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One Year on, Belo Monte Dam Is a Nightmare for Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

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Raimunda Gomes da Silva, who lived in one of the fluvial islands in the Xingu, flooded by the new reservoir. Photo: Isabel Harari/ISA

This story by Isabel Harari, originally published on Instituto Socioambiental, is abridged and republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

A year ago, officials closed the gates of the Belo Monte Dam, the second largest hydropower plant in Brazil and fourth largest of the world in installed capacity. From that moment on, the dam's reservoir in the Amazon began to fill, and the lives of the indigenous and riverlands populations who surround it were forever transformed.

Thanks to the dam, locals say sailing parts of the river has become more difficult, fishing grounds have disappeared, and pests and fish deaths are on the rise.

“It's impossible to live in the Xingu River today. I don't stand a chance. People use to live well. Now they survive. It's not a dignified life,” says Raimunda Gomes da Silva while sailing by the Pedrais da Volta Grande, a section of the Xingu River severely affected by the Belo Monte Dam.

Raimunda used to live with her husband, João, in one of the fluvial islands of the Xingu that were flooded by the dam's reservoir. They both lived off fishing and farming. Today, she lives in the suburbs of Altamira, a city of 100,000 people — the largest population center near the dam.

The Volta Grande is a 100-kilometer section of the Xingu river that runs through two indigenous reserves, the Arara da Volta Grande and Paquiçamba. Since the dam’s gates were closed, about 80% of the volume of the Volta Grande’s water has been diverted from its natural bed through an artificial canal to a reservoir

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Deforested and burned islands were partially submersed by the artificial lake. Photo: Isabel Harari / ISA

“The biggest problem is the lack of water. Downstream there's too little and upstream it overflows. It overflows with bad water and the downstream shortages are killing things off. There's too much water upstream, but it's all compromised, with problems, residues, dead fish, dead trees that have been submerged. And downstream we need more water —there's a little left, but not enough,” says Raimunda.

Today, she makes plans for her new house, which she calls “the promised land”: a piece of land, located 350 meters from the river, purchased with reparations she received from Norte Energia (North Energy), the private contractor responsible for building and running the plant. “I will be there in front of it, looking… I won't see it smiling and running free. I will see it in pain, but I want it to see that I haven't forgotten it.”

No river and no fish

Between February and April this year, Ibama, Brazil's environmental regulation agency, fined Norte Energia in R$ 35.3 milhões (10.5 million USD) for the death of 16.2 tons of fish during the filling up of the reservoir, which took three months.

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Acari, a common fish in the region, blind and diseased. Photo: Torkjell Leira/ISA

But dead fish weren't the only problem that confronted people living along the Xingu. The construction sites’ artificial lighting and use of explosives also ruined vital fishing grounds used by the indigenous peoples of Volta Grande.

With the permanent damming of the Xingu and the reduction of its flow, damage to local communities’ fishing got only worse. “It used to take an hour to get to the fishing grounds. Now it takes twice as long. Some places are inaccessible because the water level is too low and we can't pass [in our boats],” says Natanael Juruna, a member of the indigenous community.

Fishing is the main subsistence activity of the Juruna, according to the the Atlas of the Impacts of the Belo Monte Dam on Fishing, produced by the Instituto Socioambiental. According to data collected by independent monitors at the Instituto Socioambiental and the Federal University of Pará, the annual production of fish of the Juruna is of 4,469 kilograms — 98 percent of which is consumed and 2 percent of which is sold commercially. Fish represent 55 percent of local communities’ meals.

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Sailing has become difficult in parts of the river because of the reduced water flow. Photo: Isabel Harari/ISA

Fishing is intimately connected to the river's “flow cycles.” For example, the pacu and the matrinxã, two types of fish that inhabit the Amazon basin, feed themselves from fruits that wash in from flooded areas — environments that will cease to exist with the alteration of the river's flow.

“Without fish we won't survive,” says Gillard Juruna, chief of the Miratu village, located in the Paquiçamba Indigenous Reserve. “Our people have always lived off the fish in this region. I am sad when I hear that the fish will end. We live off the fish, the river, and that's why we are the Yudja [another name for Juruna], which means ‘the lords of the river,’ and we have always survived in the river, which is everything to us. While the Xingu exists, we will keep fighting. We are going until the end. When it dies, we die together with it.”

Pests

Riverlands people and indigenous groups report that mosquito populations have increased considerably since the installation of the dam, making fishing, foraging, and farming more difficult.

To Bel Juruna, another indigenous leader at the Miratu village, communities have responded by using insect repellent at alarming rates: “Now we have to live walking with those poison bombs, having to breath poison, but it's the only way we can live a little free of the insects — even inside our own homes. It could intoxicate the children and the people. And the problems with these poisons aren't immediately apparent.”

A lack of dialogue

A whole year before the company built the dam, Belo Monte's installation license required Norte Energia to discuss proposals to monitor and mitigate the project's environmental impact with both indigenous and traditional riverlands peoples — adversely affected. So far, according to locals, Norte Energia only presented this information to Ibama, the licensing body.

Norte Energia reportedly outsourced its water-quality monitoring responsibilities, and some local indigenous people say they've participated in efforts to collect water samples, but they've yet to gain access to the test results.

Canoada

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One of the five canoes that crossed the Volta Grande do Xingu during the canoada. Foto: Marcelo Salazar/ISA

The Canoada Bye Bye Xingu — a canoe excursion organized by the Indigenous Association Yudja Miratu da Volta Grande do Xingu (Aymix) and by the Instituto Socialambiental — aims to draw attention to the problems that the peoples and communities of the Xingu have been facing since the beginning of the Belo Monte dam's construction.

The third Canoada excursion, which took place between September 3 and 9, was the first after the Belo Monte's gates were closed. The changes in the scenery are visible. With the river's drought, the 112-kilometer journey was even more difficult and the breathtaking landscape of the Amazon now featured flooded and deforested islands and sick fish.

“It's a whole experience to feel with the indigenous and the riverlands peoples: the consequences of the installation of the plant, the beauties and the pains of the region. Whoever takes part in the canoada and listens to the affected populations, feels the bites of carapanãs (mosquitoes), sees the dying fishes and trees, returns convinced that the model of development for the country cannot be the construction of dams such as Belo Monte,” says Instituto Socialambiental's Marcelo Salazar.

The canoada also helps indigenous groups think of socio-economic alternatives to communities that depend on the commercialization of fish. Indigenous and riverlands groups could generate income with this kind of activity, working as guides, renting out canoes, or selling their arts and food products.

“A morbid laboratory”

Over the next few years, Norte Energia will conduct a series of tests to determine what water levels are necessary to generate the necessary electricity levels, and how much will flow to the Volta Grande. But until 2019, when the dam begins operating at full power, the company will “open and close” the dam, following the regulations of the National Water Agency (ANA) and Ibama.

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Participants of the canoada followed closely the changes in the river and the population that lives on its banks. Photo: Roberta Simonetti/ISA

“What's being tested is the minimum water flow to maintain life in this region, and what kind of life this minimum flow can sustain. It's a great human and natural experiment, to test the life of nature and the lives of people who live in that place — to see if it will work. It's a morbid laboratory, what's being done to the people of this region,” says Marcelo Salazar.

This story by Isabel Harari, originally published on Instituto Socioambiental, is abridged and republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

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