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On the Big Bend of the Xingu River

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Writer Nina Wegner travels to Altamira, Brazil, and talks to the fishermen who are struggling for their livelihoods. The world's third-largest dam, the Belo Monte, reaches peak construction this year, destroying their environment.

"I've been fishing since I was 7 or 8 years old," says the fisherman as he leans against a side of his stilted house. His name is Marcos Xuel Cremon, and although he is only 32 years old, deep lines surround his green eyes. "Nature taught me how to fish," he says.

Marcos tells me that he has always lived on the edge of the river, and that he has been living in his house for 7 years. He supports his family by embarking on three to four-day fishing trips a week. About 8 months ago, people from Norte Energia, a notorious company around these parts, came to his house and delivered some devastating news: Marcos's riverside home would be flooded by the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

The Xingu River is facing perhaps the greatest man-made change that the area will ever see: the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam—Brazil's largest infrastructure project and the world's third-largest dam—is speedily being constructed on the "Big Bend" of the Xingu River. While its massive maximum output of 11,233 megawatts is poised to feed Brazil's new thirst for energy, local folks near the Big Bend say the dam will destroy their river, and along with it, their homes, livelihood, environment, and culture. But the hardest hit, I've found, are the fishermen of Altamira. Although it's a far cry from the ears they seek, I have come to the Amazon jungle, to the Big Bend of the Xingu, to listen to their story.

"Norte Energia is giving us a new house," Marcos says. "One of the engineers told me it would be 18 kilometers away from here."

Norte Energia, the mostly state-owned consortium responsible for building the dam, is providing new homes to people who will be displaced. But the thought seems to pain Marcos. He crosses his arms, furrows his brows, and tells me, "If we have to move, all the fishermen will need a place to store our motors and boats."

"How can we continue to support our families without a flowing river?"

I realize that what seems like a minor detail is in fact an issue on which these fishermen's lives hinge. In just two years, storage fees have become unreasonably steep because land speculation brought on by Belo Monte has tripled, sometimes quadrupled, the cost of rent and real estate. Marcos says the storage fees will take a chunk out of his dwindling income now that the dam has scared away fish populations.

"So what can you do?" I ask. "What alternatives are there?" The answer is dispiriting.

"I have no choice," Marcos says with a pained shrug. "My house will flood if I don't move."

The compensation package Norte Energia offers to displaced citizens is based on the value of one's home and land. Although the price schedule has yet to be published, many are skeptical that there will be proper compensation for the disruption of one's way of life. Fishermen like Marcos will be offered one of three packages: a new, company-built home on the edge of town, a credit value to spend on a new home, or a cash payout. But the compensation does not address the burning question that Pescadores continue to ask themselves: "How can we continue to support our families without a flowing river?" It seems that they have already given up asking Norte Energia.

The 8,000-plus Altamirans who live on the lowland shores in danger of being flooded are fishermen and people whose livelihood depends on the bounty of the river. In the Amazonian outpost town of Altamira, just 25 miles from the dam construction site, everyone has something to say about Belo Monte. I hear the words Belo Monte, or 'beautiful mountain,' hanging in the humid air when walking down the street, passing front-stoop gatherings in the late afternoon, and waiting with pedestrians to cross the street. Everybody has an opinion and a diagnosis for the future of Altamira and the Xingu Region.

The dam is the government's pet project, many Altamirans say. They speak of President Dilma Rousseff—who was fittingly the Minister of Energy during the last administration—as though she is personally vested in the construction of Belo Monte. "This is what Dilma wants," they say, along with, "Dilma won't listen to us."

Altamira was built on the grit of farmers, fishermen, and migrant workers

Priced at an estimated R$28.9 billion (US$14 billion), Belo Monte is Brazil's most expensive infrastructure project ever. Some say the dam will bring great opportunities for development in the Xingu Region, while others cry it down as a bad investment. Others say the dam is downright illegal.

There are currently over 50 lawsuits in all levels of court challenging the dam of environmental and human rights violations. Local indigenous groups claim they were never consulted before construction on the dam began. The municipality of Altamira complains loudly that Norte Energia has not fulfilled its legal requirements to prepare the region for the dam's negative impacts. But despite these concerns, dam construction forges ahead nearly 24 hours a day without any intervention from the federal government.

Altamira was built on the grit of farmers, fishermen, and migrant workers looking for work on the Trans-Amazonian highway when it attempted to bring development to the jungle in the 1970s and '80s. Historically, Altamirans are a hardscrabble set, and the fishermen claim a special place alongside the toughest.

However, since dam construction started, fishing is not what it used to be.

A cofferdam upstream from the main turbine site is choking off the flow of the river so the dam's main power station can be built on dry land. Roughly the same amount of earth as the Panama Canal will be removed for a 500-meter-wide dyke to divert the river to the main turbine. The Big Bend, once a fertile breeding ground for unique marine life, will be left dry once the water is diverted. Some believe this will cause the extinction of regional species.

"Acaris, an ornamental fish, can be very valuable, and we have a huge diversity of these fishes living in the Volta Grande (Big Bend)," says Rodolfo Salm, professor of ecology at the Federal University of the State of Para. "Nearly all of them will be destroyed by the dam, which is a pity because they are not just a beautiful species, but they are a natural resource. People pay a huge amount of money for them—they can cost R$500 ($250 USD)."

Sometimes, fishermen say, dynamite explosions at construction sites send powerful shockwaves through the water that either kill fish or send them scattering. Norte Energia has closed off parts of the river, where nobody but consortium employees are allowed, limiting the fishermen's mobility. The increasingly rapid flow of water at the cofferdam site has made the presence of fish unpredictable at best.

"Already, about 90% of the river is dammed, and there is now only a small space where the water is moving through," says Orlando de Oliveira Quiroz. He sits next to his wife, Adaides, in his living room near the river, the concrete walls painted a cheery blue. Orlando has the sinewy musculature and deep tan of a Xingu fisherman, and his bright blue eyes shine from his lined face. Orlando is 62 years old and has been fishing for 40 years. He tells us his father was a fisherman.

"I work about 4 kilometers downstream from the construction. I live and fish there through the week."

Orlando says living and working at his fishing camp can be lonely, but it is what he knows and does best. The income from his fish supports his family. "My wife helps me by making fishing nets—she lives here in Altamira with our grandchildren, and every weekend I come here to sell my fish and stay at this house to be with my family."

Fishing has always required hard work, but Orlando says the dam is making it nearly impossible for some of Altamira's pescadores to earn a reasonable living.
"The area to fish now is smaller and there are more fishermen trying to fish the same area. Before the dam, I could catch about 50 kilos of fish in five days. Now I work 10 days to get the same amount."

"Before the dam, I could catch about 50 kilos of fish in five days."

This has led to a drastic measure that fishermen discuss amongst themselves with disbelief: Altamira is now importing fish from surrounding river regions. This is what the proud fishing industry of the Big Bend has resorted to.

Sometimes in the evenings, after the midday heat dissipates into the falling darkness, I walk along the cais, or wharf, along the mighty Xingu River of Altamira. As I look at the stilt houses over the water, I become acutely aware that I am just one of many foreigners passing through this embattled outpost town. The story of the dam brought these foreigners here for various reasons, for research, etc., for an earnest attempt at advocacy, for the big scoop. But for the fishermen, these facts and figures are a daily reality; it is their inheritance from the dam.

When Belo Monte construction first began, fishermen took a stand with local indigenous tribes, staging numerous protests and occupations of the dam's construction sites. But to no avail—although these protests spurred several meetings with governmental bodies, the fishermen say no concrete concessions were made to meet their needs. Now, sadly, bitterness exists between the fishing community and the indigenous community. While indigenous groups are guaranteed constitutional rights to their lands and lifestyles, the fishermen feel their community has been largely ignored.

Maria Reis, a small but hardy fishmonger who, over 23 years of growing her fish business, has become a pillar of the riverside community, crumpled into tears as I spoke to her. Maria, like many of her colleagues and friends, is also facing flooding, displacement, and an uncertain future.

"I don't know how to do anything else," Maria says over her tears. "It was so hard to get here and I'm not young any more. I am too old to do everything over again."

Despite the difficulties the fishermen of Altamira face, one gets the feeling that if any community can weather through such a storm, it will be these resilient and hardworking people. I realized this was why I had traveled so far to toil in the middle of the jungle: it was the earnest message of a small community that inspired a reason to care, a desire to bear witness.

Perhaps, if we listen to their distress call and repeat it enough times, then one day President Rousseff herself will get their message. Perhaps, the Pescadores will know they have at least been given the dignity of having their voices heard. The simple act of listening can shape the future.

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