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The Amazon: Mundurukú standoff against dam builders

A potentially explosive standoff between Indians, construction companies and the government


This article was first published on Mongabay on 17 October 2017. You can read the original here. The same article has been translated for LAB into Portuguese by Fernando Moreira. You can read the Portuguese version here.
  • On 13 October, eighty Munduruku warriors and shamans tried to occupy the São Manoel dam on the Teles Pires River in one of the most remote parts of the Amazon. But the government and construction companies had been tipped off in advance.
  • Thirty armed Public Security National Force police had been flown in and blocked them from entering the site. The Munduruku were met by teargas and flash bombs. They have since left the immediate vicinity, but their demands remain unresolved.
  • The Munduruku say that the construction firms, to end a July occupation of the dam, had agreed to a September meeting and to apologize for the destruction of two of their most sacred sites — one of them the equivalent of Christian Heaven — and to apologize for collecting and storing sacred urns without proper rituals.
  • According to the Indians, the performance of these apology rituals is now vital to the survival of the Munduruku as a people, and to the survival of the Amazon itself, but the companies remain adamant in their denial of wrongdoing. Tensions remain high, and many fear more violence could erupt.

A Munduruku warrior prepares to occupy the São Manoel dam. Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira
A fierce standoff is underway in the Brazilian Amazon, where Munduruku Indians from the Tapajós river basin have confronted two construction companies and the government’s indigenous agency, FUNAI, over the environmental and spiritual devastation caused by two hydroelectric power plants recently built in their river territory. The Amazon forest contains many revered indigenous sites, but, according to the Munduruku, the construction of the two dams destroyed two particularly important ones. The building of the Teles Pires dam resulted in the dynamiting of sacred rapids, known as Karobixexe (called Sete Quedas/Seven Rapids by non-Indians) and the removal of 12 sacred urns. The construction of the São Manoel dam desecrated the holy site of Dekoka’a (known as the Morro dos Macacos/the Hill of the Monkeys). The Munduruku claim that the obliteration of these holy sites threatens to destroy not only their livelihoods, culture and spiritual life, but that the very survival of all life in the Amazon forest — animals, plants and fish — is under severe threat. For the Munduruku — numbering more than 13,000 living in 112 villages, mainly along the upper reaches of the Tapajós River and its tributaries — this struggle is viewed as a last-ditch battle to save the Amazon forest, their homeland.

Inconclusive Amazon showdown

On 13 October, about 80 Munduruku men and women warriors and some of their most important pajés (shamans), travelled in dozens of canoes from many different villages in the Tapajós river basin to the building site of the São Manoel hydroelectric power station on the Teles Pires River. They had intended to carry out a surprise occupation of the site, as they had done in July of this year. They wanted to perform a ritual at the dam to placate the spirits of their dead for the destruction of the sacred site of Dekoka’a. But this time the authorities had been tipped off. When the Indians arrived, they were faced by an impenetrable line of about 30 armed police from the Public Security National Force, who had arrived by plane the previous day. The police were accompanied by two high level federal government officials — National Secretary of Public Security, General Alberto Santos Cruz; and the Director of the National Force, Coronel Joviano Conceição Lima. The federal government’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security had flown in the police in response to a request from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The São Manoel Energy Company, which runs the hydroelectric plant, had obtained a judicial order authorizing it to use force to keep out the occupiers. When contacted by Mongabay, the company replied with a statement saying that the armed National Force had been called in “to protect the location, company employees and public property.” The Munduruku were outraged at being called “invaders.” Poxo Wayun, a woman warrior and coordinator of Ipereg Ayu, the Munduruku resistance movement, explained to Mongabay: “The territory is ours, so we didn’t invade the construction site. We only occupied somewhere that is ours. Or, at least, was ours until they took it away from us. The real invaders are them, not us.” As the Indians tried to force their way onto the site, the police threw teargas and flash bombs. Although an elderly Munduruku fainted, there are no reports of serious injuries. The Indians managed to enter a corner of the building site and spent the night there.
The Munduruku gather for the occupation of the São Manoel dam. For the Munduruku, numbering more than 13,000 living in 112 villages, mainly along the upper reaches of the Tapajós basin, this is a last-ditch battle to save the Amazon forest and their homeland. Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira

The source of the conflict

The São Manoel Energy Company is a consortium made up of three companies — EDP Brasil (a Portuguese holding company), Furnas Centrais Elétricas (a Brazilian company controlled by the state-run company Eletrobrás), and China Three Gorges Corporation (a Chinese state-owned power company).
The Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company (CHTP), which has its offices In Alta Floresta, runs the Teles Pires dam, located higher up the river from São Manoel. A wholly Brazilian consortium, made up of two state companies (Eletrosul and Furnas Centrais Elétricas) and two private companies (Odebrecht and Neoenergia) has the concession to operate the plant. During the construction of the Teles Pires dam, the sacred indigenous site of Karobixexe was dynamited. The Munduruku believe that it was here that the spirits of the dead and the “mothers” of all fish, animals and birds dwell. They say that the destruction of this most sacred site — the Munduruku equivalent of Christian Heaven — is leading to the end of the Munduruku people and the end of the Amazon forest.
The Munduruku confront federal police at the São Manoel dam. The banner reads: “Amazonia is never going to belong to the pariwat (non-Indians).” Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira
All that was salvaged from the site before the dynamiting were some sacred urns, which, in accordance with regulations drawn up by IPHAN (the Institute of National Historic and Artistic Patrimony), were taken to a special air-conditioned museum, set up by the company in Alta Floresta, to await a final decision about what should happen to them. Alta Rocha Macedo, the CHTP’s coordinator of social communication, told Mongabay that officials are waiting for the Munduruku to indicate a place in the town of Jacareacanga where the urns can be preserved, per an agreement made with the Indian agency FUNAI and IPHAN. But the Munduruku are very unhappy with this arrangement. For them, the removal of the urns in summary fashion from the sacred site was an outrageous sacrilege. Poxo Wayun told Mongabay: United Nations “Convention 169 guarantees that we will be consulted about anything that affects us, and the removal of the urns was not discussed with us. They [the companies, public bodies, FUNAI] don’t have the knowledge that pajés [shamans] have. Only the pajés have the knowledge to say when, how and where the urns should be moved.” One of the five pajés who undertook the journey to the São Manoel dam — all who are able to communicate with the spirits — said that it was “very wrong” for the company to have removed the urns. For the company, he said, the urns might just seem an “object,” but for the Indians they are the medium through which the spirits speak to the pajés. He added, the spirits are very unhappy where they are: “They don’t like towns. They are used to living in the forest.” Thwarted in their occupation of the site, the Munduruku went to Alta Floresta to hold a ceremony to placate the spirits, a vitally important ritual. “They [the CHTP] have to understand that the destruction of these urns will have a catastrophic impact,” said Kaba Kabaiwun. “Any spiritual damage that happens because the urns are harmed will hurt all the Munduruku people. If the spirits in the urn get very angry because they have not been put in the right place, we will suffer sicknesses, accidents, spiritual illnesses.”
A FUNAI official tries to persuade the Munduruku from embarking on what he saw as a dangerous occupation of the São Manoel dam site. The Munduruku were met by police from the national force with teargas and flash bombs. Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira
On Sunday, the Munduruku carried out a ritual in front of the urns but, after a heated discussion with a FUNAI official, police from the National Force arrived. In a clear demonstration of the clash between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, a CHTP employee remonstrated angrily with the Munduruku, asserting that they had been allowed to see the urns several times but remained undecided as to what should happen to them. In response, the pajés pointed out that it was extremely important that they reach the right decision and that this can take a long while. On Monday, 16 October, federal policemen arrived at the hotel where the Indians were staying and ordered them on to buses to take them back to their boats on the river. Under protest, the Indians agreed to leave. They said that they would, however, all stay in the village of Teles Pires and, once they had reached a decision as to the fate of the urns, they would return to Alta Floresta. Meanwhile, in the face of complaints from Indians and their supporters that the police from the National Force acted as the companies’ private militia, rather than as an impartial force for maintaining law and order, the MPF announced an enquiry into whether the National Force acted legally in this operation. Mongabay reporter Fernanda Moreira accompanied the Indians throughout the conflict. She says that, while no direct threats were made against her, she felt uneasy after being repeatedly questioned and photographed by representatives of the company, the federal government, the police and the intelligence service.

Broken promises

The Munduruku’s anger against the pariwats (non-Indians) has been fueled by what they see as bad faith on the part of the companies and government authorities. In particular, they are furious at what they see as the failure of the hydroelectric companies and FUNAI to stick to an agreement that was reached in July after the Munduruku had occupied the São Manoel building site for four days. According to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent federal body, representatives of the São Manoel and Teles Pires energy companies; Franklimberg de Freitas Ribeiro (president of FUNAI); an MPF representative; and the Munduruku all signed a statement at the end of the occupation, in which they agreed to meet with the Indians on 28 and 29 September in the Cururu mission. The statement referred to the Indians’ demand that the companies apologize for the harm they had done, and both MPF and the Indians believed that, by signing the statement, the companies were agreeing to attend the September meeting in order to make their apology.
Munduruku warriors and shamans spent the night on the edge of the São Manoel site in a tense standoff with national security police. Photo: Fernanda Moreira
The Munduruku took this commitment very seriously. They had chosen the Cururu mission very carefully. It was one of the first villages the Munduruku established in the late 19th century when they moved down from the upper reaches of the Tapajós basin, in order to sell rubber and other forest goods to travelling salesmen in exchange for manufactured goods. The village was later called a mission because it was where the Franciscans established their base in 1911 when they went to catechise the Munduruku. The Munduruku believe that what they call Krepuca — a gateway into the spiritual world — is located near the Cururu mission. In the past, shamans and the spirits of the dead used this entrance when they “travelled” to Karobixexe. That’s why the pajés said this was the proper place for the construction companies to say they were sorry for all the harm they have done. The pajés added that the Munduruku too would need to apologize for betraying the trust the ancestors had placed in them. The Indians prepared carefully for the September meeting, and stopped hunting and farming activities for two weeks in advance to work intensively with their pajés. Some Munduruku undertook long river voyages in order to participate. The Munduruku saw the ritual meeting as absolutely essential: their very survival as a people depends on this apology to the spirits. The woman warrior, Kaba Kabaiwun, was emphatic that, after the apologies were made, that the Indians must decide, with FUNAI and the companies, on an acceptable new location for the urns.
Men and women warriors sing as they arrive at the São Manoel dam. Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira
“The pajés asked us to find a place where they [the spirits] could stay,” she said. “If we don’t do this, we will all suffer the consequences.” One spiritual leader explained that his people could only go on existing if the spirits were placated: “They [the spirits] come here to talk to me and they warn me. They tell me that, as the whites came and destroyed our sacred sites, accidents are happening to us and to them [the whites] too. Only they [the whites] don’t know why these things are happening to them.” But neither the construction companies nor FUNAI travelled to the Cururu mission in September. In a letter sent to the MPF on the eve of the meeting, Aljan Machado, director for the environment at São Manoel Energia, said that “in their complex studies prior to the company obtaining an environmental license no impacts to the indigenous community’s sacred sites were identified” (bold in original). Because of this, he said, the company regards the Munduruku’s demand for an apology as “most unreasonable.”
Map showing the Teles Pires River dams and reservoirs, along with indigenous lands. Karobixexe (called Sete Quedas/Seven Rapids by non-Indians), was an extremely important Munduruku sacred site which was dynamited in the building of the Teles Pires dam. The site, though very spiritually significant, was not located inside the boundaries of the Munduruku’s indigenous reserve. Map: by Mauricio Torres
Lawyers representing the CHTP also sent a letter, explaining the company’s absence. In it they said that by signing the July document, “in the context of the invasion of the building site for the São Manoel dam, it must be stressed,” the company was not indicating that it would necessarily attend the September meeting. The company refuted any suggestion that it needed to apologize for its handling of the urns, “given that CHTP has been following strictly the procedures described in the current legislation, with absolute transparency with respect to the communities, the MPF, FUNAI and IPHAN.” However, the MPF does not accept the companies’ claim that the July agreement did not represent a commitment to satisfy the demands made by the Indians. In a statement it issued shortly after receiving the letters from the companies, the MPF stated: the July agreement “was reached on the understanding that the various demands made by the indigenous communities affected by the dams, including a formal apology by the companies and clarifications about the impacts caused, would be met.” The MPF also rejects the companies’ claims not to have caused damage to the environment or the indigenous communities. In its statement it noted that the São Manoel and Teles Pires companies “are the object of at least 24 judicial actions taken by the MPF for irregularities in the environmental licensing.” It went on: “The Munduruku, Apiaká and Kayabi Indians, affected by the dams on the Teles Pires river — a total of four up to now — describe violent spiritual disturbances caused by the destruction of their sacred sites … The destruction of these sacred sites provokes, in the understanding of the affected Indians, disorganization in the world of the spirits that has tragic consequences on life in the villages.” The Munduruku, feeling they have been deceived, are very angry. In a letter generated while occupying the São Manoel building site on 13 October, they wrote: “First of all we want the dapixat (liars) a long way from us. Don’t come near us any more. The lies that you told us in July pulled darkness over our eyes, but our pajés are now with us and they won’t let the cauxi (poison) that comes out of your mouths make us ill.” The letter continues: “We are here to defend our rights, to struggle against the threats to our territory, to denounce the hydroelectric dams. We are like the tortoise that defeated the tapir, we will defeat enemies much larger than us.”
Munduruku women demand justice for the desecration of the sacred indigenous site known as Dekoka’a (called the Moro dos Macacos/the Hill of the Monkeys by non-Indians). It was destroyed to build the São Manoel dam. The Munduruku believe that the destruction of this site, along with the dynamiting of their most sacred site of Karobixexe (called Sete Quedas/Seven Rapids by non-Indians) to build the Teles Pires dam, is leading to the end of the Munduruku people and to the end of the Amazon forest. Photo: Juliana Rosa Pesqueira
Over the last two decades the indigenous groups that inhabit the Tapajós river basin have been buffeted by the powerful economic forces arriving in their region, and seen violence committed against them by the Brazilian government. They have also seen how Brazil’s Belo Monte dam, built on the Xingu River, has destroyed the lives of the Indians in that region — their “relatives,” as the Munduruku call them. For the Munduruku, the present conflict is a make-or-break moment. They understand that the political and corporate cards are heavily stacked against them, but their courage, determination and sheer grit mean that the story isn’t yet finished. Watch the video on facebook of the Movimento Munduruku Ipereg Ayu with a message about the occupation.
Main image: Police, flown in by the government to protect the Amazon dam, block the Munudruku warriors and shamans. Photo: Fernanda Moreira

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