In The Amazon, Indigenous People Fight To Preserve Way Of Life Amid Intrusive Construction

by Sue Branford; additional reporting by Carlos Juliano Barros

They weren’t consulted about the construction of hydroelectric plants in Tapajós, but the Munduruku indigenous people want to preserve their way of life.

“Each day more police arrive in our villages, more armed forces. They think they will intimidate us but they never will. We are fighting for our people, our children, our nature. We have to save all this.”

This is Rosenilda, a Munduruku woman leader, speaking from the village of Boca das Tropas on the Tapajós River, a 40-minute boat ride from the town of Jacareacanga. While she and another indigenous leader, Maria Leusa, sat under the thatch of one of the many palm-covered huts that surround the center of the village, other women were cleaning up the area. Carrying baskets on their backs secured by bands around their foreheads, they were picking up stones, dead vegetation, and dirt, carrying it out of the village. Not far away, children were playing happily in the river, chattering and laughing.

It seemed strange to be talking of warfare in a setting of such tranquility, but the two women said that their people, the Munduruku, of which there are about 12,000 left, are fighting for their very survival because of the government’s decision to build a series of hydroelectric dams on their river. Further up the Tapajós, in the larger village of Restinga, the chief Lamberto Painha expressed similar concerns.

“We have been suffering for 500 years,” he said, from the big collective hut where the community had just gathered to eat breakfast. “The government wants to get rid of us all. If these dams are built, everything will end. That island over there will be flooded. Monkeys, birds, and we Indians will all lose our homes. What shall we do? How can we survive in cities? In cities people don’t share things, only if you have money. How will we get bananas, potatoes, pineapple, sugar cane? We will die of hunger.”

In recent decades, the Brazilian government has reiterated on numerous occasions its commitment both to preserve the diversity of the Amazônian forest and to protect its indigenous people. Indeed, thanks to the significant popular and multi-ethnic advances that came with the new constitution in 1988, approved in the elation of the return to democratic rule after 21 years of military dictatorship, the Indians won the right to continue their way of life in perpetuity. It was the first time since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500 that the state gave up the idea of eventually integrating the Indians into so-called ‘national society’.

How is it that, just a quarter of a century after winning such an important concession, the Munduruku are so fearful that the current phase of economic expansion into the Amazon basin will bring about their cultural, or even physical, extinction?


Part of the explanation can be found in the village of Boca das Tropas, where, when I visited, the children were playing while the women talked of war. It was there, in 1958, that Nilson Pinheiro encountered the first grams of gold ever found in this part of the Tapajós River basin. The way in which he discovered the gold has become a legend, still recounted in the region: a female seer in the town of Parintins in the state of Amazonas described in great detail to Pinheiro the place where an extraordinary abundance of gold was to be found, and he went straight from the waters of the Amazon to the waters of the Tapajós River, finding the gold exactly where the seer had told him. Thus began the “folia do garimpo,” fthe extraordinary gold rush that led to tens of thousands of garimpeiros (gold panners) moving into the region.

The influx of garimpeiros created conflicts with the indigenous population, but much more serious for the latter was the discovery that, under the gold on the surface, which the garimpeiros scratched at, lay far larger quantities of gold and other minerals.

According to one report, the Tapajós River valley is, world's region with the greatest mineral reserves, almost all of them unexploited. To get their hands on these reserves, mining companies need two things: a change in the legislation so that they can mine in indigenous lands -– something that it is being fast-tracked through Congress thanks to a bill presented in June 2013 (at the same time, strangely, that a wave of protests about the government’s failure to listen to ordinary people was sweeping through the country); and an abundant supply of cheap energy. Data published on the website of ANEEL (Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica/National Agency for Electric Energy), the government body that regulates the energy sector, shows that the government has toyed with the idea of building, on the Tapajós–Teles Pires River basin alone, 44 large or medium-sized hydroelectric power stations and 89 smaller ones –- a total of 133 dams.

It is difficult to imagine that such a proliferation could actually happen -– indeed, some of the dams are almost certainly unviable –- but even if only a half or a third are built, the impact would be calamitous for biodiversity and for the people. It is worth remembering, by way of comparison, that the highly contentious (and disastrous) Belo Monte Dam, which is being built on the Xingu River, the next major tributary of the Amazon River to the east, consists of only one dam along the whole of the river.


The government’s plans for the Tapajós–Teles Pires River basin can be understood only within a global context. Throughout the world, multinational companies are moving into areas previously regarded as too remote, because of the growing difficulty of finding easily accessible natural resources. Although the development of large-scale mining in the Amazon basin has been stuttering, with the ups-and-downs associated with capitalist expansion, this trend is likely to intensify. By 2030 another 3 billion middle-class consumers are expected to enter the world market, many of them from China and India. Commodity prices have already risen by 147% since the beginning of the 21st century, justifying investments previously regarded as uneconomic.

The expansion of the economic frontier -- or, more accurately, various economic frontiers -– has long been the motor behind the economic, social and environmental transformation of the Amazon region, and the new global scenario has intensified the process.

The anthropologist Paul E. Little, from University of Brasília, believes that a new global alliance has emerged across the whole of the Amazon basin:

“The first decade of the 21st century experienced a major restructuring of the financing of development projects in Amazônia, stemming from the economic crisis of the industrialized countries, together with the continued growth of the emerging economies, notably the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). During this same decade, Brazil and China forged new national development strategies based on the policies of the globalization of national companies and the establishment of regional hegemonic spaces dominated by their national capital investments.The Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) and the Chinese Development Bank grew rapidly in this period and became the largest investors and creditors of mega-development projects in Amazônia.”

Little identifies two kinds of mega-projects -– mega-infrastructure, financed mainly by public capital, and mega-extractive projects, generally financed by private capital. All of these have a serious social and environmental impact, which, says Little, is very unevenly distributed.

“The majority of the benefits derived from the development projects accrue to economic and political actors external to Amazônia, such as large multinational corporations, the administrative apparatus of national governments and financial institutions. The majority of negative impacts of these same mega-development projects are borne by indigenous peoples, who suffer from the proliferation of serious social, health and sanitation problems.”

The Munduruku, a large group, which has long maintained contact with non- indigenous society, is now in the firing line.


The first written reference to the Munduruku comes from José Monteiro de Noronha who, in 1768, said that they were living on the banks of the Maués River, a tributary of the Madeira River in the west of the Amazon basin. They were a warlike “nation” that undertook audacious raids against rival indigenous groups and colonial settlements mainly along the Madeira and Tapajós Rivers, although they eventually also attacked settlements along the Xingu and Tocantins Rivers further to the east, causing the local economy to stagnate from the 1770s through to the 1790s. They used to take as trophies the heads of their enemies, which they mummified, and to which they attributed supernatural powers.

Around 1795 they made peace with the Portuguese, after which many of them settled in mission villages. By then, they dominated the Tapajós River valley, which became known as Mundurucânia (“Munduruku country”). They often waged war on traditional enemies at the behest of the Portuguese, whose interference increased the deadliness of such encounters and lead to the extermination of smaller groups. Following the popular rebellion known as the Cabanagem, a widespread revolt in the 1830s by freed slaves, mestizos and Indians, which was brutally repressed, a Munduruku leader called Joaquim even received a commission from the Brazilian army, in acknowledgement of the Munduruku’s assistance in suppressing the rebellion.

The rubber boom in the late 19th century led to a labor shortage, so workers were brought in from the Northeast of the country. This meant that the Munduruku (who also tapped rubber, albeit in a more marginal way) were pushed further upstream and inland. Today, they live along the middle and upper courses of the Tapajós River basin, either in officially recognized territories or in small communities by the riverbank.

It is not just the Munduruku who are being affected by the dam building however. The Tapajós–Teles Pires valley is home to about 20 indigenous groups, including groups of uncontacted Indians. There are also traditional communities -– so-called “ribeirinhos” or “beiradeiros” –- living in areas that will be directly affected by the dams. They are descendants of rubber-tappers who settled on the riverbanks in the second half of the 19th century and, after the collapse of the rubber boom in about 1913, moved into the forests, by then abandoned by the rubber barons, and, using indigenous know-how, developed their own impressive ways of using products from the forest and growing crops on a small scale. Some of the communities, such as those at Pimental, Montanha and Mangabal, have on several occasions expressed their opposition to the dams, although the resistance has undoubtedly been led by the Munduruku.

It will be hard for the Munduruku, given the power of the Brazilian state, to prevent the resources of the Tapajós valley from being exploited, but one might have expected the government to opt for the most humane and least disruptive way of using the region’s resources. But the government has not listened to the critics. It seems determined to push ahead with its plans at all costs. Mario José Gisi, Coordinator for the Environment and Cultural Heritage at the Federal Prosecutors Office -– an independent branch of the government, which provides legal support for the Munduruku and other Indians who will be affected by the dams –- said at a public meeting in São Paulo in early October 2013 that the authorities were arriving in the Amazon “like a tractor.”

Indeed, even though the Indians have not yet been properly consulted, in terms determined both by Brazil’s Constitution and by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (to which Brazil is a signatory), they are still moving forward with the projects.


The Indians are fighting back, demanding that they be listened to, and there have been serious clashes. In November 2012, the authorities undertook a military operation to stop what it claimed was illegal gold mining along the Tapajós River. None of the gold-mining barges being targeted was operated by Indians but the authorities claimed that they were, and sent the Federal Police and the National Security Force into an indigenous village. An Indian -– Adenilson Munduruku –- was killed. Some observers believe that the authorities deliberately targeted the Indians, in order to intimidate them and to undermine their resistance. As a result there were widespread indigenous protests, which the government crushed firmly.

The Munduruku have been joining forces with Indians who will be affected by Belo Monte, the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world and Brazil’s largest public work, which is being built on the Xingu River. Along with Indians from the Juruna, Kayapó (who are traditional enemies of the Munduruku), Xipaya, Kuruaya, Asurini, Parakanã and Arara tribes, a group of Munduruku occupied the Belo Monte building site in May 2013. Both Rosenilda and Maria Leusa took part in this protest. Talking about it in the village at Boca das Tropas, they said that they were part of a movement called Wacubarã, named after a woman Munduruku warrior from the old days.

“We Munduruku women are strong,” Maria Leusa said. “Twenty- three of us took part in the Belo Monte protest.” The Indians issued a statement to explain their action. This is an extract:

“You are pointing guns at our heads. You raid our territories with jeeps and soldiers. You have made the fish disappear and you are stealing the bones of our ancestors buried on our lands. You do this because you are afraid to listen to us. You are afraid to hear us say that we don’t want dams on our rivers, and afraid to understand why we don’t want them.

You invent stories that we are violent and that we want war. Who are the ones killing our relatives? How many white people have died and how many Indigenous people? You are the ones killing us, quickly or slowly. We’re dying and, with each dam that is built, more of us will die. When we try to talk to you, you bring tanks, helicopters, soldiers, machine guns and stun weapons.

What we want is simple: we want you to uphold the law that demands free, prior and informed consent from indigenous peoples before the dams are built. Until that happens, you must first stop all construction work, studies, and police operations in the Xingu, Tapajós and Teles Pires Rivers, and then consult us. We want dialogue, but you are not letting us speak. This is why we are occupying your dam building site.

You need to stop everything and simply listen to us.”

The authorities ignored the Indians’ demands and, to prevent further indigenous protests, the federal government sent in a large military body to protect the construction site in Belo Monte. In the Tapajós valley, it continued to carry out viability studies and environmental impact studies, the very studies that the Munduruku say should, under Brazilian law, be carried out only after they have been fully consulted.

Not surprisingly, the protests continued. In early June 2013 the Munduruku took three researchers hostage, and released them only after the authorities had guaranteed that the “consultas prévias” –- the consultations with the Indians, part of the “indigenous element” –- would be carried out. The commitment was announced publicly in the town square in Jacareacanga on June 23, 2013, but it was not adhered to. New authorization was given weeks later for the continuation of the viability studies, without any consultation with the Indians or traditional communities. The researchers returned, this time with a large, intimidating military escort.


The authorities, meanwhile, are pushing ahead with their form of consultation with the local people, including the Munduruku, but not respecting the guidelines specified in Brazilian law and in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization. One of these consultations -– an “audiência pública” (public meeting) –- was held in Jacareacanga, a town on the Tapajós River, on September 29, 2013. The consultation concerned the São Manuel Dam, which the government plans to build on the Teles Pires River, a tributary of the Tapajós in the far south of the state of Pará, near the border with Mato Grosso. The awarding of contracts for this dam, already delayed because of indigenous protests, is now scheduled for some time in 2014.

There was a considerable amount of wrangling, as is becoming routine in the battle over the dams, over whether or not the meeting on September 29, 2013 was legal. A few days before it was held, it was actually cancelled by the federal justice system at the request of the Federal Prosecutors Office. Three prosecutors –- Felipe Bogado and Manoel Antônio Gonçalves da Silva in Mato Grosso, and Felício Pontes Jr. in Pará – argued that the meeting in Jacareacanga should be cancelled because the “indigenous element” had not been carried out. A federal court upheld the prosecutors’ request but, on the very eve of the meeting, the federal court’s decision was overturned by a higher court –- as everyone in Jacareacanga had been sure would happen. After a brief suspension, the meeting was back on.

Many of the Munduruku Indians were angry that the meeting was being held. A small group of men, women and children, their bodies covered in their traditional designs, and armed with bows and arrows and clubs, gathered early at the entrance to the sports stadium attached to a middle school, where the meeting was to be held. It soon became clear that they intended to try to stop people going in to the stadium, even though the military police were out in strength, and a large contingent of soldiers from the National Force, a special military unit created by President Dilma Rousseff, was gathered in a nearby building.

As it turned out, the protest was short-lived. Internal divisions within the Indians brought the action to an end, rather than pressure from the police, who had clearly been instructed to behave with constraint. A small group of Munduruku, most of whom live in Jacareacanga, has been convinced by the authorities that the dams are a fait accompli, and that any attempt to stop them will be counterproductive, in that the Indians will lose the hefty compensation that they would otherwise be entitled to. A few of these Indians, accompanied by officials from the municipal government, arrived and forced their way through. The protesters felt unable to use violence against their parentes (relatives), so the barricade was breached. Indians and others poured into the stadium.

In the event, the public meeting was a sorry affair. It began with the singing of Brazil’s national anthem. Ten white men, sitting on the stage, sang lustily, with the support of the three front rows, occupied by local businessmen, government officials, farmers, and one or two women. Behind them, a mass of Munduruku and poorer inhabitants of the town, most of whom were of Munduruku descent, stood there with their mouths firmly shut, in a kind of mute defiance. It seemed as if the town was being taken over by an occupying foreign power. There was little room, in fact, for participation from those in the back half of the stadium. The public was told firmly at the outset that no spontaneous contributions from the floor would be accepted. Only written questions would be allowed, but no instructions were given as to how or when to hand over questions. Indeed, no one from the back half of the stadium submitted a question, which was not surprising, given that many of the Munduruku and the poorer inhabitants are barely literate, and not at all used to this kind of formal procedure.

Questions were read out, but all appeared to come from the people in the front three rows. At no stage did anyone question whether the dams would actually benefit the local inhabitants. Two documentaries were shown, both of them strongly ‘selling’ the dam. It got very hot as the meeting dragged on. Only one question from an Indian was read out. It came from a man sitting with government officials in one of the front rows, who stood up after his name was called. It appeared to be a planted question, because the man asked how much indigenous land would be flooded, although the officials had repeatedly stated many times throughout the presentations that the answer was none.

On the following day, a Munduruku pointed out in conversation that no one had asked a real question, such as why their sacred sites were being destroyed. He was referring to the Sete Quedas waterfall, which had earlier been destroyed in preparatory work for the Teles Pires dam. In a letter both sorrowful and angry, written after this act of vandalism had been carried out, Munduruku leaders said that this site had been “where the dead live”, where there was a portal, “which cannot be seen by common men, only by spiritual shaman leaders, who can travel to another unknown world without being seen.” It seemed pointless to explain to the Munduruku Indian that, even if this question had been raised at the “audiência pública”, it would have been ruled out of order, as it referred to the Teles Pires Dam, not the São Manuel Dam under discussion.

Apart from the Munduruku and the traditional communities, some of the biologists conducting surveys of the Tapajós great biodiversity have privately expressed disquiet at what they are doing. They are concerned, they say, about the methodology used in the environmental impact analysis, and pessimistic about the possibility that any recommendations they make might actually be implemented.


Deusiano and his Munduruku relatives live in the Sawré Muybu village, on the banks of the Tapajós River. It takes a two-hour trip on the road to get from downtown Itaituba to the Buburé port, located in the Amazon National Park. The natives of Sawré Muybu are trapped.

On one side, the threat comes from one of the region’s largest gold and diamond mines, Chapéu do Sol, which dumps significant amount of mercury in the waters of the river. On the other side, what concerns is the 722 square kilometers lake that will result from the construction of the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam. “If the plant is built, our land won’t be completely flooded, but we’re going to be stranded, with no hunting and no fishing,” says Juarez, Chief of the village.

For years, the Munduruku of village Sawré Muybu have been fighting for their land to be delimited. In 2007, the National Indian Foundation (Funai) even created a working group to begin the process. However, the professional responsible for an anthropological report concerning the process disappeared without a trace, according to Funai itself. The claim of the indigenous people was forgotten in the drawers of the federal bureaucracy, until the moment they crossed paths with the São Luiz do Tapajós plant.

Over the course of 2012, technicians of the companies doing the plant’s feasibility studies entered their area numerous times without any sort of prior communication. They would go in the village and start messing with the land and leaving landmarks in the woods. This invasive posture made the Munduruku angry. “We’re not going to let anyone come into our house,” warns Juarez.

The federal government got Funai in Brasília to mediate the conflict and try to convince the Munduruku to allow the technicians into the land. In a tense meeting held on October 17, 2012, a Funai representative threatened to call the National Security Force to escort the technicians if the Munduruku resist. The fact is that the pressure of the indigenous from Sawré Muybu worked.

On October 31, 2012, the “Diário Oficial da União” (Official Federal Gazette) published the decree to resume the identification and delimitation of their area.The government’s oblivion concerning Tapajós indigenous groups has been documented. The records on environmental permits of ongoing projects across the country can be accessed on the web portal of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). In the chart that summarizes the information about the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam, the following can be read on the page before the last: “presence of indigenous lands in the area affected: no information”.

According to Funai, in addition to the Sawré Muybu, there are five other tribal lands occupied by the Munduruku in the area of direct influence of the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam. This fact was communicated to the director of IBAMA’s environmental licensing through a letter dated February 17, 2012. In the document, Funai reported that out of the six indigenous lands, two were in the process of delimitation.

Exactly a week after the letter, IBAMA authorized Eletrobras to open clearings in the woods and collect material from the forest to develop the environmental impact study, including in the area of Sawré Muybu. And that sparked the conflicts. “More than a hundred researchers are going around Tapajós, without explanation to local populations. This resistance is natural,” says Juliana Araújo, liaison between Funai’s office in Itaituba and the village Sawré Muybu. “Eletrobras and IBAMA knew about Funai’s letter. They knew there were indigenous lands in the area of influence of the São Luiz do Tapajós plant, but still ignored this information,” accuses the Federal Prosecutor Fernando Antonio Oliveira Júnior.

He makes a point of mentioning that prior consultation to the indigenous people is not just a mere warning: we must explain in a clear and accessible way, so they fully understand the characteristics of the project. “The ILO Convention No. 169 is even more cautious and protective than the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. It says that the consultation has to be conducted before any type of authorization. It is one of the first steps for the beginning of the enterprise,” adds the prosecutor.

The way the indigenous communities in the case of São Luiz do Tapajós are treated is symptomatic of what’s to come. The federal government comes riding a “legal tractor” to enable not only the Tapajós hydroelectric complex, but other large projects in the Amazon.

In July 2012, the Federal Attorney General published the Decree 303. In practice, besides hindering the expansion of indigenous lands in the country, the measure opens loopholes for the government and the private sector to build dams, highways and other large projects “regardless of consulting the indigenous communities.” The ruling sparked fierce criticism by social movements and has had its constitutionality questioned in the Supreme Court by the Federal Public Prosecutors. Indifference with the natives affected by the Tapajós plants is just the tip of the iceberg.

Almost 30 years after the military dictatorship, the government rhetoric has changed, with more emphasis on “participation” and much less on direct repression. Nevertheless just like when the military decided to build the “Transamazônica” (Trans-Amazonian) highway, in the 1970s, calamitous changes are being imposed on local populations nowadays, with little effort to consult them or even to explain properly what is going on. We are left with the struggle for survival.