A Knife in the Water

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Tuira Kayapó, Altamira Gathering, 1989

Paulo Jares

Yesterday´s announcement that José Antônio Muniz Lopes will be the new president of Brazil´s state electric holding company Eletrobrás has caused tremors in the villages of indigenous people living along the rivers of Amazonia. Muniz, despite his long experience as an engineer for Brazilian state electric companies, is best known as having received a close shave by the Kayapó woman warrior, Tuíra, at the 1989 Altamira gathering protesting dams on the Xingu.

The legendary scene filmed by international television crews shows Tuíra, her body naked from the waste up and decorated in black genipapo warpaint, running the blade of her machete three times over Muniz´cheeks. One published version has her telling him in Kayapó, "You are a liar – We do not need electricity. Electricity is not going to give us our food. We need our rivers to flow freely: our future depends on it. We need our jungles for hunting and gathering. We do not need your dam."

Muniz appears to be scared stiff by Tuíra´s action. When asked later how he felt at the time, he said "he felt sorry" for Tuíra – definitely not the way it looked on film.Tuíra´s "curse" took effect nearly immediately, as the World Bank cancelled a $500 million loan to Brazil´s power sector and plans for damming the Xingu were shelved for a decade.

Now, the Brazilian government has taken its machetes out of their sheaths. First, President Lula appointed Edison Lobão, a senator from Maranhão state, as the new Mines and Energy Minister. Lobão was reportedly the personal indication of Senator and ex-president José Sarney, closely linked with the dam building and aluminum industry in the Amazon. When asked whether his lack of experience in energy matters could prove a handicap at a time when Brazil may be facing energy shortages, Lobão said he would begin reading about the subject.

Muniz is also regarded as Sarney´s "godson", and his nomination completes the government´s handing over of the electric sector to the PMDB political party, a crucial and often petulent partner in Lula´s ruling coalition. Muniz´predecessor, Silas Rondeau, also a Sarney choice, resigned after a lobbyist was filmed carrying a brown paper bag supposedly stuffed of cash to his personal office at the ministry.

At the time of the Altamira gathering, Muniz was an engineer in the Amazon eletric company, Eletronorte, and worked his way up to the company´s presidency. Critics of his appointment have pointed to his role as a consultant to companies interested in building dams in the Amazon, including the "big three" engineering giants – Camargo Correa, Odebrecht, and Andrade Gutierrez.

Muniz has always been an unabashed defender of dams in the Amazon, including Balbina, one of the world´s worst ecological disasters. His top priority will be the 11,182 MW Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu. As a smokescreen, Eletrobrás recently issued a revised hydroelectric survey of the Xingu, saying they will build Belo Monte as a stand-alone dam, which will not require upstream dams to regulate the flow of the river during low-water periods. After all, they say, the upstream dams would impact indigenous reserves, thus making them inviable. They forget to mention that several other dams given maximum priority by the electric sector, including Marabá and Serra Quebrada dams on the Tocantins River, would also flood Indian lands.

The Brazilian government is pulling out all the stops – the Environmental Impact Assessment for Belo Monte is expected to be completed by July, and plans are to offer the dam project to private investors next year. There is even a "Sustainable Belo Monte" program that will undoubtedly channel money to local governments and some serviceable NGOs in an attempt to paint what would be the world´s third largest dam, as being without serious social and environmental impacts.

Raoni and Lula

José Cruz/ABr

The Kayapó have made their position clear – Raoni, one of their most powerful chiefs, told Lula several months ago that his people will not permit construction of dams on the Xingu. Another large meeting of social movements, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples is being planned for Altamira in May. Muniz Lopes will be invited, and don´t be surprised if there is a reunion between the Eletrobrás president and a now-graying Kayapó woman. We´ll be sure to have our cameras rolling.