The government wants to open up the Tapajs basin an area the size of France for trade with China. But the indigenous Munduruku wont let it happen without a fight
Crashing upstream through the So Luiz rapids, the churning river throws the speedboat around like a childs toy. There is first a moment of fear, then relief and finally wonder at crossing a natural boundary that has held back the destruction of this corner of the Amazon for almost five centuries.
This is the gateway to a land that indigenous inhabitants call Mundurukania, after their tribe, the Munduruku, which has settled the middle and upper reaches of the Rio Tapajs since ancient times. The thickly vegetated shores, misty hills and untamed waters breached at one point by a dolphin mark it out as one of the few regions of the planet still to be explored and exploited by industrial commerce.
The tranquillity is breathtaking, but misleading. These rapids are now on the frontline of one of the worlds most important struggles for indigenous rights and environmental protection. Long ignored, they are suddenly seen as a stategically crucial step between the nations with the worlds biggest farms Brazil and the worlds most numerous dining tables China. Longer term, the changes now being planned could bring this waterway closer to the industrialised, traffic-filled Yangtze in more ways than one.
Over the coming years, the Brazilian government backed by Chinese and European finance and engineering wants to turn this river into the worlds biggest grain canal by building 49 major dams on the Tapajs and its tributaries.
This would make the rapids navigable by barges carrying produce from the deforested cerrado savanna of Mato Grosso which produces a third of the worlds soya up to the giant container port being planned in the closest city of Santarm and then out to global markets, particularly in Asia.
The network of dams would also produce 29gW of electricity, increasing Brazils current supply by 25%. A consortium headed by Furnas a subsidiary of the state-run energy utility Electrobras plans to sell the power to distant cities and to local mining companies that want to unearth the mineral riches under the forest.
For the Brazilian government, this mega-scheme to open up the Tapajs basin which is roughly the area of France is a linchpin of national economic development and trade with China. For local politicians, it is an opportunity to industrialise, expand and enrich the business of nearby cities, which expect their populations to double in size over the next 10 years.
For opponents, however, the hydrovia as the river transport scheme is known and related projects are the biggest threat ever posed to the native inhabitants, traditional riverine communities, waters and wildlife. By one estimate, 950,000 hectares of forest would be cleared, releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide.
The hydrovia is part of a set of other projects dams, ports, roads and railways that aim to industrialise this region. Energy companies, agribusinesses and mining companies are all pushing for it, said Fernanda Moreira, of the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic NGO that works with local communities.
Campaigners including International Rivers, Amazon Watch and Greenpeace oppose the project because they say there has not been adequate study of the impacts including accelerated deforestation, habitat loss and social problems or the alternatives.
This is a historic moment for the Amazon. We have seen previous economic booms rubber, logging and mining that caused social conflict and environmental damage, but the proposed development along the Tapajs covers a much wider area and would have a much more profound impact, said Alcilene Cardoso of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.
Opponents claimed a partial victory last year when the Brazilian environmental agency suspended a licence for the So Luiz do Tapajs dam, one of the three biggest hydroelectric plants in the project that would together flood 198,400 hectares, including large parts of national parks, nature reserves and territory claimed by indigenous groups.
The battle is anything but over, however. The damming of the rapids which would require a 7km-wide concrete barrier and a reservoir eight times the area of Manhattan remains a priority of the powerful mines and energy ministry and Electrobras. Three other dams are already under construction on the Teles Pires, a tributary of the Tapajs.
Munduruku efforts to assert their territorial rights through a self-demarcation campaign have been ignored by the centre-right government of President Michel Temer and his Workers party predecessor, Dilma Rousseff.
Half an hour above the rapids is the Munduruku village of Dace Watpu, which would be flooded if the So Luiz dam were built. Despite the suspension of the licence, they remain vigilant.
They will be back. That is our constant concern,said village chief Juarez Saw Munduruku, as residents gathered in the small wooden hall to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the community school. As the school, the two-way radio and array of solar panels demonstrate, the villagers are not opposed to development but they want it to be on their terms. Dams, mines and river traffic, they say, are a threat to their homes and way of life.
The Brazilian government may call hydroelectric dams clean energy, but it isnt. It is dirty. It is mixed with our blood and our misery, he says. The government will have to kill us if they want to push ahead with these projects.
Images of Munduruku protests usually show them in traditional costume, with warpaint and feather headdresses. But their strategy is more sophisticated than these images suggest.
Recognising that foreign investment and consumption are part of the issue, they have taken their campaign overseas, presenting their grievances last month at the United Nations. They have also worked with environmental NGOs, foreign media and archaeologists.
The latter have verified the long history of settlement in the region, which is crucial to Munduruku ownership claims and also important to rebut the widely held idea that this region can be dammed because it is empty. The first written record of Mundrukania dates back to 1742, though habitation by indigenous groups goes back much further.
When Bruna Rocha, of the Federal University of Western Par, first excavated sites near the proposed dams in 2010, she found pottery, stone tools and dark earth, suggesting cultivation of the land had occurred intermittently for many centuries. Studies of the area showed it wasnt just an empty space that can be flooded. It has history and a culture, she said.