The story I’m going to tell you now is from the viewpoint of a ribeirinho [member of a traditional forest community living on the riverbanks], a viewpoint from inside the river, from the stretch of the Xingu known as Volta Grande [Big Bend] and from what is called the Reduced Flow Stretch. It’s about what our river used to be like and what it’s like now. So, here we go: the ruin of a river and a ribeirinho’s view of it. A story of hope, and the ruin of our river, of how a project was negligent and a people excluded. This is what we’re going to talk about. So, let’s start.
A river’s exuberance… A river’s history can’t tell us about the time of its exuberance, and nobody can. A majestic, beautiful river. Yet also challenging and dangerous. Hard to understand. So much water, so many currents, so many lakes, so many spawning grounds, so many fish – countless species.
Defying time by never aging and always maintaining its youthful shape. Year after year, going through cycle upon cycle of lives, a paternal cradle for all the species who depend on it. And intertwined with this majestic river, Indigenous families, ribeirinhos, and fishermen, all supporting themselves from its vast, immeasurable abundance. How much abundance this majestic river provided. So many beaches and so much fun with the family, the absolute guarantee of grilled fish. On the beach, families would run around and play games, and then jump in the river and swim for hours. Until they couldn’t anymore. Those families were so happy. They were happy just like that, needing no more, no less. They were happy just with what the river gave them. It was like your eyes filled with tears and you puffed out your chest to say, “I’m in a place chosen by God.”
Those families lived in a natural paradise, and they knew it. They always knew how to make the most of what the river gave them. One day a tourist asked me, “Who is richer, you ribeirinhos or the tourists, with all those executives about?” Before giving me a chance to answer, he said, “You, because you live on the banks of such a beautiful, magnificent river.” Then he added, “There are very few rivers as beautiful as this one.” He was right. That was when I realized the executive envied us ribeirinhos. And that felt good for my ego. Because the executive knew he couldn’t enjoy that wonderful place for very long. He’d have to go back to his company and to working, working, working, so that one day – who knows when – he could return to this majestic river. While we ribeirinhos never budge from the river and all its wonders. Because that’s where our lives are.
Day after day, we never budged from the banks of the river, the driving force behind so much wealth. The years went by and the river, mighty and majestic, flowed along its banks. So much water, so many lives, that were suddenly the target of dark stares – from companies backed by government administrations who joined forces for the sole purpose of transforming this immense body of water into money, with the excuse that Brazil needed the river to generate energy. They did studies, they speculated and invested in this idea, despite all the negative opinions and opposition to the project – from all sides: Indigenous experts, ribeirinhos, environmental bodies, NGOs, religious organizations, and other opposition. From all sides, because everyone knew it would be irreversible and cause all kinds of tragedies. But no, they couldn’t get away from this idea of slicing our river, and they conducted misleading studies that they submitted to licensing authorities, showing how it would be such a great benefit to the country. As if Brazil were in the dark.
But governmental forces were stronger than all the calls to reject the project, and they wrongly embraced the idea. And they sliced our majestic, mighty river in half, for no other reason than to line their pockets. There was no need, but they sliced our river in half. It was just a matter of time before this mighty, exuberant river would come to ruin. And little by little, the river kept withering away.
This same mighty river, exuberant century after century, ready to serve and welcome anyone who rode it, was now withering away. Bled in half, no strength to fight, seeing its flow of life diverted to generate wealth for people who had never seen if or set foot on its banks. The river is in distress, because the mighty river no longer has the strength to sustain the lives of the ribeirinhos who have always made their living from it. These families are helpless; they are becoming helpless, them and all living species, left at the mercy of mitigation measures that never come, projects designed with no proof they will be efficient for aquatic life. They try to fix the chaos they caused. Unsuccessfully. Because the solution is to let the mighty river flow naturally.
So, the peoples who inhabit the river have been excluded from their natural habitat, waiting for mitigation measures. And they ask everyone who comes along for help.
The authorities don’t see us, but we’re here, excluded from our habitat, no strength, just like our river, coming to ruin bit by bit. I call on the authorities, don’t leave us at the mercy of these projects that ignore our rights! Comply with requirements in a way that is fair for all those affected by the river! Because the moment they sliced our river in half and made it bleed, we bled too, because the river was our lives; we had everything there. As the late Brazilian singer and composer Belchior said, I was as happy as a river, an animal, a flock of sparrows. That was what we ribeirinhos were like, free as birds. This is how the ribeirinho Raimundo da Cruz e Silva sees the history of our Xingu River, sliced in half and made to bleed.
They sliced it. They sliced our mighty river in half.
Fact check: Plínio Lopes
Spell check (Portuguese): Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Mark Murray. Edition: Diane Whitty
Photography editing: Marcelo Aguilar, Mariana Greif and Pablo Albarenga