Xingu, the river that beats in us: Juruna people call attention to impacts of Belo Monte plant

Indigenous people present the results of four years of monitoring in Volta Grande do Xingu (PA) in a recently published book

By Isabel Harari, journalist at ISA

“It was created from a breath.” With a breath, the demiurge Senã’ã gave rise to Volta Grande do Xingu, the falls of Jericoá and the Juruna (or Yudjá), the indigenous people who still inhabit this region in western Pará. This is the way the book “Xingu, o rio que pulsa em nós” [Xingu, the river that beats in us] begins. This publication is the result of four years of work by the Juruna of the Paquiçamba Indigenous Land.

In the book, launched at the XVI Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology, indigenous people draw attention to the impacts of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant on their way of life and Volta Grande, a region of approximately 100 kilometers of river that bathes two Indigenous Lands and is home to hundreds of families of riverside dwellers.

Based on detailed monitoring, the Juruna warn of the risk of plant and animal species disappearing, some of them endemic to the region, and the consequences for the survival of their people. “We are from here. We are talking about the Volta Grande do Xingu. Our people are from the Volta Grande do Xingu. This is where we emerged and where we are. Our people and the Volta Grande do Xingu deserve more respect,” insists Gilliarde Juruna, chief of the village of Mïratu.

Juruna children play on the beach in the vicinity of the village Mïratu. Photo: Kelly Lima / ISA

The indigenous people point to a new threat: a dispute over water. With the damning of the river in 2015, the amount, velocity and level of the water in the region no longer depend on the natural flow of the Xingu, but rather on Norte Energia — the concessionaire of the hydroelectric plant. Through the so-called “Hydrographic Consensus,” the company will control the volume of water that passes through the gates of the dam and descends through Volta Grande do Xingu.

Hydrographic consensus or hydrographic conflict?

The so-called “Hydrographic Consensus” is the most important mitigation measure proposed by the company for the effects caused by the reduced flow of water in Volta Grande. The objective of the hydrographic consensus is to artificially reproduce the seasonal flooding and drying that characterize the natural flow of the Xingu River. The hydrographic schedule is, therefore, supposed to ensure the socio-environmental sustainability of the region.

The measure is expected to be implemented in 2019, the year in which the installation of the hydroelectric turbines is completed. Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, established a strict plan to monitor the impacts caused by the residual flow provided for in the hydrographic schedule, by monitoring what happens with flora, fauna and water and impacts on the way of life of the populations for six years, from 2019 to 2025. The idea is to determine the minimum amount of water necessary to maintain life in Volta Grande, and, at the same time, the maximum amount of water that the company can use to generate electricity.

Watch the Juruna’s struggle to recognize the non-viability of the “Hydrographic Consensus” in the animation video below:

The Jericoá waterfall and the pedals are delicate environments that are at risk. Photos: José Sabino / ISA and Marcelo Salazar / ISA

The year of the end of the world

In 2016, one year after the definitive damning of the river, the Juruna have seen these changes up close and shown that the fish and navigability of the Xingu have been impacted by the high volume of water — higher than that established in the Hydrographic Consensus. During that year, the flow was approximately 10,000 m3/s. While the rates found in the hydrographic schedule provide for flows of 4,000 m3/s and 8,000 m3/s, alternating year by year.

In short, the average flow to be released, according to the hydrographic schedule, is less than the average flow released in 2016. Even in this scenario, the fish are unable to spawn, nor can they enter, along with the turtles, the alluvial forest to feed.

“The fish know that, when the river begins to rise, they can eat the fruit of the camu-camu tree. Between December 2015 and January 2016, the pacu fish that we caught were sick and emaciated, smooth on the outside, no one ate these fish out of fear of becoming sick themselves,” recounts Agostinho Juruna, from the village of Mïratu. 2016 is known by the Juruna as the “year of the end of the world.”

In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, scientists also warn that the hydroelectric plant could be responsible for the disappearance of the region’s endemic species, and recommended that the Hydrographic Consensus be reviewed. According to the researchers, the reduction in the volume of water and the change in the flow dynamics will remove a key component that maintains the heterogeneity of the system.

“Evidently, it is not easy to arrive at a formula that will ensure the socio-environmental sustainability of the Volta Grande do Xingu. However, the uncertainties and the risks involved in implementing the hydrographic ‘consensus’ require that it be replaced immediately,” warns the publication launched today. Recognition of studies like the ones conducted by the Juruna is of paramount importance to building effective measures to mitigate the impacts of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant.

The fruit is falling on dry land

The monitoring of fishing resources and food security on the Paquiçamba Indigenous Land is the result of a collaborative study which began in 2013, involving ISA, researchers from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and Juruna families of the village of Mïratu. The objective was to build a reliable database that would enable the mapping of changes in the lives of the indigenous people after the completion of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant based on fishing dynamics.

Seu Augustinho, Bel and Caboco Juruna doing the monitoring os fishing. Photos: Cristiane Carneiro
Video frame shows Bel and Caboco Juruna presenting data for 2016

In 2016, there was a huge fish die-off during the reproduction period, due to the interruption of the migratory flow and unavailability of areas for feeding and spawning. Turtles were unable to lay eggs during the reproductive season, lost weight and died.

The example of the pacu, the fish species most consumed by the Juruna, illustrates one of the many ecological processes that is at risk and that could impact the maintenance of aquatic biodiversity. This species feeds on the fruit that falls into the water during the winter, when the river floods. With the reduction in water volume and change in the dynamics of flooding and drying, the fruit falls on dry land, making it impossible for the fish to feed and for the species to reproduce.

The lack of synchronization between the minimum flow needed to flood the reproduction areas at the right time and the feeding of species important for human consumption of the populations of the Volta Grande may impact the food security of the indigenous peoples and riverside dwellers. “These fish that we no longer eat are being replaced by products from the city, such as bologna and frozen chicken. We know very well that these products are not good for our health, primarily for the health of children,” warns Bel Juruna, an indigenous health worker for the village of Mïratu.

With the publication of the results of this monitoring program, the indigenous people and their partners hope to improve and expand the scope of decision-making on the future of everything and everyone that is involved in the region. “The Xingu River and Volta Grande do Xingu are fundamentally important to the existence of the Juruna (Yudjá) people and this monitoring is a way of defending these people and their traditional lands,” reads a passage of the publication.

Video frames show the consequences of intermittent drought

Canoes instead of feet

It is not by chance that the breath of the Senã’ã gave rise to Volta Grande, the falls and the Juruna, or Yudjá, all at once. Created together with the river, the indigenous people have a profound relationship with the Xingu and its dynamics.

The Juruna people established themselves in the region using canoes to travel between the islands, where they built their villages. With the arrival of non-indigenous people to the region of Altamira, they came under attack, leading to the compulsory displacement of part of their people, who today live on the Xingu Indigenous Land (MT). “The common thread in this fight involves massacres resulting from land conflict, encroachment by farmers and, more recently, the fight against the serious effects of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant,” according to the publication.

“Resistance is, therefore, the most appropriate way to define the permanence of the Juruna (Yudjá) people in the region of Volta Grande do Xingu. Given the different threats, to be able to continue on their traditional land, these peoples have developed powerful mythical and historical survival strategies,” the text continues.

Juruna children play in the river. Photos: Márcio Seligmann / ISA

The Juruna have already proven the impacts of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant and, with the publication of the book, point to the imminent risks of implementing the Hydrographic Consensus. At a time when the Canadian mining firm Belo Sun Mining is pressuring to build facilities in the region, a discussion on the conditions needed to maintain life in Volta Grande is necessary and urgent. (Learn more)

The impacts of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant go beyond changes in the flow of water, and the life cycle of fish and plants. In altering the flooding and drying cycles of the river, the hydroelectric plant also alters the way of life of the Juruna. Bel Juruna points out that her people will now have to adapt to “living on dry land.” A sentiment echoed by the book: “forcing a canoeing people to live on dry land would mean a radical change in daily, cosmological, cultural and social practices.”



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Instituto Socioambiental

O ISA tem como foco central a defesa de bens e direitos sociais, coletivos e difusos relativos ao meio ambiente, ao patrimônio cultural e aos direitos dos povos