The Munduruku people’s last stand

The Munduruku people's last stand

Raimundo Saw Munduruku, the chief Munduruku warrior of the middle Tapajós, stands near the location where the Brazilian government wants to build a massive hydroelectric dam that will severely impact the region’s ecosystem.

(Bryan Carter)

The Munduruku people are not giving up. Emboldened by the recent decision of IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis) – the administrative arm of Brazil’s environment ministry – to suspend the licensing process of the São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) hydroelectric dam over concerns regarding its impact on indigenous people, this community living in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest vows to “fight until the end”. That is: until the project is completely abandoned.

But the possibility of this outcome remains rather uncertain in the current volatile political context of Latin America’s largest economy.

Though the battle waged by the Munduruku against an alliance of government agents, lawmakers and multinational companies is mainly concentrated on the shores of the Tapajós river, it could have wider implications, reshaping the energy development of Brazil and forcing a national debate over the preservation of one the world’s richest ecosystems.

The Brazilian government has long contended that building hydroelectric dams in the Amazon’s vast river network is necessary to fuel the country’s growing energy needs. Various administrations have played down the ecological impact of such endeavours, while environmentalists argue that these dams are unsound and confront two incompatible visions of the Amazon: one that sees it as an untapped resource that should serve the economic interest of the country; the other that considers it like a biodiversity treasure trove that plays a vital role in keeping the global climate in check.

The Munduruku just see it as home. “When Karosakaybu [God] created the Tapajós, it wasn’t for the government to destroy it. It was for us to care for it,” says Juarez Saw Munduruku, the cacique (chief) of Sawré Muybu village. “For us, this is like death. We won’t know how to live or survive any longer.”

Juarez’ daughter, Lucineide, calls the SLT a “humiliation”.

“I think it will be really bad for all of us, the Munduruku people and the traditional riverside dwellers…I will fight alongside my parents and children to stop this dam,” she adds.

Nearly 140 people live in Sawré Muybu – a peaceful straw-roofed village overlooking the Tapajós – surviving from fishing, hunting and small-scale farming. Children play around chasing chickens while the village elders sit in circles and talk. At the end of the day, when the temperatures are lower, younger men entertain the community by competing on the football field.

But time is ticking for the Munduruku. The SLT is part of series of planned or already-built hydroelectric dams along the Tapajós river basin that have taken a heavy toll on indigenous people. The waterfalls where the 1820-megawatt hydroelectric dam Teles Pires now stands, for example, were once considered like a heaven where the spirits of the Munduruku came to rest. The waterfalls have all but disappeared.

With a width of 7.6 kilometres and a power generation of 8,040 megawatts, the SLT would become the country’s third largest dam. It will create a massive reservoir that will flood sacred indigenous sites and roughly seven per cent of Sawré Muybu territory (of which the village of the same name is part of). Endemic species are threatened by this project, whilst huge swaths of pristine forest are expected to be chopped down. An estimated 600 people living in four different villages along the middle Tapajós basin will be forcibly displaced.

Records indicate that the Munduruku have lived in Sawré Muybu since at least the 19th century, but the government has never officially recognised it as “traditionally occupied”. If it did, the land would be protected under Article 231 of the Brazilian constitution, which forbids the removal of indigenous groups from their land, except “in case of a catastrophe or an epidemic which represents a risk to their population, or in the interest of the sovereignty of the country.”

Land demarcation has become the focal point of the struggle.


“Red ants”

In April, after years of waiting, the national agency responsible for indigenous affairs FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), formally recognised Sawré Muybu as Munduruku land. But the federal government has yet to move forward with the official demarcation of the territory’s boundaries – a process environmentalists say could linger on for ages.

The Munduruku have thus proceeded to doing it themselves, placing signs identical to those of the government all around its 178,000 hectares. It’s an important – albeit symbolic – attempt at protecting their land.

And if that isn’t enough, they say they are ready to take the fight to the next level – even if it results in occupations, protests and violence.

“We’re not afraid of the government,” says Raimundo Saw Munduruku, the chief warrior for the middle Tapajós, displaying the arrows the Munduruku would use in the event they had to confront the Brazilian national guard. “If the government wants to mess with us, we will mess with them.”

It’s not just tough talk. Ever since the Portuguese colonialists, the Munduruku have successfully resisted attempts by outsiders to conquer their territory. The name of their tribe, “red ants”, was given to them by enemies who feared their ferocity in battle. The Munduruku, who number in total at about 15,000 people in villages around the middle and upper Tapajós, are also known for their unshakable unity and this fight is no different.

However, Munduruku leaders realise that goodwill and arrows alone are not enough so they reached out to international organisations like Greenpeace to gain public support and take their message global.

“Greenpeace has been working in the Amazon for two decades against deforestation. Whether it’s been through cattle ranching, illegal logging, the soya plantations that have been encroaching on the forest. The latest threat is these massive hydro-projects,” Bunny McDiarmid, Greenpeace International co-executive director, told Equal Times during her visit to a forest camp set up in the Sawré Muybu village from mid-June to mid-July.

A report by the environmental organisation states: “Experience of previous and ongoing Amazon hydropower projects has shown that dams can wipe out huge areas of habitats such as alluvial forest that are dependent on seasonal flooding, and have devastating impacts on populations of fish and aquatic reptiles and on the life cycles of mammals…Dams emit considerable amounts of greenhouse gases – both carbon dioxide and the much more potent methane – as a result of the decay of flooded vegetation and soil.”

Another important study by a team of international biologists concluded that: “The pulse of new dams in Amazonia threatens to catalyse further forest loss and threaten, either directly or indirectly, many restricted-range species with global extinction.”

Environmentalists also stress that dams offer no solution to the country’s energy needs, as river are expected to see drastic flow reduction as a result of global warming. Instead, they want to see an energy mix of solar, wind and biomass.

This target is also consistent with Brazil’s own climate commitment at the COP21 in Paris, where it promised “expanding the use of renewable energy sources other than hydropower in the total energy mix to between 28 per cent and 33 per cent by 2030.


“Political and economic gain”

The Munduruku and their supporters are above all determined to avoid “another Belo Monte” – a massive hydroelectric dam on the Xingu river pushed by former president Dilma Rousseff.

The negative environmental and social impact of Belo Monte has been widely documented. The dam was also at the centre of a huge corruption scandal, in which Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio ’Lula’ da Silva, stand accused of funnelling millions from overpriced contracts into campaign coffers.

In a statement, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, harshly criticised Brazil’s political and economic elite, writing that “a significant driver for mega projects, such as the Belo Monte dam, was individual political and economic gain. Such individual gains come at the expense of indigenous peoples’ rights and potentially their very cultural and physical survival.”

With an estimated construction budget of US$ 9.2 billion, the SLT has attracted considerable attention from national and international companies bidding for lucrative contracts. Construction companies have formed two consortia: Grupo de Estudos Tapajós, formed by the Brazilian state-owned Eletrobras and other companies, including French giants Engie and EDF; and China Three Gorges and Furnas, an alliance between China’s flagship power corporation and a subsidiary of Eletrobras.

Well-known suppliers like Siemens and General Electric have also expressed interest in participating in the SLT project. As the licencing process is currently stalled, environmental groups are spearheading global campaigns to convince these companies to pull out before it’s too late. As one activist puts it: “Once money is committed, it’s hard to turn back. That’s why we focus on it now, before these companies commit resources.”

A spokesperson at Siemens told Equal Times that his company could “potentially be suppliers” but that he could not confirm Siemens’ position should the suspension licence be overturned. “As a matter of principle we cannot speculate or engage in any ‘if-this-then-what’ speculations,” he added.

The same point was echoed at General Electric. A representative there also wrote: “We do not expect the project to be tendered until 2017 at the earliest.”

The Munduruku have staged protests in the federal capital Brasilia to raise their concerns at a political level, and say they will continue to do so with the new all-white, all-male, cabinet of acting president Michel Temer. Critics, however, fear his government is less concerned about forest preservation than its predecessors.

The minister of Mines and Energy, 32-year-old Fernando Coelho Filho, said in one of his first statements as minister that: “The country will return to growth and will need energy. We need to prepare the ground so that national and international investors can feel at ease in coming back and investing in Brazil.”

But the latest twist in the ongoing struggle comes straight out of the country’s senate. Amidst the turmoil of the presidential impeachment process, a special commission quietly approved a constitutional amendment, PEC65/2012, that would prohibit the suspension or cancellation of public works after the presentation of an environmental impact assessment.

Officials in the Temer government say the amendment is meant to defend companies against lawsuits after it’s been agreed by regulators. But according to one analyst, the amendment, if ratified, would “render virtually impossible future IBAMA actions similar to the suspension of the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric dam.”

The senator who pushed the amendment is none other than Blairo Maggi, a billionaire agribusiness mogul who is known in Brazil as the “soya king”.

“To me, a 40 percent increase in deforestation doesn’t mean anything at all, and I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here,” Maggi once told the press. “We’re talking about an area larger than Europe that has barely been touched, so there is nothing at all to get worried about.”

Maggi is now the minister of agriculture.

After resisting invaders for centuries on the shores of their revered Tapajós, the Munduruku know that, this time, their fight for survival must be waged in the rainforest, at the headquarters of multinational companies, and in the political arena of Brazil.


To learn more about the Munduruku, watch our video.