this hydroelectric project. Their expulsion was an act of protest by the Munduruku, who say that the government and the consortium are imposing their plans in a highly authoritarian way. Like all the inhabitants of the Tapajós, the Munduruku from Jacareacanga and the ribeirinhos (river communities) in Mangabal want to be heard when decisions over what will happen to their ancestral lands are taken. Indeed, under Brazilian law, the government is required to negotiate with them before carrying out the environmental impact studies, and this has clearly not happened.
The research, once complete, will remain largely secret. The companies may cherry pick some sections to publish but, as one of the biologists we met confirmed, they, the researchers, are forbidden from divulging the results of their research and from interacting with local inhabitants and with the press. And company representatives make sure this is the case. It makes you wonder whether the armed forces are protecting the scientists or, in fact, have a different agenda? What can really be behind the deployment of the military forces in such a peaceful land? The official information uses time and again the words “development” and “energy”. And they repeat as a mantra a whole list of benefits that these endeavours will bring to local villages.Their rhetoric of boundless kindness contrasts harshly with the machine guns and speedboats, and with the night raids carried out in some indigenous villages. Furthermore, previous highly damaging experiences of big dam construction, such as the Madeira river, where work is almost completed on two huge dams, and the Xingú river, where the world’s third-largest dam, Belo Monte, is being constructed, illustrate the huge distance between the promises of development and the reality on the ground.
For many decades people in Mangabal were ignored by the authorities. Time and again they demanded improvements in education, transport and healthcare and they carried out a long campaign to win collective rights over their land. To no avail. Now, when the state finally arrives, it is sending in a repressive force- a most unwelcome presence. Mangabal’s decision to resist is based on wisdom acquired over 140 years of life in Tapajós. Lands, river and inhabitants form a single identity. The people know that the hydroelectric complex will mean the destruction of their way of life, the destruction of everything they have ever known. All is not lost. Recently, a government body has just given the inhabitants of the community – after a dozen years of legal battles – ownership over their land by creating an Extractive Settlement Project for them. For the moment at least, the Jatobá dam, projected 2 kilometres away from the place where Odila raised her children, cannot go ahead.
Pedro keeps on telling us stories about his life in the river while he guides inside the jungle in search of gigantic trees or while he skilfully drives his boat across rapids. His eyes shine every time that a bend of the path brings back a memory or an anecdote. Every now and again he points to a place and says “this will be flooded if they build that dam”.
Please check this original video piece produced by the LAB Partner Minguarana Productions on their last visit to Mangabal Community: