ALTAMIRA, Brazil – Since the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in Brazil’s Pará state, the Juruna indigenous tribe have seen their customs and livelihood swept away by the rising tide. They fear their homes will be next.
The construction of the hydroelectric complex, which started in June 2011 and is estimated to conclude in 2019, has already displaced about 20,000 people, although local groups estimate an even higher number – over 50,000 displaced – including indigenous riverside communities. The Juruna from Paquiçamba, a small community of 95, are afraid they are next in line.
“We live in constant fear of the river now, expecting another flood,” says Bel Juruna, a community leader and health worker who lives with her family on the banks of Xingu River.
The first flood in January 2016 was the result of Norte Energia – the consortium responsible for the construction of the Belo Monte dam – releasing the dam’s floodgates without notice, according to local groups. Many of the tribe’s personal belongings and fishery artifacts, important symbols of their culture, were washed away.
The Juruna people, along with four other tribes, inhabit the Great Bend region of the Xingu River in the Amazon basin, where the world’s third largest dam is located. Traditionally, they have relied on subsistence fishing and hunting. The practice of communal fishing is integral to the tribe’s cultural heritage, and cooking together is a bonding ritual.
The mega development project has had a detrimental impact on the surrounding indigenous tribes. An artificial canal diverts up to 80 percent of the river water to the dam’s powerhouse, thus controlling the flow of water in the Great Bend region. Damming this part of the river has interfered with the hydrological cycle, disturbing the natural freshwater flows between low tide and flooding seasons. Most of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin had fiercely opposed its construction since initial talks began in the 1980s.
Shortly after the main reservoir was completely filled with diverted water from the Xingu, 16 tons of fish were found dead, floating on the river surface. This has adversely affected local fishing and caused food insecurity in the area.
In March 2017, when I visited the village, the level of water had reached a peak. I stood with Bel on the riverbank, where a sudden rise in tide had submerged the communal kitchen and the kids’ play area. Apart from the soccer goalposts, everything was under water. The scene screamed devastation.
With deep sorrow in her voice, Bel pointed to a small hut on the right of the riverbank. “That’s where my youngest brother is buried,” she said. Her brother drowned while he was fishing in 2016. Now she frets that his grave, too, will drown due to floods.
The river that was a source of life for the community today might threaten their way of living. It was once predictable with its flows, but now appears unruly and aggressive. Despite being an experienced fisherman, Bel’s brother, like many others in the community, wasn’t able to learn how to navigate the changing ecosystem. Faced with food insecurity because of the dying fish, the young fisherman went into deeper waters that claimed his life.
The Juruna people have a special relationship with their river. They call themselves Yudjá – those who own and belong to the river – within their community. The Xingu river is the source of not just livelihood and nourishment, but also culture and identity.
Their relationship to ancestral traditions and ways of living were forcefully changed with the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. The practice of communal fishing, cooking and sharing meals was replaced by visits to the supermarket, instant noodles and industrial food. Traditions and rituals are slowly dying, replaced by a lifestyle dependent on technology, processed diets, alcohol consumption and stress. Meanwhile, their natural environment is quickly eroding, with community gatekeepers unable to protect their territory. The village residents live in a state of constant anxiety, fearful that their houses and villages will soon become submerged in water.
This process of cultural displacement started well before the actual construction of the hydroelectric complex. Bel said that the community stopped espousing their customs and traditions when they began attending meetings held by Norte Energia and became engrossed in organizing social movements opposing the construction of the dam. At the end of the day, there was no time and energy left to practice rituals, as the fear of displacement took over.
The pace of indigenous cultural displacement accelerated to the point that Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry (PFM), an independent public institution, filed a lawsuit against the Brazilian federal government and Norte Energia in December 2015, accusing them of the crime of ethnocide against indigenous communities on the Xingu River.
The PFM had concluded that the construction of the mega-dam had damaged the social articulation, customs, languages and traditions of the Xingu indigenous tribes. A PFM investigation found “a process of ethnic extermination by which the federal government continues with the old colonial practice of integrating the Indians into the hegemonic society.”
In his book “Archeology of Violence,” French anthropologist Pierre Clusters describes ethnocide as the “systematic destruction of ways of living and thinking of people from those who lead this venture of destruction.”
The crime of ethnocide differs from genocide – the deliberate killing of large ethnic and racial groups – but Clusters argues that they share an “identical vision of the ‘other’” as the absolute evil. Genocide assassinates the body, while ethnocide assassinates the soul, he said.
In the past, under colonial rule in Brazil, and later during the rubber boom, many of the Juruna were killed, and their estimated population fell from 2,000 in 1842 to 52 in 1916. Over the course of time, the slaughter gave way to ethnocide.
For centuries, governments in the region have systematically seized the lands of indigenous populations in the name of economic development. The native populations have been deliberately excluded from the benefits of development, as well as being denied their constitutional rights and entitlements.
The expansion of cattle ranchers, cash-crop plantations and development projects in the Amazon region have pushed the Juruna and hundreds of other indigenous groups to the edge of displacement and dispossession.
The bodies and souls of indigenous populations appear to be inferior and disposable in the eyes of the government and developers. Meanwhile, sitting on the banks of the Xingu River, the Juruna people watch the rising tide with quiet alarm.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Refugees Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.