For the most incredible thing is that, despite such profound violation – destruction of the land, aggression towards their communities, the damage to aquatic ecosystems – what we encountered there was life pulsing among all that suffering
It was still dark when we arrived at the shores of the Xingu River. Artificial lights were shining on the man-made beach built during the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. The wooden canoes were moored side by side; most of them seemed to have had a long life in partnership with their Indigenous and riverside owners.
Headlamps were on and backpacks were being bagged in order to keep them dry. There were reporters and cameras at the beach. And so we embarked, carrying our handmade wooden paddles. Thirteen canoes were leaving that day, carrying a collection of scientists, local Indigenous people, researchers, journalists, activists, and other Brazilians who live by the riverside.
Mr Manoel (a riverside resident) and Aré (a member of the Yudjá ethnic group located at Tuba-Tuba village in Mato Grosso) were our local guides, teaching us some of the secrets of a good canoeist – how to place our arms and how to avoid hurting our hands… Even so, as we left the beach behind, our muscles were soon sore.
“Xingu River alive forever"
The sun was slowly announcing its appearance on the river’s horizon. We felt a jumble of sensations: the rhythm of our paddling, the moment of facing the unknown, the feeling of openness towards what was to come. The yearning, longing, the beating of the heart for the Earth, for the Amazon, for the whole of that group of people, and in particular for the ones paddling with us: “Xingu River alive forever!” we all cried together.
Sunlight was revealing the contrasts of that land. Some forest areas were flooded, trees and other beings drowned since the hydroelectric plant was built. When a tree’s roots and trunk are submersed but its branches are out of the water, it dies slowly; its branches dry out and the landscape loses its dark green, vibrant and humid identity. Under water, the dead and dying trees decompose, producing a great quantity of greenhouse gases. The quality of the riverbank forest is smudged by a morbid grey.
During the first day of canoeing we travelled the length of the Belo Monte reservoir, and the flooded forest, the turbidity of water, the silence of birds, the daily challenges of Mr Manoel, and the absence of movement within the Xingu had a marked effect on our enthusiasm. Those first hours were the most challenging of the whole 110-kilometre route.
The expedition was organised by Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which is a Brazilian civil society organisation aimed at defending the rights of Indigenous and traditional people and focused on environmental and social issues, in partnership with AYMIX, an Indigenous association of the Yudjá Mïratu people of the Big Bend of the Xingu River. It was open to the public, and researchers from universities around Brazil were also invited. It is hoped that this will stimulate more studies within the territory affected by the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant.
The expedition had no pre-planned outcome other than to engage with and get to know that bittersweet part of the Amazon, and its people. Escola Schumacher Brasil was invited by ISA to participate and to contribute to the group reflection processes, while potentially creating possibilities for partnership between the two organisations. The way in which the expedition was organised through a complex network of interactions, encouraging a kind of soft activism that was simultaneously engaged and spontaneous in offering experiences and observing what emerged from them, echoes the way of Schumacher College and Escola Schumacher Brasil.
A sense of responsibility towards our direct environment was evident in each one of our camps: waste was managed, potentially harmful chemical products such as shampoo were not used in the river, and compost loos were built and taken away. The cooks and their food were very special. Healthy, local and even vegan food was encouraged, although fish couldn’t be missing from the daily diet of these river people. Every day the kitchen crew went exploring the surrounding area to bring us delicious fruits and roots.
The act of paddling was our daily meditation, bringing about introspection, a sort of absorption state, and integration with water and forest. There is a rhythm, there is the collective and the individual, there is the flow of water and Nature all around. Sometimes we travelled in silence; at other moments we chanted in protest for the pulsing life in that wounded river.
By the end of the first day we had arrived at the main Belo Monte barrier plant, and the canoes were transported by a small tractor to the other side of the river. From then on, although the river’s flow was reduced (because most of the water was diverted to produce electricity), the landscape was far more pleasant. As we canoed down the river, Nature was showing itself as more and more vibrant (or less and less hurt compared to the first part of the route). That beautiful landscape was also giving us a taste of loss related to the harmed areas we had seen earlier.
From time to time Aré, sitting at the very front of our canoe, would put down his paddle, take his handmade bamboo flute out of his bag, and begin playing beautifully for the forest that we felt was silently listening. He also coloured our days with his knowledge about the river and lessons from his elders. His presence deepened our embodied understanding of Indigenous wisdom.
Aré had been invited by ISA to participate in the expedition and had travelled from Tuba-Tuba by boat and car, a journey of three days. His ancestors had moved out of the area when the land began to be threatened by non-Indigenous people in the 20th century.
At Tuba-Tuba they were able to cultivate more of their ancient traditions and language. Nowadays there is a constant exchange between Tuba-Tuba and the village of Mïratu, two communities that call each other family. Two young women from Mïratu had been sent to live in Aré’s village for a year to learn the language and ways of living. They came with Aré to visit their parents, and joined the expedition.
We arrived towards evening at the island that would be our first base camp. As we all went to pitch our tents and bathe in the river before dinner, the sun was setting on one side of the river, and the moon was rising, full and red, on the other. We were warned about the fierce mosquitoes that would soon arrive. We had travelled 50 kilometres that day, so we opted for an early night, sleeping under the brightness of the moon.
Land under threat
On the second day, the ride was smoother and we had fewer kilometres to cover. Nevertheless, we paddled the whole day to get to Mïratu, where we were to stay for the next two days. Halfway there we made a remarkable stop at the island of Fazenda, home to many of the riverside people who were travelling with us, including Mr Manoel.
As we approached the island, all the canoes grouped together. We chanted “Xingu River alive forever” as we slowly got closer and closer. There on the beach the community was waiting for us, welcoming us with signs and smiles. Children, teachers, mothers, elders and fishermen were there, ready for a strong, heartfelt and memorable encounter.
Imagine being a resident of that island, in the midst of that wilderness, picturing those canoes approaching filled with enthusiastic people shouting for the significance of your land, your river – your home that’s been under threat for so long. This set us thinking that perhaps one of the more powerful effects of the expedition was at the psychological level, strengthening everyone’s self-reliance (including ours) and contributing to empower, at a subtle level, the villagers we met, in defending what is true for them.
The moon was rising on the horizon as we approached Mïratu, reminding us that life pulses in cycles, even though, on that part of the river, the Belo Monte project had deprived its human and other-than-human inhabitants of the oscillatory quality of river flow. Slowly the sky was uncovering a multitude of stars. We were keen to get together with our hosts, and some researchers and Indigenous people presented their work at the meeting house built by the villagers at the base camp. Later, as every day, we would go to sleep and wake up to the blissful, almost dreamlike sound of Aré’s flute.
There is a lot of insensitivity (or ignorance) around what water is. Water is movement, flow. It is water that gives shape to the landscape, that gave form to the river. That specific trajectory of the river was carved by water itself, during millions of years. Water, soil and rocks are in dialogue, influencing each other since times with no beginning.
But today, beings that emerged from those communions, and that are part of the river’s life, find themselves unable to continue their course, blocked by the hydroelectric plant. Fruit trees once on the shores of the river, whose fruits used to feed the fish, are now located 50 metres away from the water: connections that took millions of years to form have suddenly been broken.
To block this flow is to alter the consolidated movement that is the gesture of water in that particular place, forming what we call the Big Bend of the Xingu River. Nature is in itself so marvellous and wise, with all its diversity and richness, that the violence against it made us profoundly sad.
There are also many consequences for the Indigenous and riverside communities who live there. Mrs Raimunda, a riverside resident and local leader gifted with great communicative capacity, coloured our expedition with her words, filled with strong and eloquent images: “The more bark is torn off me, the more I renew” (a reference to what happens to trees); “Money is paper, soil is life, richness is health”; “I had no voice in saying how much my land is worth. I, the one who knows how valuable my land is, was not heard in expressing its richness”; “[The enterprise] has taken out my legs and given me crutches in exchange”; “My husband and other people are dead, but they are still walking” (referring to the suffering of those around her).
Despair and downheartedness
There is despair, downheartedness and a high rate of suicide here. Children and young people have been deeply harmed by crime, drugs, violence against women, and prostitution. The health and quality – and hence the price – of fish have fallen as a consequence of the environmental impacts since the river’s regime was changed.
The turbidity of the water, noise pollution, and artificial lighting at night are only a few of the impacts we heard of from residents of the area. The blockage of piracema – the natural movement of fish who swim upstream to find specific places for reproduction – caused millions of fish to die near the dam. Various remediation or other programmes were offered by the construction company, but they are vague regarding the enormous vulnerability that the project created. Nevertheless, “We must show that we have survived,” Mrs Raimunda insists.
This last sentence from Mrs Raimunda reinforces something we saw in many instances of our journey: the importance of showing the world what is happening to her people, who, despite all their vulnerability, are firmly and resiliently staying there. For the most incredible thing is that, despite such profound violation – destruction of the land, aggression towards their communities, the damage to aquatic ecosystems – what we encountered there was life pulsing among all that suffering.
Our feeling is that such great challenges are strengthening cohesion, especially within the Indigenous community, stimulating them to recover and preserve their values and knowledge. In some way, like the river that has had its course interrupted and altered, they are finding new paths to live in, to let flow and to grow roots. Every adversity seems to be animating these courageous people to redeem their origins and rebuild their identity with great strength. We are not saying that the great harm caused by Belo Monte is, therefore, a good thing in any way, but that despite all the destruction, there is still life and hope and determination in that land and its people.
Engaging with people and planet
This was the fourth such canoe expedition along the Xingu and – besides the important work of developing independent research and monitoring fauna and flora in the harmed area and surroundings – we noticed more subtle things that cannot be disregarded: for example, the kind of food that was being prepared and its influence among the kitchen crew, considering a diet free from industrialised ingredients and valuing local products.
We would like to highlight some significant aspects of getting Indigenous and riverside people and visitors from all over Brazil together, sharing conversations, canoeing and organising daily activities. We noticed that we were returning stronger than when we had arrived, as if we were carrying with us some of the strength and integrity of those with whom we shared the journey.
A sense of readiness was growing among us to solve issues quickly and collectively – for instance, when a canoe began taking on water in one of the river rapids and was about to sink, it was rescued by the hands and help of many. Some quickly went into the water after equipment and bags, others helped save the canoe, and a third group gave support to crew members who needed it. A sense of group engagement was deepening, not only on a personal and immediate level, but also with regard to our beautiful and chaotic planet.
Paddling, camping and having the Xingu River as our home for the week was a profound experience in which such intense exchange (between people, cultures, Nature and civilisation) dissolves, with water from the river, the boundaries between teaching and learning, right and wrong, and many other polarities we can so easily create. We all came together to savour the delights and pains of being who we are – and then to act together in responsive and responsible ways in a world where respect and integrity can flow more powerfully than a violent vision of development at all costs.
Elisa Hornett is a teacher working with children. She has recently concluded an MSc degree at Schumacher College. Rita Mendonça is a biologist and sociologist and has dedicated her life to facilitate learning processes with Nature. She teaches Holistic Science at Escola Schumacher Brasil.
This year’s Xingu canoeing expedition takes place from 3 to 8 September 2018 and the programme will enjoy the collaboration of Escola Schumacher Brasil. Pre-registration is open at www.aymix.org/canoada