DENVER, Pennsylvania — Only reachable by boat, nestled deep along the Xingu River is a world and a war set apart. For generations, the people there have sustained themselves off of the natural products of the Amazon rainforest. In Brazil, 3.4 million hectares of land are dedicated to ecological reserves, virtually all located in the Amazon. The ribeirinhos, or “river people” of Brazil, reside in a federally protected reserve called the Xingu Resex. The Xingu Resex was created in 2008 to protect the ribeirinho communities’ subsistence of the area’s natural resources — a way of life that has been preserved for generations.
Threats to the Ribeirinhos
An estimated 68 ribeirinho communities live along the Arapiuns River. São Pedro, the largest, houses close to 200 families. Though São Pedro, Brazil, is identified as a city, all of its residents continue to live in extreme poverty. The way of life that these people have passed down for generations now faces a serious threat from outside forces. Many of the ribeirinhos came to the area during the rubber boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s. They built homes along the banks of the rivers, and many, it seems, never left. Now, individuals have had to learn new ways to utilize their self-sustaining river communities in order to protect their natural resources.
Increased deforestation in Brazil in what companies call “development projects,” which include dams and mines, have had adverse effects on the ribeirinho communities. According to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), these projects have had both environmental and social consequences, including depletion of fish stock and increased illness and malnutrition among the indigenous people in the impacted areas.
A group of indigenous tribes in the “impact zone” is banding together to fight the injustice being done to the land. Made up of indigenous peoples from the Juruna, Curuaia and Xipaya tribes, among others, the group is working to earn enough money to eliminate the ribeirinhos‘ financial dependence on large corporations.
“Development Projects” in Brazil
The construction of the Belo Monte dam, one of Brazil’s “development projects,” began in 2015. Giliarde Juruna, a village chief from the Paquiçamba indigenous territory, said “when they close the river, it will be like they are destroying our lives. We have always lived off the river. This region here is where we’ve lived — from our ancestors until today. The impact will be huge.” According to The Guardian, the Juruna tribe joined the fight to stop the Belo Monte dam by marching and lobbying.
In 2021, Hydrogram B — the Belo Monte dam’s “artificial hydrological regime” — was implemented. As a result, more than 85% of the Xingu River’s normal flow has been diverted away from the Volta Grande, or the “Big Bend” of the river. At least 20,000 people have been forced to leave their communities because of depletion of resources directly related to the dam, says AIDA.
According to data from Brazil’s environmental agency and the dam operator Norte Energia, the average historical flows on the Volta Grande of the Xingu River from 1931 to 2008 were drastically higher than those immediately after Hydrogram B was implemented in February 2021; historically, for example, April held an average of 20,000 cubic meters per second, while the flow was approximately 7,000 cubic meters per second in the first month of the dam’s implementation.
It is more apparent than ever that these large companies have huge impacts on the wildlife, people and culture of the affected lands. According to an expert on the Volta Grande, Norte Energia’s plan would cause at least 80% of Xingu River fish to die. Lorena Curuaia, an advocate for the Curuaia Indigenous people, stated in December 2020: “Norte Energia controls not just water but people. We’re the most impacted. There’s no more [fish]reproduction. We’re fighting for that to occur in 2021.”
Hope for the Ribeirinho Communities
In February 2021, the Arara people — another tribe affected by Norte Energia and the Belo Monte dam — sent a letter to the New York Times. The letter states: “Ever since the Belo Monte Dam arrived, our situation has only worsened. Our territory has become the business counter of the world. Our forest is suffering a lot . . .We ask everyone to help us build a great campaign for the defense of our great territory.”
There is hope for change to combat the devastation resulting from the Belo Monte dam. Hydroelectric plants, according to Article 231 of Brazil’s constitution, are barred from impacting Indigenous lands. Other laws protecting cultural preservations and traditional activities may bring further hope to those fighting against the injustice done to these cultural lands and communities.
AIDA is an organization working to aid the indigenous populations fighting the Belo Monte dam by documenting those displaced by depleted resources, filing official complaints, generating international pressure against Brazil and gathering documents and evidence of the destruction caused by the dam itself. Similarly, the nonprofit Socioenviornmental Institute, or ISA, works on the ground with the ribeirinhos, giving producers of natural resources within the community a down payment to keep them going year-round.
Those living in river communities along the Amazon river strive to preserve their way of life amid the threats from dam construction endangering tribes. In the future, there is hope for a rise in small communities taking a stand against the destruction of their way of life. Bel Juruna of the Juruna indigenous people says, “We will be here . . . fighting.”
– Nina Eddinger