Eye on the Amazon

We Are Made of the Sacred!

Munduruku people confirm they will return to occupy dam construction sites in the Amazon if indigenous rights continue to be violated

Photo credit: Caio Mota / FTP

This month's bold Munduruku occupation paralyzed a disastrous Amazon dam project over rampant rights violations and environmental destruction, and it sent a clear message that Brazil's indigenous peoples will continue to lead the resistance to their government's shameless rollbacks on hard-won protections. The following post is a translation of an account of the occupation by Fórum Teles Pires, a coaltion of Brazilian activists working to stop the Teles Pires dam and protect indigenous rights and communities, lightly edited for context and clarity.

A mobilization of the Munduruku people, which began two months ago by women concerned with defending sacred places and indigenous rights and led to an occupation of the construction site of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam project, ended on Friday, July 21st. The Munduruku, however, have made it clear that their struggle continues.

For four days, approximately 200 Munduruku, including warriors and leaders of both sexes, shamans and children representing 138 villages, occupied the main work camp of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires River, a tributary of the Tapajós that borders the states of Pará and Mato Grosso in the Brazilian Amazon. On the evening of July 19th, after a seven-hour meeting with the president of Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), and representatives of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office (MPF) and dam consortiums responsible for the São Manoel and Teles Pires hydroelectric projects, the Munduruku decided to end the occupation and continue their mobilization in the nearby town of Alta Floresta, where funerary urns of their ancestors, illegally removed by dam builders, are being stored.

Before entering the Museum of Natural History in Alta Floresta, the Munduruku performed a long series of chants and rituals. They did so in order to appease their spirits, irritated and saddened because of their removal, together with the urns, from sacred sites located alongside a series of rapids known as Sete Quedas, which were inundated by the reservoir of the Teles Pires dam, approximately 40 km upriver from the São Manoel hydro project.

  • Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP
  • Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP
  • Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP
  • Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP
  • Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP

Since 2014, the Munduruku have demanded that sacred objects, including twelve funerary urns, removed without permission by the Teles Pires Hydroelectric Company (CHTP) be returned to them. In 2015, the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in Mato Grosso recommended the urns be released by CHTP to the Munduruku as soon as indigenous leaders, FUNAI, and Brazil's National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute, determine a new location for them to be stored and protected. However, a solution is still pending and since February of 2017 the funeral urns have been in storage at the Natural History Museum in Alta Floresta.

After visiting the funerary urns, Munduruku shamans, or pajés, issued a statement emphasizing concerns over the destructive cultural impacts of hydroelectric dams, which they characterized as a continuation of practices of ethnocide initiated with the Portuguese invasion of Brazil:

In a meeting held in the village of Santa Cruz in May 2017, the Munduruku women decided to visit the urns. We waited a long time without telling anyone, but now the violations we suffered have been made public. Everyone knows that the Teles Pires and São Manoel dams destroyed our sacred sites.

In the statement, the Munduruku shamans called for an independent study, monitored by local communities, on the extent of cultural damage provoked by hydroelectric projects on the Teles Pires River and for a formal apology from dam proponents to the affected indigenous peoples.

We have seen the urns and we will fight so that they are kept safe. They are not to be seen behind glass windows as a curiosity; they shall be returned to their rightful homes. The Teles Pires dam destroyed our sacred site, Karubixexe, and those responsible must pay. The São Manoel dam destroyed Dekoká'a, another sacred site. We demand that there be an anthropological study on the destruction of Karubixexe and Dekoká'a. This study must be funded by the companies that constructed the dams, and we, the Munduruku people, will choose the anthropologist responsible for the study.... We also await an apology for the destruction of our sacred places, which should be delivered at a public meeting in the Cururu village.

In the letter's conclusion, the Munduruku state that if agreements reached at the July 19th meeting with FUNAI, the Public Prosecutor's office, and company representatives are not implemented, they will return to occupy dam sites on the Teles Pires River.

We Munduruku are returning to our villages, with the protection of the spirits of our ancestors. FUNAI has heard our demands and the companies made a commitment to our agenda. We will continue our movement. If they do not fulfill the commitment they made, FUNAI and the company can expect our return.

Government and Company Commitments

During the July 19th meeting, representatives of FUNAI, MPF and the São Manoel and Teles Pires dam consortiums agreed to meet a series of demands put forth in a letter presented by the Munduruku at the beginning of their occupation. The commitments include:

  • The completion of land titling for the Munduruku territories of Sawre Muybu, Pontal dos Isolados, Sawre Jaybu and Sawre Apompu.
  • Independent studies on the socio-environmental and cultural impacts of dams on the Teles Pires River, with active participation of indigenous communities and experts indicated by them.
  • That any approval of the São Manoel dam be based on the rule of law and independent technical evaluations of impacts on rivers, fish and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.
  • That the mitigation and compensation plans for the Teles Pires and São Manoel hydroelectric dam projects be revised to guarantee transparency and full participation of indigenous peoples.
  • That future projects protect the collective historical and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the Teles Pires, and that funeral urns be returned to a sacred site, determined by the Munduruku people, for permanent storage and protection.
  • Guarantee of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, in accordance with the Munduruku consultation protocol, for future proposed projects that directly or indirectly impact upon indigenous peoples.

Photo credit: Juliana Pesqueira / FTP

Support from near and far

In their initial letters declaring the occupation, the Munduruku wrote, "We know that our struggle is legitimate, as we are fighting for our rights that have been clearly violated by the construction of these dams... All aid in support of our struggle is welcome."

Answering that call, over the last week, other Brazilian indigenous groups, like the Ka'apor and the Gamella, as well as the Fórum Teles Pires and a variety of civil society organizations, have expressed their solidarity with the Munduruku for their occupation of the São Manoel dam site in defense of their rights. Amazon Watch and International Rivers also stand with them.

Translations of original documents by Ailen Vega and Jeremy Campbell.

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