A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam

Below is the introduction to an amazing photo essay by Cristina Mittermeier. Click here to view the photos on the National Geographic website.

The Power of Water

By Joseph Eaton

To slake the overwhelming thirst for electricity of São Paulo and the surrounding metropolis, as well as its growing industry, Brazil is preparing to build the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Critics of the plan say the $17 billion Belo Monte dam would displace more than 20,000 people and threaten the unique cultures of indigenous people in the region including the Kayapo, a native group that depends on the Xingu and its tributaries for food, water, and transportation.

Norte Energia, S.A., the consortium of public and private electric and construction companies building Belo Monte, maintains that although there will be indirect impacts, "removal of inhabitants is not foreseen."

Photographer Cristina Mittermeier has been traveling to the Amazon since the 1990s, often making two trips a year by small plane to document Kayapo culture and its link to the Xingu. As these four children frolicking in the shallow waters of the Rio Pequeño tributary can attest, contact with the river is a daily experience for the Kayapo.

"As soon as they are born, infants are taken to the water," Mittermeier says. "All day long, children can be seen playing in the river. From a young age, they are excellent swimmers."

The dam's threat to the Kayapo is not new. An earlier plan to dam the Xingu was abandoned in the 1990s in the face of local and international protest, in some cases led by the Kayapo. The new Belo Monte plan, however, appears to be moving forward, despite criticism that it will fail to generate the amount of electric power its backers expect. Brazilian government officials are not budging, and say the dam will move forward in the face of opposition. They argue the dam is necessary to help power the developing country.

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