They Owned an Island, Now They Are Urban Poor: The Tragedy of Altamira

Construction of the Belo Monte dam has cast men, women and children who lived rich lives along the Xingu River to the outskirts of Altamira, Brazil’s most violent city. Here, to the sound of gunfire, they must live behind barred windows, and buy food with money they’ve never had – or needed before

Antonio das Chagas with his wife Dulcinéia Dias and their family. Photo credit: Lilo Clareto / The Guardian

Antonio das Chagas and Dulcineia Dias had an island. A slice of the Amazon rainforest, on the Xingu River.

"I had a better life than anyone in São Paulo," says Das Chagas, referring to Brazil's wealthiest city. "If I wanted to work my land, I did. If I didn't, the land would be there the next day. If I wanted to fish, I did, but if I'd rather pick açaí, I did. I had a river, I had woods, I had tranquility. On the island, I didn't have any doors. I had a place ... And on the island, we didn't get sick."

The couple now rent a house with one window. The window has bars, because they live on the periphery of Altamira, Brazil's most violent city. They have discovered hunger, which they cannot find words to describe. When asked to do so, Das Chagas, a 60-year-old man who had known nothing of city life before, finds his eyes welling up. Dias, 52, crouches in a corner, her back pressed hard against a cracked cement wall.

Somewhere between their island on the river and their rented house in the city, these people of the forest were converted into urban poor. Typifying the government-led settlement of the Amazon, this process reached its apex under the 1964-1985 civilian-military dictatorship, when megaprojects like the Transamazon Highway were launched. But the event that obstructed the lives of Das Chagas, Dias and and hundreds of families living on the Xingu took place under democracy.

Built in the Amazon forest, in the state of Pará, the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex is one of the biggest infrastructure projects on the planet. It is also hugely controversial. The Public Prosecutor's Office has filed 24 lawsuits against Belo Monte for human rights and environmental violations. The project has left a huge stain on the Workers' Party, two of whose leaders – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ("Lula") and Dilma Rousseff – made it a top priority of their administrations.

Oblivious to political events in Brazil, Das Chagas and Dias are now poor. Das Chagas, who had never thought of retiring, because he "didn't need to", has gone on a state pension so he can feed his wife, youngest daughter and grandson. After paying rent and electricity, which consume 70% of his income, they are left with 1.60 Brazilian reais a day per person – about 36 pence.

Located on the Xingu River, Altamira is a typical Amazonian city: almost all of its trees have been cut, because the local political and economic elite view them as roadblocks or something to "clean up". The heat index (which takes account of temperature and humidity) tops 40C in summer, and climbs above 30C even during the winter rainy season. The couple have neither a refrigerator nor a fan. The centrepiece of their living room is a photomontage of their youngest daughter and two grandsons, a princess and two soldiers against a fake Disney backdrop.

When the new dam's reservoir began filling up and the water began to rise around their island, Das Chagas witnessed forest creatures dying. Monkeys, agoutis, armadillos and sloths dove from the forest into the water. "We managed to save a few by pulling them into the canoe, but we saw a lot die," he says. They are part of the forest, like him; like them, he has yet to find terra firma and feels as if he's drowning in the loneliness of the city. The hardships of his urban life aside, he took in two puppies because he says he doesn't know how to "live without animals". He borrowed money for powdered milk to feed them.

Now, theirs is a life of firsts: the first electricity bill, the first rented home, the first time they needed to buy what they eat, the first hunger. Das Chagas wakes before 4am feeling suffocated and rushes to the backyard, a cement slab that has no trees but where he can glimpse a piece of sky. He doesn't sit because he doesn't have a chair. He stands, clinging to this shard of freedom, sometimes crying. "Being poor is living in hell," he says.

"I was king"

Raimundo Braga Gomes is harsher: "On the river, I was king."

He and Das Chagas are ribeirinhos, traditional people of the forest, and one of the most invisible, misunderstood populations in Brazil.

Ribeirinhos have a singular identity, defined by their intimate relationship with forest and river. They do not own the land, they belong to it. This is "walking on wealth," as Gomes puts it. "I didn't need money to live happy. My whole house was nature. The lumber, straw, didn't need any nails. I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I'd catch my fish, make manioc flour. If I wanted something else to eat, I'd grab a hen I'd raised. If I wanted meat, I'd hunt in the forest. And to make money, I'd fish some more and sell it in town. I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich."

Like Gomes, most ribeirinhos descend either from poor north-easterners, taken to the forest to harvest latex in the late 19th century, or from second world war-era "rubber soldiers". When the rubber market crashed and the war ended, the bosses abandoned them in the woods. Some made families with indigenous women, occasionally stealing them from their villages. They began leading lives as fluid as the river: first on one bank, then another, shaping a unique experience. Even ribeirinhos of indigenous origin are different. They are not farmers, but they till the land. They fish, crack Brazil nuts, hunt, tap rubber, and on occasion try their hand at prospecting. They live between worlds.

Accustomed to changing islands and indifferent to the concept of land as merchandise, they often confound people when they proclaim their freedom. "I've never had a job," says Das Chagas. "Always been free." They all work hard, because forest life is tough, but they only do what they want, when they want. Converting them into the urban poor drains them of their essence.

It also makes them pariahs, because they cannot find employment. Once proud of their freedom, they find themselves forced to live off odd jobs and favours. Significantly, they call the city "outside". "I know everything on the river. Outside I know nothing," says Das Chagas. "Who's going to give me a job?"

Until recently, ribeirinhos were not recognised as a traditional people by the government or by Norte Energia, the public-private consortium overseeing the dam. One day in 2012, Gomes was startled to see strangers arrive in a motorboat, men "from the company". They said his island was going to be "removed". He replied, "I won't leave." Then they told him his island would be under water soon – it was sign or go down with it. "I signed a document. But I can't read. I only know how to draw my name."

Gomes was moved into one of the near-identical tract homes that Norte Energia constructed to house Belo Monte's expelled families. His neighbourhood was named Blue Water: ironic given that it lies more than four miles from the river. That's much farther away than the mile or so stipulated in the construction agreement, which also says the houses must be varied and built with quality materials. After the walls started cracking, the courts suspended work on the dam until the dwellings could be brought into compliance. In the meantime, Gomes watches as the cracks burrow deeper into his walls and roof.

"Now I'm poor. I have to buy everything I need," he says. "Since I don't have money to buy what I want, I buy what I can. I like manioc flour, but I can only afford rice. I used to harvest 400 good watermelons, but today I can't buy even a bad one. I used to pick the hen I wanted to eat, but today I can't buy one. I used to have a living river, today I have a dead lake – and to get there I have to pay for transportation."

"I live among drug dealers now"

Gomes decided to defy the monotony of lookalike houses by adding wooden lean-tos, in the ribeirinho way. While he was working, a passerby hollered: "Hey, it's already got that poverty look!"

"You'll never understand my style," Gomes shot back. Later, he added: "Know what being poor is? It's having no choice."

He has also learned that being poor means "bullets are always shattering your windows". Since 2000, Altamira's population has climbed from 77,000 to 111,000, a rise of about 44%. Over the same period, the murder rate skyrocketed 1,110%.

Last June the Atlas of Violence – published by the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a public thinktank – ranked Altamira as Brazil's most violent large city. According to the Igarapé Institute's Homicide Monitor, Altamira's annual murder rate is 124.6 deaths per 100,000 people. By contrast, the rate is 21.8 in Rio de Janeiro. Both the rising population and the murder boom are in part attributable to Belo Monte, which drew thousands to a city without adequate infrastructure and has profoundly disrupted its social structure.

For ribeirinhos, who used to live a life without doors, the effect has been devastating. "I'm living among drug dealers now. Once in a while, there's a body on the ground. I counted 13 that I saw myself. There's others I don't see. One Sunday alone, it was two of the neighbour's boys. I just heard the pop, pop, pop," says Gomes, imitating the sound of bullets. "They tossed us into a field of violence."

At least 40,000 people were torn from their homes so Belo Monte could be built. Roughly 1,500 are ribeirinhos. There are also farmers, fishermen, and urban residents who lived in areas flooded by the dam. Some received cash payments, others relocation credit; still others were resettled. There were also those who got nothing and are fighting in the courts for reparations. The subdivisions that were built to house the displaced families have splintered neighbourhood bonds and jumbled together people who had never before lived side by side. They also mixed in members of rival drug factions that formerly kept to their own turf, and overnight found themselves next-door neighbours.

In less than four years, these "collective urban resettlements" have been transformed into Altamira's new territory of violence. Not only are the residents routinely subjected to robberies, hold-ups, and murders, but they must also bear the stigma of being labelled "criminals".

Eliza Ribeiro, 47, lived with her husband on a small island. When they were cast into the city, he couldn't find a job. "My husband got desperate because we were going hungry, and he started drinking heavily," she says. He also got involved with drug traffickers.

During the 2016 elections, Ribeiro, a fisherwoman, thought she couldn't get any poorer. She handed out flyers for one of Altamira's mayoral candidates and waved political banners on street corners for 50 reais a day. Returning home one Sunday, she waited futilely for her husband, then eventually went out to search for him. When she found him, he was naked, his head smashed by bricks and his tongue pulled out.

She saw her life contract. "When I go to bed, I never know what we're going to eat the next day. My youngest daughter wakes up crying and asks for food. I tell her, ‘Your dad died, I don't have any money'. And I cry too," she says. One day she went knocking door to door. They offered her 20 reais and a plate of food to clean house and wash clothes. "And my kids, what are they going to eat?" she asked, and went home to be hungry with her children.

She returned to fishing, but the four mile journey to the river costs dearly in transportation and petrol. She and her daughter load everything they can – from gas canister to mattress – on a motorcycle, and tuck her daughter's toddler in front. Clinging to the bike, and then a boat, the family takes four hours to reach a friend's island. There, they put up a tarp and hang hammocks. Five exhausting days of fishing later, she returns to town for a few days to sell her fish and then repeats the stint.

Hordes of these motorbikes, often laden with entire families and usually helmetless, can be seen in Altamira, weaving around the air-conditioned double-cab pickup trucks with their lone drivers – a sight that epitomises the social tension in the cities of the Amazon.

Resistance

Critics see the conversion of the forest peoples into the urban poor as no accidental tragedy, but rather a political strategy. As a traditional people, the ribeirinhos have a constitutionally guaranteed right to their way of life. When they are transformed into residents of the periphery, they lose this right. On the one hand, the forests they once occupied are freed for construction, mining, agriculture, and livestock raising. On the other, they become part of the enfeebled urban masses who will support any major incursion into the forest if it holds the possibility of a job.

Since democracy was reclaimed in Brazil, the pressure has never been greater to relax environmental laws and open forests to exploitation than under the current congress, the most corrupt and conservative in recent history. Michel Temer, president by force of impeachment, needs congress to stay in power. It's a tough moment.

But it is also the first time that ribeirinhos expelled by a megaproject have forged a resistance movement of real size. This week, a group of them landed in Brasilia, the capital, to lodge an unprecedented demand: the creation of a "ribeirinho territory" for 278 families along the Xingu river. They refuse to continue as urban poor. They demand, in effect, a kind of "un-conversion" back to their lives as forest people.

As a result of their fight, the company has already been forced to provide some of them a monthly stipend to guarantee minimum support until the matter is settled. "Norte Energia complies with all determinations laid out in the Basic Environmental Project," the company said in a statement to the Guardian, "which calls for measures to monitor and mitigate long-term social and environmental impacts in areas of direct or indirect influence of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant. The document is validated by public and federal agencies."

Leonardo Batista, 58, is one of the ribeirinho leaders and a member of the Ribeirinho Council. Better known as Aranô, he is son of a ribeirinho and an indigenous woman from the Juruna tribe. He lives in Jatobá, another urban resettlement, where he survives on 50 reais a month. He only had something to eat on Christmas because his pastor sent him a plate of food. His house has been broken into three times. In December, Aranô grew so desperate that he picked up his borduna, an indigenous weapon, and entered a meeting ready to capture the world's attention by busting things up. He was barred.

His tears make a river down his cheeks when he says: "We've always had the before, the now, the after. The before has gone, the now is a nightmare. And the after?"

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