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Farewell to a wild river

It is a bitter loss. The wild river that along its lengthy journey gives life to so much and so many will be tamed forever. Where I stand on the shores of the Xingu River, just a few miles from the city of Altamira I can see the markers where the main wall of the Belo Monte dam will be built. Across the main waterway of the Xingu, 14 meters or 46 feet high, the dam will muzzle the flow of the river and will create a gigantic lake almost 600 square kilometers or 148 acres in size . When the city of New Orleans, which is roughly that size, was flooded after hurricane Katrina, the entire world shrieked in horror. As an equivalent area of Amazonian rainforest is scheduled to be flooded, barely anybody outside this area is paying attention. For over 20 years, the ploy to dam the tributaries of the Amazon has been bounced around and finally, despite tremendous opposition it has won. The walls of the dam will go up and the character of this vital ecosystem will be changed forever.

What the dam will mean to the people who live along the river below the wall is a seasonal state of drought. The thousands of indigenous people and peasants who scratch a living out of the forest and the river will see their main source of drinking water and food dwindle. More dramatic, however, is the loss of their only means of transportation. There are no roads here and the only way to travel for the vast majority is by boat.  Once the flow of the river is blocked and the flow diminishes, people will become trapped in their communities for part of the year.  They have no other choice than to relocate. One can sense the fear and the frustration in their faces. The newspapers talk about the government’s plans to compensate, educate and facilitate relocation, but no one has come to these small villages to explain how that process will work.

A young Kayapo girl takes an afternoon bath in the Xingu River

For the people on the other side of the wall, the threat of seeing their homes under water has finally become a not-so-distant reality.  They too will need to find new homes.  The flood will reach all the way to the city of Altamira and no one is surprised to know that the most vulnerable people are also the poorest inhabitants of the city; the ones that live in the “favelas” or informal settlements along the river’s floodplain.  Without any services —electricity, running water or sanitation – these people are used to rough conditions and to being marginalized.  They too have heard the promises of compensation for their relocation, but so far no one has come here to ease their fears and certainly no one believes any promises the government is making.  They have heard it all before and at this point the only thing that is certain is that they too have no idea of where they will go.

 

The indigenous people who live in the interior, some nearby and others hundreds of miles from the construction site, have long opposed the idea of the dam, as they too will be affected.  Although some indigenous territories lie outside the area of direct influence of the dam, the thousands of workers that will come to the region to build the dam’s infrastructure will likely stay.  They too will need services, food and opportunity to thrive.  That means more Amazonian rain forest will need to be deforested to make way for more agriculture, homes, and infrastructure to feed, house and create new jobs for the newcomers.

 

Kayapo children playing in the Xingu River

 

For decades now, the indigenous people here have been fighting the avalanche of invasion to their lands from illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching and soybean plantations. As more people settle in the area, the pressure on the forest is only going to increase.

Two Kayapo men spend the afternoon fishing for dinner, XIngu River

I have spent some time in remote villages in the Amazon and it has always surprised me how little they need not only to survive, but to thrive. A fishing line, some locally made bows and arrows and a machete are the only tools a head of household in an Indian village needs in order to provide food for his family.  To see this people, who are proud and independent, helplessly watch as their main source of all nourishment, transportation and livelihood threatened in the name of Brazil’s progress is heartbreaking.

A Kayapo girl with her pet burrowing owl, village of Kendjam

There is no stopping this dam now.  It has been approved by a government who insists this is the solution to the energy needs of the country.  Seventy percent of the energy produced by the dam will go to households hundreds of miles away from the Xingu while 30% will go to support the mining industry. There is one major blind spot in this scheme.  This dam, which is being built on a river that runs almost dry a large part of the year, will be a very inefficient project –running at 10% of its capacity during the driest months.  The energy produced will go to mines that extract resources that are then shipped to other countries, where “things” are manufactured.  Brazil is squandering its future potential in new markets like “freshwater and carbon” and is shipping raw materials to create jobs elsewhere.    Not a very smart strategy for a country that has so much potential. I suggest that international media starts paying attention to this dam for it is the first one of more than 30 planned for the region.  We all know that this is an inefficient project – one that may be better than a coal or nuclear plant but far from ideal. If we dare follow the money we are likely to find a different set of reasons for why projects like these, which make no sense from a social or environmental standpoint, go through anyway.

So here is my farewell to a wild river.  This will be the beginning of the end of the Amazon region as we know it.  One day we might look back at Brazil’s Amazonian legacy and wonder if they could have done things differently. Until then, the people of the Amazon, the people of Brazil and the people of the world will be left to deal with the environmental consequences.

Kayapo children playing in the waters of the Xingu River, Brazilian Amazon

Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier is a Mexican-born photographer based in Washington, DC. Although her first career was as a Biochemical Engineer specializing on marine sciences, it was her passion for conservation and the challenges of effectively communicating the relevance of environmental issues to our everyday life that led her to photography. Today she is blazing a trail in the field of conservation communications and she is one of the most innovative thinkers and visionaries in this field.

Cristina has served as President of the iLCP (www.ilcp.com) since 2005, she also serves on the Chairman’s Council at Conservation International (CI) and she is a member of the Steering Committee of the Commission on Communication and Education of the IUCN. She is a Board Member of the WILD Foundation and Lighthawk, serves on the Advisory Board of Nature’s Best Foundation and the Blue Ocean Film Festival and she is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

 

Comments

  1. [...] (Protests against the dam have focused primarily on concerns about deforestation and the displacement of indigenous peoples.) [...]

  2. [...] Farewell to a wild river  It is a bitter loss. The wild river that along its lengthy journey gives life to so much and so many will be tamed forever. Where I stand on the shores of the Xingu River, just a few miles from the city of Altamira I can see the markers where the main wall of the Belo Monte dam will be built. Across the main waterway of the Xingu, 14 meters or 46 feet high, the dam will muzzle the flow of the river and will create a gigantic lake almost 600 square kilometers or 148 acres in size . When the city of New Orleans, which is roughly that size, was flooded after hurricane Katrina, the entire world shrieked in horror. As an equivalent area of Amazonian rainforest is scheduled to be flooded, barely anybody outside this area is paying attention. For over 20 years, the ploy to dam the tributaries of the Amazon has been bounced around and finally, despite tremendous opposition it has won. The walls of the dam will go up and the character of this vital ecosystem will be changed forever. [...]

  3. Topher McCabe
    Scotland
    February 1, 2012, 7:00 am

    This makes me so damn angry and upset. How can we all be so stupid?! Mankind, as a species, are greedy and despicable.
    All those builders and planners care about is money – they don’t give a crap for anyone or anything they ruin in their pursuit of it.

    There has got to be more we can do than just simply signing petitions and posting comments like these on websites.

    What do you all think?

  4. [...] has written a heart-wrenching farewell to the wild river, as part of her 20-year project with the Kayapo Indigenous nation in the Brazilian Amazon. The [...]

  5. Olivier
    Australia
    July 14, 2011, 11:24 pm

    Petition against the construction of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil http://www.facebook.com/xingud​am – just click on “like” and write “sign up”. For more information http://www.internationalrivers​.org/node/5236

  6. guy
    missouri,USA
    July 7, 2011, 6:47 pm

    mans intervention will pay a high price for this one that may never be able to be repayed fullest, this is a sad event in history ” mother earth will have her justice ,’

  7. Fernando
    July 1, 2011, 7:22 pm

    no different then what the hoover dam did to the enviroment but hey now they will have the same problems america has enormus and ridiculus energy appetites and constant enviromental and economic problems but hey thats how progess works …….right???

  8. Tori
    Texas
    June 30, 2011, 3:20 pm

    Honestly, hearing about detrimental projects like this makes me sick over the loss of natural habitats and I’m sure a way of life. I don’t know what else to say, and I don’t know what there is to do to help.

  9. Sangeeta
    India
    June 28, 2011, 9:37 am

    Hi,

    Can’t we do something? We cannot just sit and wait this thing to happen.

    How much more are we gonna exploit our mother nature in the name of development. With this we are not only destroying the life of those indigenous people but we are also destroying the habitat of different species of flora and fauna.

    God please please help us…….

  10. Carmen Santos
    Cascais
    June 28, 2011, 5:43 am

    How sad and limited progress can be

  11. Hassan Abbas
    Pakistan
    June 28, 2011, 3:28 am

    The greed for power and wealth on the expanse of nature and ordinary poeple is unprecidented since the era of “fossil fuel man” has begun. I hope this era ends in peace along with the fossil fuel, and the greedy few also learn to live with nature.

  12. [...] to a wild river by NatGeo Posted on June 27, 2011 by sardpan “When the city of New Orleans, which is roughly that size, was flooded after hurricane Katrina… This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Amazon Pink [...]

  13. pat ramsden
    Oshawa Ontario
    June 27, 2011, 12:05 pm

    This is sad.. I have been to Guyana and seen first hand what happens when river transportation is halted in communities depend on having their staples, fuel, and mail delivered by river boat. I have seen areas where children are denied an education because they cannot get to school and young expectant mothers can not travel to medical clinics and the ill die from lack of medical supplies in the communities.the rivers are the only lifeline of the indiginous people and we are not being fair to them and their way of life. Where has human respect gone? Where is our compassion and our sense of right and wrong.?

  14. oscar restrepo
    Colombia
    June 27, 2011, 10:50 am

    Será posible que aún a estas “alturas de la civilización”, el hombre todavía no tenga claridad en el verdadero valor que tiene el conservar el “Hábitat natural”…
    Lo mas extraño de todo, es que nadie hace nada!

  15. Renata Leite Pitman
    Brasil
    June 27, 2011, 10:32 am

    Great article. It is incredible that nothing can be done to stop this, it is so heart breaking.

  16. Iris Trujillo
    Lima, Perú
    June 27, 2011, 9:49 am

    Es que no hay autoridades competentes, con criterio con amplia visión qué puedan ver que este proyecto no es viable?? Tiene consecuencias funestas a corto, mediano y largo plazo, el impacto negativo ambiental es preocupante. No se puede permitir, hay potenciales alternativas que aprovechar como captura de carbono, agua dulce, y el transporte mismo de las comunidades nativas de la zona .

  17. Morgan
    USA
    June 27, 2011, 8:01 am

    I am so sorry for all those people, I wish so much there was something I could do to help them, I just don’t understand the goverments logic in all this. How can they do this to these people? I truely feel for them.

  18. ashley
    Nepal
    June 27, 2011, 5:36 am

    nice article and very well presented..

  19. Lilian Weeks
    Florida, USA
    June 26, 2011, 8:18 pm

    My heart breaks with all of you. I was born in the Amazon and it is still amazing to me to see the Indigenous people being affected by all the changes and we put upon them. When will it stop. It’s a tragedy!

  20. Janece
    Pacific NW
    June 26, 2011, 7:15 pm

    This proceeding (if you can mockingly call something like this “progress”) toward the destruction of this land and these people and their home makes me inutterably saddened.

    Every time there is a new dam going up, there are things we choose to lose, choose to cover, choose to destroy.

    What the heck is wrong with waterwheels? Or solar? or wind? Why do we not choose the less destructive path?

    It baffles me.

    I find some small comfort in the post above…Mother Nature always wins. But we don’t have to choose to pit ourselves against her. There are win-win technological solutions. They may not be politically expiedient. But that is Humanity’s problem, not Nature’s.

  21. Emyr
    Wales
    June 26, 2011, 6:46 pm

    It’s an environmental catastrophe in the making. There’s no respect or concern for the indigenous people who morally have greater rights than the politicians and dam builders.

  22. Indina
    Hamburg, Germany
    June 26, 2011, 6:35 pm

    It is such a sad SHAME.

    And most probably an environmental disaster. As a keeper and breeder of the hypancistrus zebra I also mourn the loss of their habitat. And it was an icon of IBAMA, just a few years ago, and set on the list of endangered species, forbidden for export for aquaristic purposes. Now Brazil itself is killing it and approx. 100 other species of fish of the Xingu. And this is only 1 ‘side effect’ of many more…
    A big loss for the people, and for flora and fauna.

  23. Susan Woodward
    Australia
    June 26, 2011, 6:32 pm

    An absolute travesty. My heart breaks with yours, Cristina, and all the indigenous peoples who are to be impacted. Still building dams in the 21st century. We’ve learned nothing.

  24. Ketlin Marchetto Silva
    Brazil
    June 26, 2011, 5:58 pm

    I am Brazilian and totally against this hypocritical project . Once again the government is looking for financial gain and forgetting the people who live in those lands for years and years. SHAME!

  25. William Missiaen
    Randers, Denmark
    June 26, 2011, 5:47 pm

    It is difficult to understand that this happend after soo many years of discussion how important the amazones are for all the world ! It´s allways a question off money …follow the money and you find out why ! I will send some good energy too the region and please tell me what can we do ?

  26. Leslie
    USA
    June 26, 2011, 4:13 pm

    Kim summed it up best! Very tragic what the Brazilian govt is doing! Hoping they will realize what a tragic mistake they ate making before it’s too late! And yes! Follow the money trail! It will lead you to the most corrupt yet powerful individuals you could possibly ever find! But do not care to know! I wish these poor individuals well!

  27. Christian Wall
    missouri
    June 26, 2011, 2:47 pm

    Great coverage on a horrible story. I really wish that people would leave natural habitats alone…just imagine what it will be like in say 30 years…probablly nothing left to call wild

  28. Bani pertin
    arunachal pradesh,india
    June 26, 2011, 2:41 pm

    sitting in conferences and seminars will not help the cause ,lets come out and show them what difference we can bring in a day ;don’t leave it to the bureacrats they see nothing but profit;lets end it before it ends the world;such a shame for us if we can’ t save it

  29. Jill Barnes
    USA
    June 26, 2011, 2:29 pm

    ITS NOT OVER YET~~SIGN THESE PETITIONS TODAY AND SHARE~~~~SAVE THE AMAZON!!!
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=702528&l=7a367071ce&id=100000391339070
    it is imperative that we do all we can to stop this devastation now

  30. gil
    dineh nation
    June 26, 2011, 2:22 pm

    it is very heartbreaking and moves the spirit and mind! why folks tend to lead w/ ‘envy and greed’, continuation of colonialism from ‘turtle island’ or north america on indigenous (tribal ppl) ppl. On the Dineh/Navajo Nation in N. az, we have experience 40-yrs plus with coal strip mining and ‘forced relocation’ of over 10,000 household, and thousands more denied water rights to the mainstem Colorado River, this in turn to allow ‘cheap electricity’ to the southwest states/cities over 100-miles plus, also very inefficient, but they do it anyway here. the continued existence of ground/surface water and continued promotion of Arizona economy over ‘human-checkers’ and suffer/oppression/suppression of tribal ppl here in the USA and in the world! Ethnic Cleansing exist and is forced upon indigenous ppl all over, by US senators in arizona to south america by the brizilian govt. what happen to potential Renewable Energy projects over ‘cheap electricity’ to use for natural resource extraction/processing in brazil? GREED and ENVY still practiced, some folks just dont want other folks to be happy and have a decent human experience on mother earth/father sky/universe.

  31. aires manuel
    Almada Portugal
    June 26, 2011, 2:16 pm

    A avidez do lucro desenfreado não tem contemplação pelo habitat natural do povo indígena,e isso na época atual é muito mau para a Mente global.

  32. yus araya
    Malaysia
    June 26, 2011, 1:59 pm

    Cruel for Amazonian people…They should preserve not destroyed. A big applause to Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier for his remarkable memoirs. Thanks…

  33. Cyn Connelly
    June 26, 2011, 1:58 pm

    So very sorry to see this happening..info is so sparse in some of these Amazon regions. Please pray that work will be done in future to inform,educate & find other more conservational means to live! The very lives of people in these areas are at risk!

  34. Crolina Velez
    USA
    June 26, 2011, 1:55 pm

    Is there anything we can do? Like send a letter or sign a petition?
    It is extremely sad.
    I can believe tha with all the information we have about deforestation and killing our own planet, people continue to do this… Is sickening!

    :.(

  35. Faith
    Tennessee
    June 26, 2011, 1:53 pm

    I planned a trip to that area in the next year or so. I feel it is not to late to stop this nonsense. Or put it off at least.
    We are embarking on a journey as a planet to fight for our lives….. For the resources that have enabled us to thrive.
    We must educate ourselves and our children to learn how work with nature and all it’s perfection and recognize it’s balence without question.

  36. Arthur
    Toronto
    June 26, 2011, 1:43 pm

    Let’s do something about it. The brazilian government is very corrupt and don’t think about the natives, the people that depend on the river to survive, they don’t respect the nature and the animals. The majority of the people in Brazil is against the DAM but the government doesn’t care about our opinion.

  37. Marie-Eve
    Montreal
    June 26, 2011, 1:34 pm

    Why no one can stop it? We must prevent this event from happening ..
    It’s so sad what people do for power ..

  38. kim
    España
    June 23, 2011, 1:52 am

    Cristina your words touched my soul and I wish more people read this article and fight for the rights of people who are the keepers of a land that will be lost to those who choose to control the environment but they will never win. Mother Nature always wins. May I help in anyway possible I will be there in mind and spirit hoping for the right choices not man´s choices.