‘We see destruction’

Bolsonaro wants to develop the Amazon. The Munduruku fear the end of their way of life.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on promises to cut environmental red tape and attract development to the Amazon. The centerpiece of his project: Hydro-electric dams, to harness the gushing waters of the Amazon River and its tributaries for cheap and reliable energy.

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with President Trump during a news conference at the White House in March.

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As Latin America’s largest nation struggles through prolonged economic stagnation, the economic potential of the Amazon has grown more alluring, even as scientists warn that development will accelerate deforestation.

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Muddy dirt roads lead to the village of Miratu. Norte Energia, the developer of a nearby dam, promised better roads.

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Bolsonaro has decried the fact that 15 percent of Brazil’s territory is reserved for indigenous tribes that add up to less than 1 million people. “Let’s integrate these citizens and bring value to all Brazilians,” he has tweeted.

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Fifteen hundred miles from Brasilia, the Munduruku tribe watched Bolsonaro’s rise with trepidation. Sawre Muybu, the Munduruku village on the Tapajos riverbank, lies downstream from a proposed dam that would flood the homes of 100 people, destroying their way of life.

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Sawre Muybu, the Munduruku village on the banks of the Tapajos river.

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The Munduruku pride themselves on their resilience. In the 16th century, their warriors conquered rivals and placed their heads on sticks as trophies. They built an empire that stretched throughout the river valley. Even Portuguese cannons and guns couldn’t force them into submission.

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But they struggled to make sense of this new adversary.

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The tribe has fought construction of the dam under successive presidents for a decade. They won a major victory in 2016, when Brazil’s environmental regulation agency ordered the project shelved.

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Chief Juarez Munduruku got the phone call from Brasilia: There would be no dam – for now.

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Juarez Saw, chief of the Munduruku tribe, in their village.

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“We were happy,” he says. “But we are always living with that doubt that at any moment, the government can put the project back on the table.”

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Bolsonaro wants to speed licensing for smaller hydroelectric dams. Four years of economic woe have hardened Brazilian voters against environmental concerns.

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For the Munduruku, the Tapajos is sacred. It’s central to the tribe’s creation myth – they believe life on earth originated from a narrow opening in the river.

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Now it waters their farms, nurtures the fish they eat and sustains the animals they hunt.

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Munduruku men go hunting.

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“They say we are blocking development,” Juarez says. “But we aren’t blocking it. We see destruction – not just for us, but for all Amazonian people.”

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The tribe has spent centuries skirting the capitalist economy that has come to dominate their land. If their river is to be flooded and the fish they eat die off, they fear they will lose their way of life.

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The remnants of an island after a Norte Energia dam flooded homes along the Xingu River in Altamira.

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The tribe lives as it has for centuries – with no income and little division of labor. Sawre Muybu, which lies on a small clearing above a hill surrounded by misty jungle, is home to some 100 people. They live in wooden huts with braided palm leaves for roofs and mud floors cracked and uneven from the daily downpours of the rainy season. The village is surrounded by pineapple and banana trees planted in neat rows.

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Some members of the tribe get government welfare. A few get salaries as teachers. That money is pooled and used to purchase goods for the whole community.

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“The government wants us to live like white people, to live off of our own income,” says Aldira Akai, 27. “We won’t let them destroy our land, the land where we have always lived.”

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The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Dense jungle and vast rivers separate its sparsely populated communities from the rest of the country. Massive infrastructure projects, Bolsonaro says, will finally integrate these corners of Brazil into the country’s wider economic fabric.

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The flooded Xingu River seen from the edges of the village of Miratu.

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“Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the wellbeing of our population,” he said in April at the inauguration of a new airport in the Amazon. “You won’t get any trouble from the Environment Ministry, nor the Mines and Energy Ministry, nor any other.”

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The people of Itaituba, a mining town just down the Tapajos river from the Munduruku village, were paying attention.

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The town of 100,000 was at the center of a gold rush in the 1980s that drew miners from around the country.

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A worker melts gold to be sold at Ouro Prime. Miners are paid in gold and often use small shops to get quick cash for their earnings.

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But by the early 1990s, most of the easily accessible gold had been taken. The deeper reserves in the middle of the jungle proved harder to reach without cheap electricity or foreign investment. Many miners went packing.

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Then the federal government proposed a hydroelectric complex. Construction would bring investment and jobs. Then foreign companies could tap into the electricity to access new gold reserves.

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It was the lure of the Amazon that attracted Jhow Valenzuela to mining seventeen years ago. He has spent 15-hour days hunched over, searching for shimmers of gold glowing in the sun.

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Jhow Valenzuela

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It’s the life he chose – but that was before he understood the cost to the environment.

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“It is irreversible damage, without a doubt. The environmental degradation is huge. But it has become a necessary evil,” says Valenzuela, 46. “I loved growing up in a country rich in natural resources. I loved bathing in the crystalline waters of the river. I want my grandchildren to have that same right.”

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Still, he understands the economic possibilities the dam represented for miners like him, living on less than $600 a month.

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“We need to survive,” he says.

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