The Xingu River and Its People
Traversing the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará, the Xingu River is an eastern tributary of the Amazon, spanning 1,979 kilometers in length. Near its mouth, the Xingu expands into an immense lake, and its waters then mix with those of the Amazon through a labyrinth of natural canals. For hundreds of years, the Xingu River basin has been home to a cross-section of Brazilian life, made up of rural and urban communities. The region reveals a diverse conglomeration of people, with varying levels of multilingualism and acculturation to the Brazilian mainstream.
The Xingu is also home to over 25,000 indigenous peoples from 18 ethnic groups, including the Juruna, Xikrín, Arara, Xipaia, Kuruaya, Parakanã, Araweté, and Kayapó. The Big Bend of the Xingu – a 100km stretch of the river that would be severely impacted by the Belo Monte dam – is considered to be the cradle of Xingu's indigenous civilizations. The significance of indigenous cultures to the Xingu basin led the Brazilian government to recognize the country's first indigenous territory during the late 1950s along the river's borders.
Ecologically, the Xingu River is a vital part of a complex ecosystem, with a rich biodiversity of plant and animal species. Its waters are the lifeblood of its inhabitants. Riparian communities have been cultivating the seasonal soil deposits of the river for centuries. While their diet is supplemented by hunting and gathering, fish is still the principal source of animal protein for those living in the Xingu. The rivers also serve as the local peoples' primary source of transportation. As Zé Carlos Arara, a leader of the Arara people put it:
"For us the river means many things. For everything we do, we depend on the river. For us to go out, to take our parents around, to get medical attention, we need the river for all these things. If a dam is constructed on the river, how will we pass through it? ... We don't want to see the river closed off, our parents dying in inactivity. For us the river is useful and we don't want it to wither away – that we not have a story to tell, that it become a legend for our children and grandchildren. We want them to see it with their own eyes."
In recent years, the lifestyle and survival of the Xingu River's inhabitants – whether traditional, urban, or indigenous communities – have been threatened by a development model that favors large-scale, often unsustainable enterprise. In the name of progress, deforestation associated with agro-business, the construction of hydroelectric dams, and industrial mining has marginalized many of the Xingu's inhabitants. Local people have been denied a say in these projects, despite the profound impact on their lands and the resources upon which they depend. Under the Lula government, similar violations of community rights and disregard for social and environmental sustainability have paved the way for the mega-dams of the Madeira River Complex. And today, the threat falls upon the people of the Xingu, with the government's plans to build the Belo Monte dams.
The current threat of Belo Monte is not without precedent. In 1989, The First International Encounter in Defense of the Xingu River was organized by anthropologist Darrel Posey in conjunction with the Kayapó tribes and local people of the Xingu basin to mobilize an international response against the dam. Thanks to their efforts, the Brazilian government withdrew their original plans to construct Belo Monte. In 2002, however, the government announced new plans to dam the Xingu. Its inhabitants – rich in language and customs – are also, without question, committed to defending their ways of life. As the indigenous leader Sheyla Juruna states,
"The government is not open to dialogue, so we will fight with our bodies and souls... to defend our lives and the life of our river."