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‘Let’s integrate these citizens’: Amazon tribe’s survival threatened by Bolsonaro’s construction plans

Munduruku people, who survived Portuguese invasion 500 years ago, at risk of losing food supply, homes and basis of religion to new dam

Marina Lopes
Monday 26 August 2019 09:00 BST
A construction project part of Jair Bolsonaro's plans for the Amazon threatens the existence of the Munduruku tribe
A construction project part of Jair Bolsonaro's plans for the Amazon threatens the existence of the Munduruku tribe (Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on promises to bring development to the Amazon.

The centrepiece of his project? Hydroelectric dams that would turn the Amazon’s gushing rivers into cheap and reliable energy.

As Brazil struggles through a prolonged economic stagnation, the allure of the Amazon has grown, even as scientists warn that development will accelerate rising deforestation.

On the day after his inauguration, Mr Bolsonaro decried the fact that 15 per cent of Brazil’s territory is reserved for indigenous tribes that make up less than 1 million people.

“Let’s integrate these citizens and bring value to all Brazilians,” he tweeted.

Fifteen hundred miles from Brasilia, the Munduruku tribe watched Mr Bolsonaro’s rise with trepidation.

Their village on the Tapajos River was near a proposed dam that would flood the homes of 100 people and destroy their way of life.

The tribe prided itself on a history of resilience. In the 16th century, it conquered neighbouring rivals, placing their decapitated heads on sticks as trophies.

The Munduruku empire stretched throughout the river valley. Even the cannons and guns of the Portuguese could not force them into submission.

But they struggled to make sense of this new adversary.

The tribe fought construction of the dam under successive Brazilian presidents for 10 years.

They won a major victory in 2016, when Brazil’s environmental regulation agency ordered the project to be shelved. Tribal chief Juarez Munduruku received the phone call from Brasilia: There would be no dam – for now.

“We were happy, but we are always living with that doubt, that at any moment, the government can put the project back on the table,” he said.

That fear has sharpened in recent months. Mr Bolsonaro wants to speed environmental licensing for smaller hydroelectric dams.

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

And although he has not specified the Tapajos dam, four years of economic stagnation have hardened Brazilian voters against environmental concerns.

For the Munduruku, the dam is an existential threat. The Tapajos River nurtures the fish they eat, waters their farms and sustains the animals they hunt.

The Munduruku cosmology holds that life on Earth originated from a narrow opening in the river. If the world is to survive, the Tapajos River must be protected.

“They say we are blocking development,” Mr Juarez said. “But we aren’t blocking it. We see destruction, not just for us, but for all Amazonian people.”

The Munduruku have spent centuries skirting the capitalist economy that came to dominate their country. They live as they have for centuries – with no income and little division of labour.

Their village lies in a small clearing above a hill surrounded by misty jungle.

They live in wooden huts with braided palm leaves for roofs and mud floors, cracked and uneven from daily downpours during the rainy season. Pineapples and bananas are planted in neat rows.

Some Munduruku collect government welfare. A few earn salaries as teachers. They pool the money to buy goods for the whole community.

“The government wants us to live like white people, to live off of our own income,” said Audora Akai, 21. “We won’t let them destroy our land, the land where we have always lived.”

Rare footage of uncontacted tribe in the Amazon

The dense jungle and vast rivers of the Amazon separate its sparsely populated communities from the rest of the country. Large infrastructure projects, Mr Bolsonaro says, will finally integrate these corners of Brazil into the country’s economic fabric.

“Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the well-being of our population,” he said.

The residents of Itaituba, a mining town of 100,000 just down the river from the Munduruku tribe, were paying attention.

Itaituba was the epicentre of a gold rush in the 1980s that drew miners from around the country, but by the early 1990s, most of the easily accessible gold had been taken.

The deeper reserves in the jungle were difficult to reach without cheap electricity or foreign investment. Many miners went packing.

Then the federal government floated the possibility of a hydroelectric complex just upriver.

Its construction and operation would bring jobs and investment to the city again. Then foreign companies could tap the electricity to access gold reserves that lay beyond the reach of diesel-powered machines.

Mr Bolsonaro has resurrected hope in Itaituba. For many miners, the dam would bring back the glory days.

It was the lure of the Amazon that attracted Jhow Valenzuela to mining 17 years ago. He spent 15-hour days hunched over the earth, searching for shimmers of gold glowing in the sun.

Bolsonaro speaks about wildfires in Brazil

That was before he understood the cost of it all to the environment.

“It is irreversible damage, without a doubt,” he said. “The environmental degradation is huge. But it has become a necessary evil.”

“I loved growing up in a country rich in natural resources,” he added. “I loved bathing in the crystalline waters of the river. I want my grandchildren to have that same right.”

Still, he understands the possibilities the dam represents for miners like him, living on less than £500 a month.

Development suggests an escape for a country exhausted by a flailing economy.

“We need to survive,” Mr Valenzuela said.

Washington Post

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