Dams or Indigenous Land: The Battle over the Munduruku Frontier

After working in the woodland, the Munduruku warriors get together to sing traditional songs of celebration. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The Munduruku indigenous tribe have begun to mark out the limits of their land, in an action that could halt the giant São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric dam, the apple of the Brazilian government's eye. Although sacred, this land will be flooded if the dam goes ahead. "We are not leaving," says the village chief.

Along the banks of Brazil's Tapajós River in the west of the state of Pará, the forest undergrowth crackles as Munduruku warriors march over it. They are about 20 in number, all strong, their arms and chests painted in patterns taken from the shell of the giant tortoise. They work in near silence, with an occasional word spoken in their mother tongue, Munduruku. They take care as they move forward, for the forest floor is littered with vines, thorny branches, and decomposing tree trunks. Their steps are slow and deliberate. At their own speed, the warriors are preparing for battle.

The Munduruku have adopted a new strategy, waging war in a way that they have never done before, even though their history of warfare goes back well before their first recorded contact with the Portuguese in 1768.

Chief Solano came from the Upper Tapajós to help. 'We are one people', the Munduruku declare. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Armed with sickles and machetes, they are clearing a strip of land, four meters wide and seven kilometers long, which will mark out the limit of their land. They are calling it the "self-demarcation" of the Indigenous Territory of Sawré Muybu. Cut out of the tall forest, the cleared track is a defensive trench in the battle to stop the advance of hydroelectric dams into the Tapajós River basin.

With the support of environmentalists and Brazil's Federal Public Ministry – an independent branch of the federal government that defends the rights of disadvantaged minorities, particularly the indigenous population – the Munduruku have become the biggest obstacle yet faced by Dilma Rousseff's government in its attempt to exploit the energy potential of the Tapajós River network.

The Munduruku opted for self-demarcation of their land in October 2014, after waiting seven years for the government's Indian Agency, Funai, to take action. It was only in September 2013, after long delays, that the agency drew up a document entitled the "Detailed Report on the Identification and Delimitation of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land," which recognized the area as being of "historic settlement" of the Munduruku Indians and defined the borders of their territory. But the report, unpublished, is still languishing on the desk of Funai's president.

Obtaining official access to the report, Pública has (unofficially) published it in its entirety. Its 193 pages constitute a meticulous account of the historic links that the Munduruku have with their land. It points out that the "physical and cultural reproduction" of the113 people now living there will be threatened by the hydroelectric projects.

The unpublished report concludes: "If the indigenous peoples are to be given the legal security to which they are entitled and to have their other rights fully respected, it is essential that the state recognizes the Indigenous Territory of Sawré Muybu."

Find out more and read the full document here.

The government's reluctance to publish the report stems from the fact that marking out the Sawré Muybu territory could halt a hydroelectric dam that is considered of strategic importance by the federal government – the São Luiz do Tapajós plant, designed to be the third largest in the country at an expected cost of 30 billion reais (US$11.2 billion) and with a maximum generating capacity of 8,040 megawatts. But, the project would lead to flooding of large areas of the Sawré Muybu indigenous land, making it impossible for the indigenous people to continue living there.

The Munduruku set up camp in the middle of the woodland. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Permanently evicting indigenous people from their land is forbidden under article 231 of Brazil's Constitution. And, in a confidential memo dated September 25th, 2013, to which Pública had access, Funai pointed out that such a measure would infringe on the Brazilian Constitution. In the memo, Funai recommended that the government halt construction of the dam.

To get around the problem, the government is arguing that the Sawré Muybu indigenous land has never officially been recognized as belonging to the Munduruku – a claim that has infuriated warriors and chiefs throughout the Tapajós basin.

The gateway into the Munduruku world

The Munduruku, who live along the banks of the Tapajós River and its tributaries, are one of the largest ethnic groups in Brazil, numbering over 13,000 men, women, and children. Most of their villages will feel the impact of the dams. Seven hydroelectric dams are planned for the basin as well as two others, already under construction, on the Teles Pires River, a tributary of the Tapajós, on the border with the state of Mato Grosso.

The Munduruku work on laying down the four meters wide landmark. They are following the boundaries defined by Funai itself. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

If constructed, the dams are expected to lead to a decline in the abundance of fish and game – both of which are critical for the Munduruku's survival. This impact is the main reason chiefs and warriors throughout the river basin have mobilized against the dams. But there is also a city-dwelling minority of the Munduruku people that support the dam projects.

Worried about what the dams would mean for their territory as a whole, representatives of all the Munduruku villages met and decided that Sawré Muybu was a make-or-break issue. This territory is not just crucial for the families who live there, but also of great significance to Munduruku as it is here that Kapap' Eipi is located – the sacred land where the first Munduruku, the animals, and the Tapajós River were all born. Given its spiritual importance and the amount of political conflict it is generating, Sawré Muybu could perhaps be viewed as a kind of Munduruku Jerusalem.

"This is the gateway to our territory. We have come to protect the land for our children and grandchildren," said Saw Rexatpu, a Munduruku warrior and historian, speaking at the end of long day working on the demarcation. "Our great grandparents died fighting here and we are continuing the fight in their wake. If I die here, my story will live on after me."

Natives and river-dwelling people joined forces in the battle to defend the territory. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Rexatpu traveled for three days in response to the call of Juarez Saw Munduruku, chief of the Sawré Muybu village.

But what if this strategy backfires and the government orders them to leave?

"We won't go," the chief responded without batting an eye. And if the police remove you by force? "That will be the end of us and our world, because the only way they will get us out is by killing us."

If Funai won't mark out our territory, we will

Non-indigenous riverside dwellers, who will also be seriously impacted by the dams, have joined forces with the Munduruku. The alliance was sealed during the demarcation expedition, which relied on crucial help from Francisco Firmino Silva, known as Chico Catitu, a woodsman from the Montanha-Mangabal community of riverside dwellers. The first person to make his way through the dense vegetation, Catitu would leave marks in the forest so that the Munduruku would know where to clear the track. His profound knowledge as a woodsman worked in combination with the GPS guidance provided by social scientist, Maurício Torres, and historian, Felipe Garcia, both working as volunteers. The group followed the demarcation coordinates originally prepared by Funai precisely – and now collecting dust in an office in Brasilia.

Apart from having official approval, the team worked in much the same way as an official demarcation team. The biggest difference is the lack of logistic support. Without government backing, the team would receive little medical help if anything went wrong. The risks are considerable.

The Pública reporting team saw for itself how easy it would be for a conflict to erupt with loggers, who are illegally invading the indigenous area. A large felled tree (about five meters in circumference and more than 30 meters tall) lay on the ground; beside it, a rough track into the forest showed where a logger was working. A week before, at another spot in the forest, the loggers on motorbikes and trucks had surrounded the Munduruku. A few days later, the Munduruku approached a group of 300 wild-cat miners searching for diamonds on Munduruku land. When told that the Munduruku were marking out their territory, the miners said they would only leave if the demarcation became official.

The Munduruku have already been subjected to many cycles of pressure on their territory and their way of life. In the early 20th Century, missionaries sought to catechize the indigenous peoples. Unsuccessful in their efforts, they then tried to stop the indigenous people from using their native language and continuing with their traditions. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the Indian Protection Service (SPI), which was the precursor to Funai, set up a rubber trading post on Munduruku land in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the indigenous Munduruku into rubber tappers. More recently, it has been the invasion of their land by loggers and miners that has caused the most concern. But now there is a more serious threat – the planned construction of hydroelectric dams.

Chief Juarez Saw Munduruku, from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land: 'The only way I'm leaving is dead'. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

As they stake out the forest with posts, the indigenous population and the riverside dwellers are giving concrete expression to a legal dispute, which has been fought in Brazilian courts for over two years. Just as in the legal battle over the licensing of the huge Belo Monte dam, which lies further to the east along the Xingu River, the Federal Public Ministry has taken the lead and has gone to court eight times to demand that the government respect the rights of the local inhabitants in the Tapajós.

What is proving different in this case is the result of lessons that the Munduruku have learnt from what went wrong with indigenous attempts to block the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River. After helping the indigenous groups stage an occupation of the Belo Monte construction works in May 2013, the Munduruku then accompanied them in their negotiations with the dam builders: these indigenous groups gave up their right to fish, to hunt, and to fell small areas of forest for subsistence farming in return for regular food hampers, pickup trucks, and other goods. Now, some Munduruku Indians are horrified by the way the indigenous villages near Belo Monte have become so dependent on government authorities.

Life in the Sawré Muybu village today has two equally time-consuming activities: as well as marking out their land and holding meetings, the chief and the warriors are scrambling to take advantage of the dry season to plant cassava and squash. They need not only to monitor what the government is doing and what is happening in the courts but also to follow the normal village routines on which their lives depend. While they are upset by defeats in the courts and rejoice when they win, they are aware all the time that they must press ahead with their defense strategies.

The Tapajós River is the primary source of livelihood for the natives; the arrival of the dam could diminish fish supplies. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The decision to mark out their territory was taken after a heated argument with the then interim president of Funai, Maria Augusta Assirati. In a meeting that the Munduruku filmed, Assirati admitted that the dams were the main reason why there were so many obstacles in the way of marking out the Sawré Muybu territory.

"I think this indigenous land should be demarcated and the report should be published, but this decision does not depend on the will of just one government agency," Assirati said. On hearing Assirati admit that she could not overrule the hydroelectric dam lobby, Munduruku spokesperson, Roseninho Saw Munduruku, called on her to resign.

"As I see it, if you don't want to support Funai, you should resign. You are not interested in defending our cause," he said.

Assirati was reduced to tears and said she would stay in her job because she believed she could turn the situation around. Nine days later she resigned as president of Funai.

"You'll never get it"

The Munduruku have their own distinct political organization: they hold a meeting before they nominate the leaders who are to represent them before the pariwat (non-indigenous). Roseninho was chosen as the Sawré Muybu spokesperson and coordinator of the Pahyhyp Association, which represents the indigenous tribes living along the middle course of the Tapajós. However, he cannot take decisions alone. What he says in public, in Portuguese is first discussed among the community in Munduruku. With each new development, Roseninho goes back to the village and attends long meetings in which everyone, including children, may participate.

This political tradition predates all talk of dams. At least once a year, the Munduruku hold a three-day general assembly, with discussions often lasting into the early hours of the morning.

Roseninho says he does not like the responsibility of representing the group outside the village, and, because he is so involved, he feels most keenly the setbacks in the legal war. This is exactly what happened in early November 2014 when he met the federal prosecutor, Luís de Camões Lima Boaventura. The prosecutor, from the Federal Public Ministry, is one of the most effective defenders of the Munduruku in the courts and was even named an "honorary warrior" in a Munduruku ritual. But on that day he had to break some bad news.

Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku is the women's representative in the Iperêg Ayû movement. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Camões Boaventura had earlier obtained a legal victory in the federal courts, obtaining a court order instructing Funai to publish the Sawré Muybu report, but then he was informed that the Office of the General Counsel, which is the federal government's legal defense body, had got that decision overruled in a higher court in Brasília. In other words, Funai would continue to sit on the demarcation report.

As the prosecutor broke the news, Roseninho and other leaders stood dumbstruck. For a long while, they did not show any reaction. Camões Boaventura even tried to lighten the mood. "You're not going to let the cat get your tongue now of all times, are you?" he joked. But Roseninho could only mumble: "I have no words."

The following day Roseninho arrived, disheartened, in the port of Itaituba, the closest town to the village of Sawré Muybu. In a rare expression of despair and almost crying, he said: "How can I bring news of this defeat to my people? How am I going to tell this to the chief?"

Aware of the communication difficulties between indigenous and non-indigenous, he turned to us, speaking brusquely, "What do you want to ask? Do you want to know about the history of the Munduruku? I'll tell you: the men, they are the dogs; the women, they are the fish. Now, how you are going to understand that? Because I can tell you this – you'll never get it."

The tortoise-men

Despite the disquiet in the village, the Munduruku of Sawré Muybu carry on with their routines. In the mornings, the women sweep the dirt floors of their houses, which have rough, wooden walls, full of holes, and roofs made from babaçu palm leaves. Chickens and dogs quickly go after the scraps of food that are brushed out of the huts. There is almost no biodegradable trash for everything gets used. The adults carry out subsistence farming, fish, and hunt. The water they use comes from a crystal-clear stream that flows beside the village. After school, children run around and pick fruit from the trees. The only squabble we witnessed had to do with the time a child could spend in the water.

In the village, children and young people attend classes regularly. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

"Mom only lets me go swimming three times a day!" complained a boy, who wanted to go down to the river with his friends a further time on that hot and sunny day. He went off to talk to her and, moments later, he jumped into the cool stream, sporting a smile from ear to ear.

What is on the menu is always a surprise. People only know what will be served for lunch or dinner when the fishermen and hunters return. The village's teenagers clean the fish and game and set aside a portion for their family. Every day our reporting team was in the village, we were fed a different type of meat: armadillo, tortoise, venison, and tasty wild boar from species locally known as caititu and porcão. And the types of fish were so varied we lost count.

It is difficult to imagine how this population could survive in an environment with scant supply of game and fish.

Among the concerns raised by the talk of dams, the villagers' greatest fear is being forced to live in a town or city.

"We don't know how to live like you," Aldira Akai Munduruku explained. "We have always lived in the forest, hunting and fishing. People in the city depend on money. If you don't have money, you don't eat."

Meeting in the Sawré Muybu village: everyone can participate. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Five months pregnant and the mother of a two-year-old, Aldira still remembers the hunger she suffered when she lived in the town of Jacareacanga as a child.

In the stories told by the elders, narratives that weave together people and animals in the same being, the most prevalent hero is the tortoise. Thanks to its intelligence and astuteness, it always triumphs over the strength and arrogance of its enemies: the tapir, the anaconda, and the jaguar. And to evoke these characteristics, the warriors paint themselves in patterns like those on the tortoise's shell.

Stories of past wars are also retold. In the second half of the 18th Century, the Munduruku launched several attacks on Portuguese camps. The colonial agents reacted by sending in the troops. One of the tributaries of the Tapajós actually became known as Rio das Tropas (Troops' River). It was during this period that the Munduruku gained the reputation of being "head hunters." As the name suggests, they would cut off the head of an enemy, mummify it, impale it on a stake, and put it on the border of their territory as a warning. The practice was abandoned over a century ago, but the Munduruku call on the symbolic power of the image by painting a mummified head on the notices they post along the demarcation trail.

Although they defend their lands, they do not like being labeled a violent people.

The Munduruku eat different types of game meat found in their territory. In the photo, girls prepare deer for dinner. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

"The Munduruku are peaceful. But when you rub salt into their wounds, they get angry," said Deusiano Saw Munduruku, a school teacher in Sawré Muybu. The name of the dam resistance movement is Ipêreg Ayû, which means "the people who know how to defend themselves."

Roseninho explained: "The government says we are behaving aggressively. But, in fact, it is them who are behaving aggressively towards us."

Police operations lead to a death

Indeed, in the recent history of tension between the Munduruku warriors and the armed forces of the Brazilian state, the most violent episodes were the result of actions undertaken, not by the Munduruku, but by the government. And these actions often proved counter-productive: in the villages of the Teles Pires, situated higher up the Tapajós River, oppositions to the dams grew stronger than ever after a tragic Federal Police operation.

In the Sawré Muybu, the natives bathe, wash their utensils and drink water from a flowing creek. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

In November 2012, Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku was fatally shot by police officer Antonio Carlos Moriel Sanches. According to the complaint filed by the Federal Public Ministry, which charged the policeman with homicide, the Munduruku had an altercation with Moriel Sanches, who was attempting to destroy a barge that the Munduruku used for dredging for gold in the river. The policeman was shoved and fell into the river. Once he scrambled out, he shot Adenilson in the legs and then in the neck, killing him. Moriel Sanches was subsequently acquitted by a court.

Maria Leusa Cosme Kaba Munduruku, the women's representative on the Iperêg Ayû movement, was horrified by the ferocity of the police's reaction after the first shots had been fired.

"It became clear to us: the government has come to wage war on the Munduruku," she said.

According to the federal prosecutor, Janaína Andrade, the police behaved aggressively because they were seeking to stop women and older people from reacting to the death but they ended up injuring many others.

"One man even got a bone broken. Afterwards, they [the police] picked up the cartridges and arrested 17 indigenous people, including some children," the prosecutor stated.

A video filmed by a Munduruku Indian shows the police shooting in an area in the village filled with women and children. On the following day, the Munduruku also recorded the village's grief when Adenilson's body was found at the river.

Less than one year later, the Munduruku had another traumatic encounter with the police. In March 2013, some Indians from Sawré Muybu came across biologists carrying out an environmental-impact assessment of the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric plant within indigenous territory. Since they had not been consulted about – or even informed of – the assessment beforehand, the Munduruku expelled the group from their land.

In 2013, a National Public Security Force helicopter that accompanied researchers for the São Luiz hydroelectric power plant flew over the natives' soccer field. The atmosphere was fearful and apprehensive. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The government's reaction was out of all proportion, according to the Munduruku.

"The police arrived by helicopter, in two large boats and in 40 smaller boats," said Chief Juarez.

According to a press release issued by the government, it sent in police from the National Security Force (a new force created by the Federal Government in 2004 and directly under its control) "to provide logistic support for the researchers and to guarantee their safety."

The Tapajós Expedition, the name given by the government to the police operation, lasted one month. Young Munduruku still remember the noise of the helicopter hovering over the village. Frightened parents locked their children inside their homes. The people had to stop hunting and only fished on riverbanks near the village.

"It seemed as if they were waiting for us to do something wrong so that they could attack us. It was like what happened in Teles Pires. We decided to keep quiet," Chief Juarez recalled. "It was as if we were prisoners in the village."

Young boy draws the image of Karo Daybi, an ancient leader known for being a highly skilled head hunter. Although abandoned, this practice is evoked as a symbol of strength and painted in the demarcation signs. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The courts got involved. After receiving evidence that the Munduruku were being intimidated on their own lands by the military, a federal court suspended the hydroelectric station's operating license. This decision, published in April 2013, was, in fact, in response to an earlier prosecution, filed by the Federal Public Ministry in September 2012. At that time the ministry had requested the government suspend work on the dams on account of two flaws in the licensing process: failure to conduct prior consultations with the indigenous population and riverside dwellers, and failure to carry out a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, a study that measures the impact of the whole dam complex on the region.

Ten days later, the injunction was overruled, and the Tapajós Expedition continued apace. The government had convinced the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's highest judicial authority, to authorize a Suspension Order for overruling the injunction on safety and security grounds. It was the same procedure by that ensured work on the Belo Monte dam would continue unhindered. Bypassing normal legal procedures, this mechanism convinced the tribunal to accept that stopping work on a hydroelectric dam would lead to "serious harm to public order, health, safety and finances."

Prosecutor: government views environmental license as 'mere formality'

Though the Supreme Federal Tribunal did not back the earlier decision to suspend the hydroelectric station's operating license, it did support the ruling that prior consultation must take place. The argument for this is based on Convention no. 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), ratified by Brazil, which establishes the right of traditional communities to be heard. Despite the binding nature of the convention, it was clear that the voices of the Munduruku and the riverside dwellers were not being properly heard in the licensing procedure drawn up by the government. In theory, this is the stage when the project should be scrutinized and, in the case of serious impacts, redrafted or redesigned. In theory, Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, could even declare the project unviable.

But the Ministry of Mining and Energy had already shown that this is not how it works in practice. In September 2014, the ministry announced the date for companies to bid for contracts for the installation of the São Luiz do Tapajós station, even though Funai had not yet published the Indigenous Component Report, the study examining the impact of the dam on the local population. The Funai report is an essential part of the consultation process that must occur before contracts are awarded.

The Munduruku come together to celebrate the conclusion of one more stage in the demarcation of the Sawré Muybu. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

"How is it possible that they brought this step forward? Is the government expecting IBAMA to sign off on the project, even before it's seen the studies?" asked Prosecutor Camões Boaventura. "It seems that the government sees the environmental license as a mere formality."

After the influential O Globo newspaper drew attention to this irregularity, the bidding was postponed.

For ten days, Pública's reporting team tried to contact the government bodies linked to the project. IBAMA, ANEEL (The Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency), and the group in charge of the impact studies all stated that they do not talk about projects that are in the process of licensure. Funai and the Energy Research Company (a research body linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy) said they were too busy. The General Secretariat of the Presidency (which plays a key role in government) did not even reply to the reporting team's repeated requests for an interview.

"Building the Tapajós dam is non-negotiable"

In the second week of November, as they were preparing for the first meeting of the prior consultation ordered by the Tribunal, Minister Gilberto Carvalho, who heads the General Secretariat of the Presidency, dashed the Munduruku's hopes.

In an interview with the BBC, Carvalho said that nothing the indigenous population said could stop the construction of the dam. "This consultation is not about taking a decision [about whether or not to build the dam]. It is being held to meet demands, to mitigate negative impacts. The building of the Tapajós dam is non-negotiable."

The interview was translated into Munduruku during a meeting in the village that will be flooded by the dam. It was one of the few times we were able to understand what was being said, since there are apparently no words in Munduruku for "minister" and "devil."

One week later, 40 Munduruku men and women marched in silence to the FUNAI office in Itaituba. Three blocks from the office, one warrior signaled with his arm for everyone to take off his shirt. They had recently reapplied the tortoise patterns and they now covered their entire chests and both their arms.

The group entered the office, confiscated the keys to the doors and cars, and demanded the publication of the demarcation report.

Munduruku congregate for self-demarcation activities. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá

"We want Brasilia to mark out our land now. We know how to care for it better than IBAMA or the Chico Mendes Conservation Institution (ICMBio) do," said Chief Juarez, referring to their recent encounters with loggers and miners.

After seven hours of negotiations, the only thing they were offered was a meeting with the new interim president of the FUNAI, Flávio Chiarelli Azevedo, to be held in Brasília eight days later.

"To hear the same thing we always do?" Juarez asked. "We are not going." The group realized that the government was not particularly worried by their occupation of the FUNAI office and decided to return to the village.

Despite the risk of provoking a violent confrontation, the Munduruku decided to press ahead with the demarcation. The final stage will be to drive loggers and miners from their land, which is something the villages along Troops' River have already done. Without getting the answers they need from the government, the Munduruku have decided that their only option is to defend their lands – whoever may try to invade them.

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