To Keep a River Running

Deep in the Amazon’s central basin, one tribe is holding back the seemingly inexorable march of development.

It came in low, guns bristling through the open bay. Such a strange apparition, like a giant insect, almost familiar but for its unnatural sound and fury and the faces staring down at them, striped in the black and green warpaint of the pariwat (outsider). With school in session, no one thought to ask about the unwelcome intrusion by radioing FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s agency for indigenous affairs.

photo of a young man with facepaint, holding a bow and arrowsphoto by Maíra Irigaray/Amazon WatchThe Munduruku know that development of the valley poses an existential threat to both the tribe and the forest.

As the shooting started it reminded some of carnaval firecrackers in Jacareacanga. But only for an instant. The Munduruku knew pariwat gunfire when they heard it, so they ran. The one young man not out hunting, Adenilson Munduruku, was killed by a bullet to the back of the head, execution-style. Could the Brazilian Armed Forces have mistaken Adenilson for an illegal gold miner as they hovered over a Munduruku village and gazed upon an indigenous culture engaged in its daily rituals? Any such explanation must be rejected given that a dozen people were injured in the November 2012 attack, children among them. One of the Munduruku villagers later told human rights activist Maíra Irigaray/Amazon Watch: “We knew immediately that this was intimidation because of our stand against the dams planned for Tapajós.”

Events have vindicated this interpretation, as the villagers have been forced to confront continuing efforts by Brazil to build a massive hydropower project in the Tapajós Valley, the Munduruku homeland. Tensions have persisted, particularly with Brazilian State agents trespassing on Munduruku territories seeking to develop a region over which the indigenous group claims sovereignty. Because this claim means nothing to the forces arrayed against them, the Munduruku have seen no choice but to resist. They know that development of the valley poses an existential threat to both the tribe and the forest.

After a long flight to BelÉm from the United States, my 12-year-old son, Nathanael, and I board the prop-plane for Itaituba, gateway to the Munduruku homeland in the Tapajós Valley. In an hour, it bounces onto a landing strip surrounded by dense vegetation, and we exit with five other passengers, heading for the cinderblock terminal to retrieve a key from the guard. Shortly, we’re driving the rental, a Toyota Hilux pickup, down the Transamazon Highway, a dirt road still slick from the rainy season. Our destination is Jacareacanga, drop-off to the Munduruku heartland, a 12-hour drive we’re not likely to make today. I’ve wanted to show my son the marvels of the Tapajós Valley for some time now, and with the hydropower project in motion, the time is now, or never.

photo of a wide riverphoto by Robert WalkerThe Tapajós River flows 1,200 miles and falls nearly 1,000 feet before reaching the Amazon, a topographic fact responsible for its spectacular rapids and hydropower potential.

It’s late afternoon when I spot the marker for the mirante, meaning “look-out.” The pickup parked, I rouse Nathanael, and off we walk past several empty shacks to a clearing with a wooden platform. Almost 250 feet above the Tapajós River, the structure seems to float atop the forest giants that root below. We sit down, and drape our legs over the edge, pleasantly cooled by the moisture of a recent shower. Two miles away on the opposite shore, the forest seems to form a canyon wall, while in the distance, downstream, the river winnows through a maze of islands and disappears. Just upstream, a line of rapids connects both sides of the valley with a thread of broken water. For the next hour or so, we discuss the dam project, the wonders of Amazonia, and why human beings never seem to be satisfied with anything. Once Nathanael’s questions have run their course, we return to the pickup. After a few snacks, we stretch out as best we can since nighttime driving is ill advised. Although Nathanael sleeps quickly, I do not, haunted by what’s about to happen in the Tapajós Valley, and what this means for the Amazonian forest.

Rising in the southwestern corner of Pará State, the Tapajós River is one of the Amazon’s clearwater tributaries, in contrast to the whitewater ones that carry nutrients and loads of sediment. From its sources in Mato Grosso State, the Tapajós flows 1,200 miles and falls nearly 1,000 feet before reaching the Amazon, a topographic fact responsible for its spectacular rapids and hydropower potential. Its basin covers 155,000 square miles, an area the size of Florida, and nearly a tenth of the forested area in Brazilian Amazonia. The river is now threatened by dams already operating in its headwaters, and in particular by five new ones planned for the middle valley. These five dams comprise the Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex that’s projected to generate a total of 11,670 megawatts, which will make it one of the largest hydropower facilities in the world. There are also plans for dozens of smaller dams on tributaries across the Tapajós basin, as well as a 900-mile waterway from the soybean-agriculture region of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River.

photo of a fence, deep forest cover on one side, empty land on the otherphoto by Maíra Irigaray/Amazon WatchThe Amazon forest has lost nearly 20 percent of its cover on the eastern and southern margins of the basin in a band of cleared land called the “arc of deforestation.” The arc is now a noose that’s tightening.

The Tapajós Complex belongs to the vast infrastructure portfolio of the South American Council of Infrastructure and Planning or COSIPLAN, aimed at powering up and connecting all of the South American nations. COSIPLAN’s Amazonian blueprint – together with individual national programs – calls for more than 600 dams, 62,000 miles of paved highway, 12,000 miles of navigable waterway, a string of river ports, and a transoceanic railroad. Implications of this are staggering when considered in light of Amazonian conservation interests.

Not so long ago political scientist and futurist Herman Kahn – architect of the Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction and inspiration for Stanly Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – proposed damming the Amazon River itself to create a lake 600 hundred miles in extent, giving South America a “Great Lakes” system like North America’s, which was key to US industrialization in the nineteenth century. COSIPLAN is a modern version of Kahn’s plan, one that threatens to wipe out the Munduruku’s homeland, thereby putting the entire Amazonian forest at risk.

The Munduruku, like many Amazonian tribes, have origins lost to history. That they speak a Tupi-based language suggests long-term migrations, perhaps in response to coastal pressures originating with the Portuguese. Ultimately, they occupied the Tapajós Valley at the confluence of the river’s Juruena and Teles Pires tributaries. An aggressive people, they expanded north to the Amazon, and into the Xingu and Madeira river basins. From a pre-contact population of nearly 40,000, the Munduruku’s numbers shrank following the Portuguese occupation of the basin through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But a demographic turnaround began in the 1950s and 60s, and today they number about 13,000.

The Munduruku’s growing population has sparked a cultural revival, as well as efforts to consolidate the foundations of a state. The community is confronting the absence of democratic governance structures and addressing it with a willingness to build them: They now recognize a chief of chiefs, General Chief Kabá Munduruku, who governs by consensus. Currently, the Munduruku represent one of the largest and best organized of Amazonia’s existing tribes.

But the fact that the Munduruku have survived culturally against historical odds does little to diminish the threats they face today, and they have understandably risen to resist the attack on the world that they call home. Their actions involve peaceful protests, the formation of political alliances with other tribes and sympathetic pariwat, and most importantly the self-demarcation of territories they claim by right of occupation.

As tribal activist Maria Leusa Kabá Munduruku asserts, “Ipereg Ayu,” which means, “We are strong; we know how to protect ourselves and all that we believe in.” It also provides the name for the movement she leads to exercise sovereignty over the Tapajós Valley, a quest that’s earned her the UN’s Equator Prize for those who defend the natural world at personal risk. Maria Leusa has no illusions about the Munduruku’s conflict with the Brazilian State, having bluntly told the environmental and human rights group Amazon Watch: “I consider our government an assassin. It assassinates our rights and territories with dams, calling this development.”

Ipereg Ayu aims at cultural survival, and key to this is defending Tapajós Valley’s pristine environment, an important component of Amazonia’s continental rainforest, which has lost nearly 20 percent of its cover on the eastern and southern margins of the basin in a band of cleared land called the arc of deforestation. The arc is now a noose that’s tightening.

photo of young men paddling a canoe on a river in a forestphoto by Maíra Irigaray/Amazon WatchThe largest planned dam in the Tapajós Complex, the 8,000-megawatt São Luiz do Tapajós facility that is now on hold, would drown 145 square miles of rainforest that were recently recognized by as traditional Munduruku lands.

The Tucurui and Belo Monte dams on the Tocantins and Xingu Rivers, the Madeira projects to the west, and the Amazon River port system to the north delineate much of that noose whose rope extends to the far corners of the industrial globe. Through the middle of this encirclement runs the Tapajós River, so far largely untouched, although in certain places only 20 miles to the east, Federal Highway BR-163 connects the exploding agricultural economy of central Brazil to Santarém, a town at the river’s confluence with the Amazon. The Tapajós Project will realize its most immediate impact on Santarém, which is well positioned to capture initial growth impulses due to expanding port facilities and cheap electricity. With time, that impact will ripple through the central basin and beyond, synergizing with nascent industrialization in Manaus, Belém, and Southeastern Pará State.

The corporations vested in the dam’s development – a consortium of Brazilian and European companies, including Eletrobras, Brazil’s state energy company – promised green efforts in the early days of public discussion about the project. For example, they promised to use “platform technology,” flying workers to and from the dam sites to avoid building roads that might open areas to settlement, and to follow “run-of-the-river” dam designs, rather than reservoir systems, in order to reduce flooding and impacts on fish and other riverine species. But they soon abandoned these promises.

Nevertheless, such misdirection created a base of political support, buttressed by the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the largest planned dam in the Tapajós Complex, the $9 billion, 8,000-megawatt São Luiz do Tapajós facility. The assessment, paid for by one of the developers interested in the project, found that the dam would not have much of an effect on biodiversity. This finding alarmed the Munduruku, environmentalists, and allies in the Brazilian judiciary. So Greenpeace commissioned a second, independent analysis of the EIA itself.

photo of many people on a boat in a rainforest river Munduruku People Navigating the Waroapompu River


The analysis, which engaged the Federal University of Pernumbuco and the National Institute of Amazonian Research, found egregious omissions in the EIA, and concluded that the dam, which would drown 145 square miles of rainforest that were recently recognized by FUNAI as traditional Munduruku lands, would likely instigate a massive loss of biodiversity, threaten endemic species, and unleash a level of environmental degradation that would negate any development credits. But even this second study says little about the cumulative and synergistic effects of the entire series of dams planned, in combination with other infrastructure like waterways and highways. Brazilian law actually requires an assessment of such cumulative and synergistic impacts, which were completely overlooked in the Tapajós case, says Brent Millikan, Amazon program director of International Rivers, a US-based conservation group. “Eletrobras actually suppressed report elements critical of their plans,” he says.

The key question here is: Can you implement the Tapajós and COSIPLAN infrastructure without utterly changing the places where you build it? The answer is simple: You can’t.

Hydropower facility construction in Brazil routinely attracts upwards of 100,000 workers. Once built, they are operated by technicians and professionals, who need schools, restaurants, and health services. By the economic theory of cumulative causation, this attracts more workers, more professionals, and new services, generating an ever-growing demand for more food and more shelter, until the growth is unstoppable. Add to this the manufacturing stimulated by cheap electricity and what do you get? You get what was the objective all along: industrial development. That the Tapajós watershed possesses vast mineral wealth, and some of the most productive agricultural land in Brazil, only raises the issue more forcefully, which is why the real battle to save the Amazonian forest has just begun.

To lose the Tapajós River would be bad enough. But an even greater danger looms, in light of the first wave of Amazonia development, which converted nearly 20 percent of the forest into fields and pastures. The danger is this – the Amazon forest’s complete disappearance due to the transgression of a tipping point, a magnitude of deforestation capable of disrupting the rainfall cycle that sustains the region’s moisture.

The Tapajós infrastructure, by opening Amazonia’s central basin, will push the deforestation numbers to the tipping point.

Tropical hardwoods are well-primed pumps that suck moisture from the soils to be released as vapor, forming the clouds that condense as rain and soak the soils again in a ceaseless cycle of ecological renewal. Knock down enough of them and the atmosphere dries as the cycle collapses. Current research places the tipping point at a basin-scale deforestation of 40 percent. Once that point is crossed, yearly rainfall drops from 80 inches on average, enough to sustain a rainforest, to less than 40 inches, the threshold for conversion to a shrubby waste. Simple arithmetic shows that the Tapajós infrastructure – by opening Amazonia’s central basin – will push the deforestation numbers to the tipping point.

This past August, the Munduruku unexpectedly won a skirmish in their fight for sovereignty when Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, scrapped the permits for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam. The agency, which had initially stalled the project in April, said the EIA submitted by the developers had failed to present enough evidence to judge its social and ecological impacts. Brazil’s Environment minister, José Sarney Filho, said that the dam was “entirely dispensable” and could be compensated by energy from smaller power generators and other sources such as wind.

Nevertheless, neither the Munduruku nor environmental watchdog groups are quite ready to celebrate, given the recent history of major dam projects in Brazil. Munduruku General Chief Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku called this latest development “important,” but added that his people would now “continue to fight against other dams in our river.”

“It’s wonderful news, but it’s hard to know what this means for the future of the region,” says Christian Poirier, program director of Amazon Watch. “This project has been archived, and archived does not mean definitive cancellation,” he says, pointing to the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, the large Amazonian tributary just to the east of the Tapajós. Shelved in 1989 in the face of massive public protests, it was revived a few years later. Now nearly completed – the first turbines went online in May – the 11,233 megawatt Belo Monte Dam complex will divert 80 percent of the Xingu’s flow and, according to Amazon Watch, cause the forced displacement of up to 40,000 people. As Poirier describes it, Belo Monte dam is one of the world’s “most egregious examples of environmental destruction.”

Indeed, despite the surprise cancellation, the Tapajós Valley’s development doorway remains wide open. Plans for the remaining components of the hydropower complex, as well as the waterway, are still a “go,” and developers are still free to request another license for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam. Meanwhile, a Brazilian Senate committee has approved a constitutional amendment to remove environmental licensing requirements for “strategic” infrastructure developments. If the rule is eventually passed by the country’s new government, it will not be possible to cancel or even suspend projects considered important public works once an EIA has been submitted.

The unfortunate fact is that arguments about environmental and social consequences of hydropower carry little weight among the powers that be in most South American nations, particularly Brazil, which have long sought to develop the basin. These nations do not envision an eternally wild Amazonia, valuable to the world for its ecosystem services, although such a vision occasionally throws roadblocks in the way of an otherwise inexorable encroachment. In this context, the cancellation of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam project must be taken with a grain of salt, until Brazil justifies such decisions not by reference to economic need, but by reference to the constitutional rights of the Munduruku to exercise sovereignty over their homeland.

Businesses and politicians desirous of Amazonian development are beginning to respond to environmental concerns with promises of sustainability and best-management practices. Such promises, which are rarely kept, generally represent a form of greenwashing that has benefitted from repeated references to a downtick in deforestation over the past decade. After a spike in 2004 during which 10,400 square miles of forest were cleared – a loss reminiscent of the worst years of the 1990s – data from Brazil’s Space Agency, INPE, shows that the country’s deforestation rates have trended down.

However, as philosopher Karl Popper once noted, a trend is not a law. In other words, the decline in deforestation and the recent cancellation of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam project doesn’t mean that the battle is over, and the forest and Munduruku saved.

photo of a woman and a child, tribal-style markings or tattoos on their faces and arms - a busy river scene in the backgroundphoto by Maíra Irigaray/Amazon WatchThe recent cancellation of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam project doesn’t mean that the battle is over, and the forest and Munduruku saved. Activists like Maria Leusa are working to establish the tribe’s sovereignty over the Tapajós Valley.

Waking at dawn, I leave Nathanael sleeping to head for the mirante, where I contemplate the thin line of rapids that cross the river, the design site for the currently shelved São Luiz do Tapajós dam. With a chorus of squawks, a pair of macaws shoot from the trees below, moving their wings in twittery pinwheels. I’m sad to see them leave, but out across the water they boomerang back, passing directly overhead and away from the river.

Perhaps it’s started, the disappearance that will astound the world. Look, the dam goes up, and the Dr. Strangelove landscape rises, replacing forest with factories, biodiversity with a hundred million human ants. Agitated by what’s planned to happen here, I return to the pickup and depart, arriving in Jacareacanga by noon and driving straight for its ramshackle port. Nathanael and I get out to stretch our legs.

The Tapajós is but the narrow channel of a stream braid here. Across 50 yards of jade-colored water floats a forested island. Among the island’s taller trees are several blooming Ipê Roxo, whose lavender crowns have snowed thousands of flower petals onto the river. I ask Nathanael if he’s ready. Of course he is, so we head back to the pickup and retrieve the bottle with the note he’s prepared and corked inside. His message is direct, that the government please stop trying to change nature and steal from the Munduruku. I smile as he releases it into the Tapajós, knowing I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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