Xingu Tribes and the Belo Monte Dam

The Xingu River has its source in the tropical savanna of central Mato Grosso, Brazil, at which point it flows northward connecting with the Amazon River. The complex ecosystem of the Xingu River helps sustain the world’s largest rainforest and for centuries diverse cultures have been attracted to this rich environment. The original natives of Brazil consider the Xingu-Tapajos watershed, where the Culuene and five other southern rivers join to form the Xingu, to be the place of the world’s creation. Over the past decade this region has become contested land that various Xingu tribes have struggled to protect. The construction of the Belo Monte Dam  threatens to dramatically alter the flow of the Xingu, and would have various negative implications for the indigenous people whose livelihood depends on the preservation of this sacred river. The Xingu region is occupied by fifteen different tribes that speak eight distinct languages (Smith, 2008). Yet, despite speaking these various languages the tribes still share distinct similarities in their traditions and beliefs; which in turn shape their common interest in defending this sacred land from exploitation.

To all of the Xingu natives the river signifies the “house of God”, as they use the waters to perform symbolic rituals. For the indigenous people, the exchanging of water between tribes represents a communal relationship and the interconnectedness of the earth, water, and mankind. Therefore, social unity is embodied by the waters of the Xingu River system (Berger, 2012). Additionally, it is noted that the rivers serve as the natives primary source of transportation. Illustrated by Zé Carlos Arara, a leader of the Arara people who explains that “for us the river means many things. For everything we do, we depend on the river. For us to go out, to take our parents around, to get medical attention, we need the river for all these things” (Amazon Watch). The river clearly plays an integral part in the lives of all natives, which helps explain why this body of water is considered sacred and given such reverence.

When beginning to analyze the Xingu natives relation to the plant world we similarly find qualities they consider inherently sacred to the forests of the Xingu River Basin. Seen from an ontological perspective, a sacred place holds “its own inherent, chthonic power and numinosity” (Lane, 57). The Xingu tribes, in addition to many other tribes throughout the Amazon Rainforest, believe different plant species to be manifestations of divine beings. A powerful medicinal tea called Ayahuasca, a Quechua Indian word meaning ‘Vine of the Soul’, is created through the use of two native Amazonian plants. These plants are then carefully  combined within a ceremonial context.

This sacred gift from the forest provides anyone with the opportunity to engage in a profound process of spiritual awakening and development. Jeremy Narby comments on this remarkable creation in his book, The Cosmic Serpent,

“Here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the effect. It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they knew these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from [the] plants”.

This idea that their knowledge is derived from the plants themselves is a clear indication of the sacred communion they have with their surrounding environment. Further, it signifies just how destructive any attempt to modify this landscape could be on this co-dependent relationship.

The Xingu River is home to over 25,000 indigenous people who have attained some form  of recognition under the Brazilian constitution. However, the Xingu tribes, similar to various Native American communities, struggle to protect their sacred lands in hope of carrying out their site-specific religious beliefs and practices. With Brazil’s recently adopted 2011-2020 energy-expansion plan now governing the political and economic motives it’s evident that the constitutional protections acquired by the indigenous people have been largely overlooked (Berger, 2012). This is most apparent in the way the senate abruptly approved the Belo Monte dam, thereby returning to the development of the largest infrastructure project created by the military dictatorship in the Amazon. The approval of the dam’s construction did not include prior consultation of the Xingu Indians as required by the Brazilian constitution.

The Brazilian government has continued to push forward what would be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project on this sacred Xingu River. The potential consequences of the Belo Monte Dam are severe. The flow of the Xingu River would be altered in a way that will devastate an extensive area of the Brazilian rainforest. Additionally, this mega-dam is projected to displace over 20,000 people, disrupting an intricate symbiotic relationship that has been in place for centuries (Hurwitz, 2011). The Belo Monte dam follows similar projects with correspondingly negative implications for indigenous communities in Brazil. Environmentalists and natives alike are claiming that the Brazilian government is underestimating the social and environmental costs of the project, while solely focusing on how it will boost the local economy, provide new jobs, and supply sustainable energy to over 23 million homes.

Environmentalists point to the fact that the greater Xingu River has been further degraded in response to the increasing demand for corn and soy products. The region is experiencing rapid deforestation in order to supply commercial timber and create more farm acreage. In the absence of governmental enforcement laws the tribes have demanded accountability on the part of local governance for its failure to stop the logging, and in some cases have resorted to violent confrontations with the logging companies. In recent years, the Xingu tribes have united to form several associations to protect their common interests. What has been noted is that these associations must undertake a delicate balancing act in which they attempt to work with the Brazilian government and the external policy world, “while reconciling their methods with the traditional leadership system within each village” (Corbin, 2010). While environmental groups might show a similar incentive to preserve the precious ecosystem services provided by the region, it is clear that the indigenous people feel an inherent responsibility to protect this land, a sentiment that would be hard for an outsider to grasp.

(Watch this inspiration clip to better understand the injustices taking place, and just how many individuals are currently being affected).

The Declaration of the Xingu Alliance against the Belo Monte Dam is a powerful expression of the natives collective standpoint and demonstrates their willingness to protect the Xingu River at all costs.

“With only our dignity and our rights, and strengthened by our alliance, we here declare that we have formalized a pact to fight against Belo Monte. We have signed a pact that will keep us together until this project is wiped from the map and the history of the Xingu, a river to whom we have a debt of honor, of life, and if the survival of the Xingu requires it, of bloodshed” (Hurwitz, 2011).

In opposition, the Brazilian government has made binding commitments pushing forward the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. This highly contested issue has gained international attention, which in some cases, has helped shed light on the demands of indigenous people for suspension of the dam’s construction license. This conflict between the natives, who consider the land sacred and vital to their traditions, and the government, which views the land as essential to their energy expansion agenda, is a symbolic battle that can be seen to represent the struggles of all indigenous people worldwide. With the Belo Monte dam set to be completed in 2015, indigenous groups and their international allies vow to continue to fight against the construction of the dam (Fearnside, 2012). Many communities continue to wait for recognition of their land rights, including the people of the Xingu River. Inevitably, it seems that until natives’ rights are recognized, at which point they are able control governmental use of their lands, this violence will continue, as these opposing ideologies clash.

Zoe Kian Santos


 Work Cited

Berger, Stacy. “Belo Monte Dam: Not Just a Threat to the Environment.” Belo Monte Dam: Not Just a Threat to the Environment. 2012. n. page. Print.

Fearnside, Phillip. “Belo Monte Dam: A Spearhead for Brazil’s Dam-Building Attack on the Amazon?” Monga Bay, March 23, 2012. Accessed June 19, 2012.


Hurwitz, Zachary. “Tribes Occupy the Belo Monte Dam Work Site.” (2011): n. page. Print.

Lane, Blenden. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.” Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space. (2001): n. page. Print.

Smith, Margaret. “The Indians of the Xingu: Cultural Homogenization in the Amazon Rainforest.” Indians of the Xingu: Cultural Homogenization in the Amazon Rainforest. (2012): n. page. Print


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