Eye on the Amazon

Tensions Rise on the Tapajos River

Peaceful Mundurukú gathering met with brutality

Tensions Rise on the Tapajos River

"For us everything is sacred: The river, earth, wind, fire, and the forest...when the government says it will do something on our land, it hurts our heart because we are all a part of it."Kabaiwun Kaba

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As the Brazilian government ramps up reckless plans to build another mega-dam complex – this time on the Amazon's Tapajos River – tensions reached a fever pitch last week with a hate-driven mob raining violence on a peaceful protest gathering of Mundurukú people. This brutal attack, meant to terrorize an indigenous group that has resolutely opposed the government's attacks on their lands and river, is a shameful continuation of a campaign to demoralize Mundurukú resistance. It is also a renewed sign of an alarmingly racist and reactionary anti-indigenous movement in today's Brazil, reaching from the grassroots to the federal government.

After days of demonstrations in the riverside town of Jacareacanga, where hundreds of Mundurukú demanded the reinstatement of 70 indigenous professors who were arbitrary fired leaving many communities without teachers, a small group was preparing to return to their villages. As they ate breakfast they were surprised by an angry horde of over 500 townspeople made up of miners, businesspeople, and local politicians, who bombarded the Mundurukú group – which included women and young children – with rocks, explosive rockets, and gas bombs. The attack injured two young leaders and terrorized the local indigenous community.

Reports from the scene confirm that local police were present but did nothing to prevent the anti-indigenous violence, which appears to have been instigated by the town's economic and political leadership. The deputy mayor of Jacareacanga was identified among the mob alongside the local secretary of Indigenous Affairs, Ivan Alencar, who was believed to have sparked this hateful and premeditated assault. Joining a group of wildcat miners who were expelled from Mundurukú territory earlier this year, Mr. Alencar was seen shouting that the Mundurukú aim to strip the rights of townspeople.

A series of recent indigenous assemblies among the Mundurukú nation reinvigorated calls for dialogue with key leaders in Brazil's Dilma Rousseff government. Known for paralyzing the construction of the notorious Belo Monte dam with a daring and determined occupation in 2013, the Mundurukú have long maintained that the government has scorned their right to consultation, forcing them to take direct action to demand the halt of dam planning on the Tapajos River.

"The government claims that we do not want dialogue, so we determined that we must arrange this dialogue and consultations, not the government," said Kabaiwun Kaba, a member of the Mundurukú Ipereg Ayu Movement. "The government must come to our territory, to our villages, to listen to our concerns. We should not need to have to go after the government."

Brazil's systematic violation of the indigenous right to be consulted over development decisions that affect their lands and livelihoods, as enshrined in the Brazilian constitution and International Labor Organization Convention 169, is playing out on the Tapajos much like it did on the Xingu River, where Belo Monte is currently under construction. Having witnessed the disaster befalling the Xingu and its peoples, the Mundurukú are fighting to preserve their riverine home from the same fate. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting to bring massive industrial mining operations onto Mundurukú lands.

According to Kabaiwun Kaba, the Mundurukú are determined to fight new mining concessions and hydroelectric projects planned for the Tapajós, putting the group on a collision course with Brazil's most powerful political and economic interests.

"For us everything is sacred," said Kaba. "The river, earth, wind, fire, and the forest. Everything is sacred. So when the government says it will do something on our land, it hurts our heart because we are all a part of it."

The steadfast and unified resistance of the Mundurukú nation, one of Brazil's most populous, could halt the ruthless march to industrialize the Tapajos basin. This has led the government to mount a brutal intimidation campaign with constant military incursions into Mundurukú territory, purportedly to provide security for teams gathering data needed to approve the Tapajos Complex, a series of seven large dams planned for the last major undammed tributary of the Amazon. Official documents show that the Complex will flood nearly 800 km² of forest, including indigenous villages, nearly doubling the direct impacts of the Belo Monte dam.

Like Brazil's diverse indigenous communities spread across the country, Mundurukú territory contains vast and largely untapped resources, such as the hydroelectric potential of the Tapajos and its tributaries, and a wealth of metals and minerals. While Brazil's Congress works to dismantle hard-fought indigenous land rights to open up these protected territories to uncontrolled exploitation, local hate mongers work to incite intimidation and violence against indigenous communities.

Painting indigenous communities as lazy recipients of handouts and impediments to Brazil's progress, an incendiary and racist discourse reckons a return to the colonial mindset that decimated indigenous peoples across the Americas. The longstanding oppression of Brazil's Guaraní Kaiowá over sugar production on their ancestral lands is the most glaring example of these tendencies, while explosive mob violence against the Tenharim community in Amazonas State confirms the spread of this malignant movement.

The Mundurukú show no sign of waning their resistance and their commitment to defend the Tapajos, in spite of this escalating regime of terror. But with every passing day the stakes rise in this tumultuous corner of the Amazon, urgently calling on Brazilian and international civil society to stand with these threatened peoples to demand respect for their rights and protection for their lands.

Read a letter from Mundurukú leadership to the Brazilian government and people.

Translation support from Lonny Ivan Meyer and Lucy Howard

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