The end of a People: Amazon dam destroys sacred Munduruku “Heaven”

MongaBay
January 5th, 2017
By:Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.

Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon.

 

“It is a time of death. The Munduruku will start dying. They will have accidents. Even simple accidents will lead to death. Lightning will strike and kill an Indian. A branch will fall from a tree and kill an Indian. It’s not chance. It’s all because the government interfered with a sacred site,” says Valmira Krixi Biwūn with authority.

Valmira Krixi Munduruku, as she was baptized, is an indigenous Munduruku woman warrior living in the village of Teles Pires beside the river of the same name on the border between the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará. A leader and a sage, she speaks with great confidence about a variety of subjects ranging from the old stories of her people, to the plant-based concoctions in which young girls must bathe in order to transform into warriors.

The sacred site she speaks about is a stretch of rapids known as Sete Quedas located on the Teles Pires River. In 2013, the consortium responsible for the construction of a large hydroelectric power station obtained judicial authorization to dynamite the rapids to make way for the Teles Pires dam.

In 2013 the companies involved blew up Sete Quedas, and in so doing also destroyed — in the cosmology of the region’s indigenous people — the equivalent of the Christian “Heaven”, the sacred sanctuary inhabited by spirits after death. Known in as Paribixexe, Sete Quedas is a sacred site for all the Munduruku.

Dynamiting Heaven

The destruction of the sacred rapids was a lethal blow for the Indians: “The dynamiting of the sacred site is the end of religion and the end of culture. It is the end of the Munduruku people. When they dynamited the waterfall, they dynamited the Mother of the Fish and the Mother of the Animals we hunt. So these fish and these animals will die. All that we are involved with will die. So this is the end of the Munduruku”, says a mournful indigenous elder, Eurico Krixi Munduruku.

The message Valmira Krixi delivers is equally chilling: “We will come to an end, and our spirits too.” It is double annihilation, in life and in death.

In all, today, more than 13,000 Munduruku Indians live in 112 villages, mainly along the upper reaches of the Tapajós River and its tributaries, including the Teles Pires River. This indigenous group once occupied and completely dominated such an extensive Amazonian region that “in colonial Brazil the whole of the Tapajós River Basin was known by the Europeans as Mundurukânia”, explains Bruna Rocha, a lecturer in archaeology at the Federal University of the West of Pará.

The sudden appearance of rubber-tapping across Amazonia during the second half of the 19th century shattered the power of “Mundurukânia,” and deprived the Munduruku of most of their territory. “They just kept fragments in the lower Tapajós and larger areas in the upper reaches of the river, but even so it was only a fraction of what they occupied in the past”, says Rocha.

Now even these fragments are being seriously impacted by the hydroelectric power stations being built around them. Of the more than 40 dams proposed in the Tapajós Basin, four are already under construction or completed on the Teles Pires River. These dams are all key to a proposed industrial waterway that would transport soy from Mato Grosso state, north along the Teles Pires and Tapajós rivers, then east along the Amazon to the coast for export.

The time before

The 90 families in Teles Pires village, which we visited, love talking about the past, a time, they say, when they could roam at will through their immense territory to hunt and harvest from the forest. In part, these nostalgic recollections are mythical in that, for at least two centuries and probably longer, the people have lived in fixed communities. But they continue to collect many products from the forest — seeds, tree bark, fibers, timber, fruit and more; using the materials to build their houses, to feed themselves, to make spears for hunting, to concoct herbal remedies, and so on.

Their territory ­— the Indigenous Territory of Kayabi, which they share, not always happily, with the Apiaká and Kayabi people — was created in 2004. Bizarrely, the sacred site of Sete Quedas lay just outside its legal limits, an oversight that was to have tragic consequences for the Indians.

Over the centuries, the Munduruku have adapted well to changes in the world around them, changes that intensified after they made contact with white society in the 18th century. On some occasions, the people readily incorporated new technological and social elements into their culture, seizing on their advantages. The British Museum has a “very traditional” Munduruku waistband, probably created in the late 19th century, which utilizes cotton fabric imported from Europe. The Indians clearly realized that cotton fabric was far more resilient than the textiles they made from forest products, and they happily incorporated the cotton into the decorative garment.

Today that custom continues. Almost all young people have mobile phones, and appreciate their usefulness. But at times the Munduruku have found, just as many of us do in our city lives, that modern technology can go wrong, with frustrating results. The Munduruku have, for example, installed an artesian well in Teles Pires village and now have running water in their houses. That advance makes life easier, except when the system breaks down, which is not infrequent. During the four days of our visit, for instance, there was no water, as the pump had quit working.

In similar fashion, their religion has also changed, at least superficially. Franciscan friars have had a mission (Missão Cururu) in the heart of Munduruku territory for over a century, and Catholicism has left its mark. The Munduruku say, for instance, that the creator of the world, the warrior Karosakaybu, fashioned everyone and everything “in his own image”, a direct quote from the Bible.

Even so, the Indians have a strong ethnic identity, which they fiercely protect. When we asked to film them, they said yes, but many insisted on speaking their own language on camera, even though they often could speak Portuguese far better than our translator.

Moreover, their cosmology is rock-solid; every Indian to whom we spoke shared Krixi Biwūn’s belief in the hereafter and the paramount importance of the sacred sites in guaranteeing their life after death. This faith forms the foundation of their cosmology, and is essential to their existence. It is this fundamental belief that has now been blasted — making adaptation almost impossible.

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