“One day, we will win”: The fight to protect Indigenous lands from Brazil’s hydrodam plans

On top of a hill overlooking the Tapajós, the fourth-largest tributary of the Amazon in Brazil, lies a village of around 130 Indigenous families, who live between the river and their small fruit and manioc farms.

by Helle Abelvik-Lawson
Walking tracks lead deep into the forest to where men hunt and women gather spicy ants to flavour their cassava flour.
This village of wood and palm-thatched houses, and the area surrounding it, is called the Sawré Muybu. It is one of many Indigenous villages along the Tapajós River that are home to the Munduruku people.
In just a few years this village may find itself an island, surrounded by the reservoir of a large hydroelectric dam. Others nearby will be underwater.
The São Luiz do Tapajós dam is the first of four slated to be built on the Tapajós River. This first dam would block the river, creating a reservoir that would submerge an area nearly the size of New York City – including important parts of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous land.
The project has attracted significant international interest. A group of western companies, including French state-owned EDF, have set up a group to study their options in the region. Chinese firms are also reportedly interested, and so is German giant Siemens, and US General Electric who manufacture the turbines used in these projects.
Whether or not the Munduruku have any say in the plans hinges on how this land is officially recognised under Brazilian law.

The Sawre Muybu land
The dam licensing process has stalled due to a report from the Brazilian Indigenous agency FUNAI which states that this is Indigenous land.
In a last-ditch action before her impeachment, outgoing Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff moved to have these lands approved for federal recognition as Munduruku Indigenous Territory by the Justice Ministry, a move that may have killed the project.
As a result the invitation for bids for contracts to participate in building the dam – set for August – has recently been postponed by Brazil’s interim president Michel Temer.
But the change to a government that is hostile to environmental licensing means the political weather is again uncertain.
“The government says we don’t exist in this land. The government doesn’t want to recognise us,” a softly-spoken young Munduruku woman (who prefers not to be named) tells me.

“Indigenous women are warrior women, we will fight to the death. And one day, we will win.”
If the dam is built, it would mean the permanent relocation of Indigenous people, officially forbidden by the Brazilian Constitution outside of times of war or disease outbreaks.
That may be why Maurício Tolmasquim, president of the Energy Research Company – which is part of the Brazilian Ministry for Mines and Energy – has denied that the Munduruku have lived on the land for any longer than 30 years or so.

A Munduruku boy is painted with natural stain paints made from fruit. An archaeologist from the Federal University of Para, Bruna Rocha, has found ceramics on the territory dating back 1000 years, painted with similar patterns to the ones the Munduruku use for their symbolic body paint today.