Where the River Runs Through
Aaron Vincent Elkaim
The sound of thousands of different species harmonizing echoed in my ears as I lay in my hammock on my first night in the Xikrín community of Pot Crô on the Bacaja River in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest; the name of the river means “that which flows is our veins.” I awoke to find children playing a game of who could stand in a red anthill the longest before having to jump into a puddle for relief. In that moment and in the weeks and months that followed I saw how those born and raised in the midst of nature were different than the rest of us, they had something we had lost, and they were now under threat.
Plans for the Belo Monte Dam Complex began in 1975, under the apex of a military dictatorship in Brazil. It would be built on the Xingu River, home to Brazil’s first indigenous reserve. In 1989 the Kayapo, a warrior tribe fearing for the health of the river that sustained them mounted a massive public campaign in opposition of its construction. International financiers soon pulled their support, and the project was shelved.
In 2007, Brazil announced the Accelerated Growth Program. A cornerstone of the program was the construction of over 60 major hydroelectric projects in the Amazon over the next 15 years with Belo Monte at the forefront. The energy generated would fuel mining initiatives and power cities thousands of miles away. Now nearing completion, Belo Monte will be the fourth largest dam in the world and has displaced over 20,000 people
Hydroelectric dams are touted as clean and renewable sources of energy, but the real impact of large dams is often anything but with hundreds of square miles of land flooded and complex river ecosystems permanently transformed. In the Amazon, they release huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, while new infrastructure and population growth open the forest to increased logging, mining, and agriculture. The result is the erosion of the Amazon Rainforest and the sacrifice of cultures and communities who depend on the river and forest ecosystems for their way of life.
On the Tapajós River, the last undammed tributary of the Amazon River, the Munduruku tribe has been fighting to prevent a similar fate. In 2014 the tribe of 13,000 began self-demarcating territory that would be flooded, cutting a border through the forest using GPS, machetes and chainsaws while working with NGOs to create international awareness against the dams. In 2016 an official demarcation was granted, constitutionally protecting their territory. What followed was astounding as IBAMA (Brazil’s Environmental Agency) cancelled the environmental licensing for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam. In early 2018, the government said it would no longer pursue the construction of large dams and would instead focus on cleaner forms of renewable energy. Indigenous territory has proven to be the strongest bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon, and the Munduruku’s success serves as a reminder of our power to protect that which sustains us.