João and Raimunda: On the Injustices of Brazil’s Belo Monte Project
The following piece first appeared in Glossolalia: Women Writing Brazil, the second issue of PEN America’s translation journal. Glossolalia advocates for writers with limited access to the global reading community. By publishing works from lesser-translated languages, Glossolalia connects storytellers to audiences eager for a vivid, mind-expanding look at experiences unlike their own.
“João and Raimunda” by Eliane Brum was translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty from the original Portugese.
João asks Raimunda to die with him in sacrifice
The saga of João and Raimunda comes to a head against the backdrop of a massacre acknowledged neither by the Brazilian government nor by most Brazilians. As their two-act drama unfolds, it is in the forest that they search for a way out, swept along by the current of the Xingu, one of the Amazon’s most biodiversified rivers. And there they find their futures, like the river, dammed up. A man and a woman, just two among the thousands forced out by the construction of Belo Monte, announced as the world’s third-largest hydroelectric project. Today, it is as refugees from their own country that João and Raimunda wander a territory they no longer recognize and where they do not recognize themselves. Their bodies bear the imprint of a historic crossroads, of a country that has reached the present after belonging to the future for so very long, only to find itself mired in the past. Their story is the epilogue of a political party elected to power on the promise that it would deliver dignity to the poorest and most vulnerable, but which betrayed them, here in the region lying farthest from the center of Brazil’s political and economic power. Their story also reveals the anatomy of a distortion: that of living in a formal democracy while subject to powers above the law. When victims suffer violence that goes unacknowledged, it inflicts even greater pain on them, and they are violated all over again by a feeling of unreality. When their world convulsed, Raimunda and João chose different destinies.
Raimunda opted to live, even though she was shattered to pieces. João doesn’t know how to live. For him, meaning lies solely in sacrifice through death.
João and Raimunda have arrived at this impasse.
Act 3 is still an uncertainty.
ACT I: JOĀO LOSES HIS SPEECH AND LOCKS UP HIS LEGS TO KEEP FROM COMMITTING MURDER
On Monday, March 23, 2015, João Pereira da Silva stood before a representative of Norte Energia, the company that won the bid on Belo Monte Dam. He was hoping to receive a fair market value for his house and fields, which were located on the island from which the dam had expelled him. Instead, Norte Energia stipulated a price of $7,250, not enough to purchase a piece of property where João could once again earn a living by planting, fishing, and harvesting products from the forest. He realized he was condemned to poverty at the age of 63. The law didn’t hold in his case. From the age of eight, João had traversed different Brazils in search of a plot of land without an owner, wrenching his living from the strength of his arms. After a journey of wants, he thought he’d found a home and a life free from hunger on the island of Xingu. And now they had wrested him from there as well. He felt they were robbing him of his life and that he was neither young enough nor healthy enough to begin again. There was no final frontier for João, in a country nearly the size of a world. He no longer had legs to walk on. They had taken everything from him, even meaning itself. As far as he was concerned, the past-present-future had been reduced to a single tense, repeating itself over and over. And on every new morning, João found his legs bound to a frozen minute hand, tethered to a place that wasn’t.
João wanted to kill the man standing before him. Not out of revenge, he explains, but as a form of sacrifice.
“If I was to do damage to some big shot, some big shot inside there, maybe it’d make things better for others. I’d be sacrificing my own life, but other people’s lives would be better. If I could, I’d give it to the company’s biggest boss, I’d drive it through him a couple hundred times. And I’m not afraid of saying it: I’d be mighty pleased to do it, even if my life was to end right then and there.”
João was unable to commit the deed. His urge to kill didn’t turn into action. He discovered it was impossible for him to do it. His legs locked up and so did his speech. João stilled his whole self to keep from killing the man who embodied the project that had just killed him. He made a sacrifice of himself. He had to be carried out of the office by his wife, Raimunda, and one of their daughters.
“I lost . . . It got to the point where I lost my voice. I lost everything. I just sputtered. And my nerves locked everything all up. Locked up so tight I couldn’t walk. I can walk a bit now, but my legs ache, and they swell up. It’s not easy to get so angry that your body locks up.”
João has been traumatized ever since. Not the watered-down version of “traumatic,” something merely upsetting, but the sense of “trauma” as something that cannot be symbolized, of a wound that does not heal. Not knowing where to go, or even where he is, João manages to walk only a few steps and then needs to sit down on a stool. He gets lost when he goes out because he doesn’t recognize where he is. João has been exiled from everything, including himself. Several days ago, a friend called up Raimunda to say, “João’s sitting in the middle of nowhere, in the sun. He’s going to die out there.” Raimunda asked one of their daughters to rescue him.
And if João had been able to talk that day, what would he have said?
“I would’ve said a lot. The first thing is that there’s no justice in ‘the Brazilian country.’”
João pauses before explaining.
“You got to understand something. It wasn’t about talking but about doing. Those folks turn my stomach. God forgive me, but they do.”
Wordless and deedless, João is the victim of a catastrophe. He is a victim two times over, because his country doesn’t acknowledge the catastrophe. And so João also becomes country-less. He has the abysmal sensation that he is inside and outside at one and the same time, impacted by unwritten laws and ignored by the laws that should grant him his place in the realm of citizenship. When referring to Brazil, João most often uses the expression “the Brazilian country.” In this choice of words, Brazil is a body to which he does not belong. And so João is condemned like a pariah.
“I said it before and I’ll say it again. I’ll say it to [President] Dilma [Rousseff], I’ll say it to God, Satan, and any dog who comes round: in the Brazilian country, money is justice. If Jesus shows up here in this country, the big businessmen will hunt him down and buy him. And if he’s dumb about it, he’ll get sold. Understand?”
João repeats the one-word question “Understand?” over and over. After listening to him for a while, you realize it’s not a linguistic crutch, as one might imagine, but rather his certainty that he will not be understood.
ACT II: RAIMUNDA DISCOVERS HER HOME HAS TURNED TO ASHES
On Tuesday, September 1, 2015, Raimunda Gomes da Silva, 56, called an acquaintance, bought 10 liters of gasoline for their trip on the river, and fixed a “little lunch box with some fried food” to eat on the way to her island of Barriguda, in the area christened Furo do Pau Rolado. They left at five in the morning. Monday, the day before, the people from Norte Energia had phoned: “Mrs. Silva, when can we get your leftovers off the island?” Her “leftovers” were Raimunda’s kitchen things and fishing gear. They arranged for her to pick up her belongings early Tuesday. After two and a half hours on the river, Raimunda reached the island.
Built of resistant acapu lumber, her house was still burning.
“You know, my friend, to tell you the truth, I got out of the boat and didn’t feel the ground. I didn’t feel the earth under my feet because that just made my mind go blank. Right there at that moment, I don’t know what I felt. Because when I looked at it from far away, I didn’t think it . . . When we got there and I saw my home burned, I got out, went up the bank, sat down, and I went blank, erased, I don’t know. I don’t even know how to tell you what I know, what I felt, I don’t know, because I didn’t feel anything . . . I was numbed by what I saw. I mean, how could they call to tell me to get what was mine and then burn the whole house down the day before? I stood there frozen, just thinking about life, you know. What world is this we’re living in?”
The company in charge of building the hydroelectric dam didn’t consider Raimunda’s house a house. They told her it was a tapiri, a hut. Raimunda retorted, “In your language, sir, it might be all of that. But in mine, it’s my house. And I felt fine in it.” When she found her home in ashes, Raimunda sat down on the riverbank.
“I never thought they’d set fire to it. If I set fire to their office, I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. They set fire to my home and nothing happens. This is the prophecy of the end of the world that my father talked about, the big wheel passing through the smaller one.”
And she ends with these words:
“They’re certain they can do whatever they want and never be punished. Maybe I’m not certain what I say. But they know what they do.”
Raimunda looked for her Buddha belly plant, which stood in front of her house.
“This shrub was my primary friend. Because that’s what I believed. If I came out here early in the morning and its leaves were limp and droopy, on that day I wouldn’t go out on the river. Because it was telling me something, in its language. It was trying to protect me from something. But if it was all perky like, then I knew everything was fine with me.”
Raimunda looked for her “primary friend” but it was already a thing that wasn’t.
“Now I’ve got no one left to guide me.” So Raimunda sings beside the ashes.
“It’s really difficult to see what’s yours all burned up. The only way I can express myself is singing. So my plants will know that I never wanted for them to be burned. So they feel that I’m here. Since they don’t know how to talk, and I don’t know the language of the plants, I sing to them. I tell them the world doesn’t end here because my house is burned. The world is still standing. For as long as God gives me life, I’ll carry this with me: hope and faith. I tell them that one day justice will be real. Because right now, justice is an apparition, a myth. They say it exists, but poor folks never see it.”
The Before: Raimunda’s father teaches her to walk without making a sound
Raimunda parades down the hall in her rubber sandals. “Look, I can walk in any shoes without making a sound,” she says.
I make a joke that only a white woman who has read a lot of fairytales would make: “The walk of a princess, right, Raimunda?”
She fires back at me: “The walk of someone who spent her life working in other people’s homes.”
Raimunda’s father is her foundation. She repeats his lessons while she describes the disintegration of her world, as if the former could repair the gash in the latter. Natalino Gomes was the great-grandson of slaves, a man whose very voice exuded pain. He had a cinnamon-toned Indian grandmother who spiced his African blood.
“My great-grandfather passed the shackles down to my grandfather, who passed them down to my father, and so on. He never stopped being a slave, my father, because the only thing he knew was how to work for others. He didn’t know how to deal with this business of money or how to read. My father taught all his children not to make a sound when they walked. I was raised in the culture of ‘yes sir, no sir.’ But I never did get used to it.”
Perhaps Raimunda inherited her fire from her mother, Maria Francisca Gomes. She was a mãe de santo, a high priestess in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. Her mother defied her father’s Catholicism, the religion forced on blacks under slavery. Maria was happy. She was free, as Raimunda puts it. As free as poverty allows. Free to live other realities, beyond shackles. Her mother was also feisty. She wouldn’t let any man put a yoke on her. Not even her husband, much less her husband. She worked as a babassu coconut breaker, off to her labor every day, a gaggle of boys flocking around her. Raimunda has carried coconuts since she was five and split them open with a hatchet since she was seven. Her hands hold the scars of this trade that has mutilated so many children, slicing off fingers and futures. But this was before she ambled off in her velvet footsteps to work in other people’s homes at the age of 10. She taught herself to read, joining one letter to another to see what happened. She was a stranger to school.
Raimunda advises me:
“My mind’s my own, it’s what I speak.” And then she does.
“Slavery isn’t over, it’s just disguised. Slavery’s still here, down and dirty. It comes in a different model, but it’s here. Because that’s what being a slave is. Not having any rights. Did you see what happened to me and thousands of others because of this Belo Monte? And where’s justice? There it is, a heap of injustices in the face of justice. So, I’m a slave.”
Raimunda thinks she has left too much unsaid and decides to speak her whole mind:
“Blacks always come in the second part of history. Or maybe the third. Never the first.”
If shackles compressed the silent steps of Raimunda’s father Natalino, he still had his dreams. And it was because of these dreams, this flicker of hope coursing through the veins of Brazilians, that he moved his family from the dry hinterlands of Maranhão state to the Amazon of waters. Natalino was pursuing land for someone who had nothing at a time when Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship was marketing the forest as “a land without men for men without land,” given that Indians were not considered people. Natalino didn’t get his land, and this is why Raimunda says her father died a slave. In the Amazons of Pará, Raimunda continued to work as a nanny and maid in other people’s homes.
Raimunda’s father bequeathed her a series of sayings and some prophecies as well. Recalling one of these, she draws bridges between the slavery of the past and the slavery of the present, between banishment from one continent to another, and banishment within banishment.
“My father used to say that some day the world would be moved by paper. And here it is, money. Isn’t that what happened? Belo Monte came along giving orders, tearing things down, crushing them, and tossing out those scraps of paper, the money they hand out. They don’t see how they’ve wiped out the person inside when they take his house. Understand? They take everything the person has and toss him some bits of paper. Understand?”
Like her husband João, Raimunda completes her sentences with the word “understand.” But her “understand” has a different meaning. Raimunda believes she can still be understood, and she demands to be. Her interrogative is a knife at her listener’s throat.
She continues like a blade.
“Nobody lives off money. Go get lost in the forest with a bag full of money and see how much it’s worth: nothing! But spend some time lost in the forest without a bag full of money and you’ll manage to survive. You find a plant, you find some fruit, you drink some water. The forest offers you everything you need to stay alive until someone finds you. But with money, you’ll die with it on your back. It’s worthless.”
Raimunda clings to the ground of her father’s words. No one can tear her off this symbolic land. And since catastrophe had been predicted by her father, the one whose feet dragged shackles, the feeling that everything lies beyond any control is brutal but doesn’t paralyze her. “Paper has finished off the world, like my father said. He knew.” Her father also said, “Follow the trails.” Raimunda, as we will see later, always figures out a way to find a trail.
The Before: Abandoned by his father, João lives on the trecho and works as a dam builder
João was also born in Maranhão, but the state is not a land of belonging for him. João didn’t migrate like Raimunda. He became a migrator. His father caught a fever much worse than the ague of malaria, one that lasts much longer. And sometimes kills too. Gold fever.
The idea of striking it rich and finding so much gold that poverty becomes nothing but a dusty photograph from the past is what moves the hearts of thousands, perhaps millions, of men all over Brazil. Every time a new glittery vein is hit, they rush to the site by boat, by bus, crowded into the back of a pickup truck, on foot, with little more than the clothes on their backs and a fierce dream. This is their way of refusing to have but one lot in life—poverty—preferring to lead a life of adventure and consumption. A life, as one prospector put it, like a “character in a book.” When he made this remark, he forgot that he didn’t know how to read.
As usual in Brazil, a country where a person’s place in life is bound by the unfinished abolition of slavery, the poor are criminalized whenever they reject their fate and raise their heads to peer at the horizon. Prospectors are treated like criminals, while big mining companies and multinationals, the ones that raze vast stretches of the forest to amass profit, are purified by labels like “business,” “enterprise,” and “development.”
João’s father was one of those feverish men who abandoned his family, including his young son, to consume himself in his inner El Dorado. He had some land in the Northeast and even a few head of cattle but he wasn’t a man with roots. He ventured into the prospecting sites of Itaituba, in Pará, where the Brazilian government is now clearing the way for two other major hydroelectric dams in the Amazon forest: São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá. Like most prospectors, he found himself a new woman there, possibly several.
The prostitutes generally beat the prospectors to the sites, or at least arrive around the same time. They are known as “free women” and they work under assorted arrangements. In exchange for a predetermined amount of gold, set in grams, a woman might agree to belong to one man alone, living with him in the prospecting village, cooking, washing his clothes, and providing him with sex, as if she were his wife. Sometimes, she might become his wife. When João’s father returned for his son, thinking to take him back to the mining region, it was too late for a relationship that had never been. His father tried twice. One time he even showed up in a plane. João had no faith in his father’s wings and refused to follow him. He preferred to make himself into a man while still a boy.
When João was eight, a wisp of a lad, he worked in fields that belonged to some of his relatives. At 12 he broke loose, hazarding a life on the trecho, one of the most enigmatic words in the diverse languages of multiple Brazils, a word whose meaning changes with the region. The trecho is the world, the road, life in movement, an elsewhere pregnant with possibility. João lived on the trecho, working hard, lugging more rocks than he could, inventing muscles before he had any, because a poor, unlettered boy has to sustain his life by the might of his limbs. He’d been condemned by his father, who said: “A boy’s school is the handle of a hoe, or of a machete.”
João didn’t take up mining. That had been his father’s choice, but João didn’t think of himself as his father’s son anymore. He preferred to bind his own ties. Among the lots assigned to poor Brazilians, he chose the life of a barrageiro, a laborer who goes from dam to dam, following the trail of major government projects. When there’s no power plant to be built, barrageiros sign contracts to work outside the country for one of Brazil’s construction giants. “I worked for Mendes Júnior, for Queiroz Galvão, for Camargo Corrêa, for Odebrecht, for Andrade Gutierrez, for Constran, for Construpar.” João unfurls the names of big contractors whose government connections were as tight under the dictatorship as they are under democracy. “I worked for some other miserable little companies. I know I worked for about 12 construction firms.”
João was a pawn in a game of chess where the Amazon and Brazil were the board. In the 1950s, under the democratic government of Juscelino Kubitschek, contractors built Oscar Niemeyer’s and Lúcio Costa’s modernist new capital city, Brasília, and never again vacated the center of political power. They grew and multiplied their profits shortly thereafter with the big projects of the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985), particularly its megalomaniac works in the Amazon, like the Trans-Amazonian Highway, one of many endeavors that destroyed forests and lives. Following the money of Brazil’s big construction companies means negotiating at least 60 years of the country’s history, from the latter half of the 20th century to the first 15 years of the 21st.
In the early days of his life as a barrageiro, João was a simple laborer. Then he learned a trade as an operator of heavy machinery. His first large hydroelectric project was Itaipu, in Paraná, the Brazilian-Paraguay dam that drowned Seven Falls, one of the wonders of the world. But it was only at another dam, Tucuruí, that João came to understand the disposable role he played in a game ruled by kings, and later by a queen. At the moment he discovered this, João was beginning the definitive chapter of his life, alongside Raimunda.
Marriage: João and Raimunda meet at a dance party
Raimunda was 16 when she met João at a dance party. “It was a big bash,” she explains. “I looked at him, and he looked back at me.” And so it was, between the blue tint of João’s eyes and the black tint of Raimunda’s, that they wanted one another at first sight. Raimunda was quick to tell him: “I’m not from the tradition of folks that live together. If you want me, give me a ring and a last name, and we’ll make history.” They did. They made it official at a collective wedding ceremony some time later. Raimunda dressed up in lilac, according to her, a “woman’s color.” After that, they inaugurated a line of daughters, seven girls in all, every name beginning with the letter “L.” And just one son, baptized Leodeí, who died of meningitis when he was 17 months old.
“I worked at this lady’s home, and she had a son in the army. And he died in a town called Indonesia. I kept that name in my head, Indonesia . . . The mother’s dream was to visit the town because her son who died had stayed over there. Years later, they brought back his mortal remains, but it wasn’t her son anymore. I kept thinking to myself . . . Indonesia . . . If Indonesia is a town that war was waged on, a pointless war, and it’s at peace now, I want my daughter to have this name. So I named her Lindionésia. And then came Lindionisia, Livia, Liviane, Leidiane, Luciene, and Liliane.”
For Raimunda, Lindionésia is a synthesis and a desire. After traversing a life of war, João and Raimunda inscribed peace within the letters of their daughter’s name. Their saga, however, has not yet come to a close in the hard reality of their days. In João and Raimunda’s life, peace remains a word rather than the thing it represents.
There’s something else to the “L.”
“It’s for liberty. Liberty to express yourself, right? I wanted my daughters to be free, to have freedom of expression to study, play, be whatever they wanted to in life.”
Raimunda suspected peace might be closer the day João showed up and announced: “They’re hiring at Tucuruí.”
It was during this chapter that Raimunda discovered, as she puts it, that she had “sweet blood for dams.” João’s situation as a dam builder had forced him into a maze. If he had gone from dam to dam before, from project to project, now he had a family. João couldn’t live on the trecho anymore. He needed to put down roots. As one of the dictatorship’s most destructive dam projects came to life on the Tocantins River, through João’s hands again, the couple landed and made their home. In the end, they discovered what happens when waters are held back; the forest is flooded and a piece of the Amazon dies. Raimunda recounts the moment when the circle closed in on João and he had his insight.
“My João started working on Tucuruí in 1976. In 1983, he realized he was like a pigeon. Because a pigeon builds her nest and then the day she lays her egg, she starts dismantling it. The day she finishes taking the very last smidgen out of the nest, her offspring has up and gone. And that’s just what he was doing. Because he worked, and bought some land and a house with the money from the dam he was building. And that very dam flooded everything we had.”
The Tucuruí hydroelectric power complex was a project of the dictatorship. And there was no negotiating with the dictatorship.
“And we were, I’m not going to say stupid, but we were misinformed. What happened? The company said this: ‘I can’t deposit any money without the title on the property.’ We had the title. But we never saw it again. And we couldn’t prove anything, because it was their word against ours. So besides losing everything, we were made out to be liars before the justice that was there. That’s why justice revolts me, because of this. There was never anything we could do. We couldn’t afford a lawyer, we couldn’t afford anything. They gave us some other land, where nobody could stand the mosquitoes or bugs. The water rose because of the dam and rotted all the plant life. A sea of insects formed. There was no way to survive there. So what did we do? We took our young kids and went to Marabá, on the edge of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, at the very end of 1985. That didn’t work out. In 1988 we came to the city of Altamira.”
Along the Xingu River, João and Raimunda discovered there was a place where the poor could grow rich: the forest. But that was a bit later.
First, João endured two other trials. Not long after Tucuruí, he left for Iraq, hired by the Mendes Júnior Internacional construction company. Feeling like the victim of an undeclared war, João was deployed to the other side of the world to build “a roadway for war tanks.” He suffered for a year, far from his family. He wanted to come back halfway through, but he’d signed a contract. From over there he dictated a letter to Raimunda through his friend Francenildo, who knew how to write. He closed with these words: “Only love builds.” The letter has been laminated, as proof that their love builds bridges between banishments.
When he returned from the Middle East, João migrated around “the Brazilian country” in search of work. He tells the following story to explain why he isn’t able to beg, even though he hasn’t had any way to earn his daily bread since he was kicked off the island:
“I’ve never asked for anything. I’d be ashamed to. I don’t have it in me. I have it in me to starve to death, but I’m not brave enough to beg. Understand? Once I went to a company in Imperatriz, in Maranhão. I had 20 bucks. I hadn’t eaten in three days. I wasn’t eating because the money was for transportation. One night I’m on a bench in the bus station there, and one fellow says to the other, ‘Buddy, over there in the town of Balsas they’re hiring three and four at a time.’ I got up and bought a ticket with my 20 bucks. I had two left. I got there, it was 5:00a.m. I went over to the office and there was this sign out front: ‘I’m not hiring anyone. Don’t insist.’ But just to be sure, I had a little breakfast back at the bus station, that left a buck and a half, and I went to chase down some work. When I’d stop by a restaurant, where folks were eating, I’d ask for a glass of water and drink it. When it got to be noon, I went back and said to the guy, ‘Buddy, there’s no work and I don’t have any money at all. I’m done for.’ He said, ‘Look, leave your bag here. Can you do stevedore work?’ I said, ‘I can do any kind of work.’ He had a pile with 800 bags of fertilizer to unload at a nearby ranch. So then what happens? Before I’m halfway through the load, I couldn’t take it anymore. There was this bottle of water there, and I drank the water and I started fading, fading away, until I just collapsed. I told them it had been four days since I’d eaten. When they finished putting the fertilizer away, the table was set, ready for folks to have dinner. I wish you could’ve seen it, just about everything! I put a couple spoons of rice, a little piece of meat on my plate. Mixed it up, ate half. Then I went off to drink a glass of water. And I threw it all back up. I got a shot at the drugstore. Those shots that fortify you. But I didn’t beg. Because I don’t know how.”
After João had traversed first the world and then hunger, he rediscovered the river. Not to interrupt it this time, like before, but to be carried off by it. When he became a fisherman, João felt like something had come to a close. Now he navigated.
The Turning Point: João and Raimunda find themselves rich
The turn of the millennium marked João and Raimunda’s discovery of the forest, not as against or outside them but as part of them. After journeying through what was called progress and encountering nothing but trials, João and Raimunda were welcomed by one of the hundreds of islands in the Xingu. They learned how to harvest food from the forest, plant without harming the land, fish, and navigate. They took up the life of denizens of the river, who have dual homes: one “outside” and one on the island or along the river.
“Outside” is how the people who live in the forest refer to the city, which in itself says much about their worldview. Their home “outside” is where they sell their goods at market, where they grapple with endless bureaucratic red tape, where they seek treatment for more complicated illnesses, and where their children study. Their home on the island or along the riverside is where they earn their living and live free. For the first time ever, João and Raimunda felt they had arrived. They had a place and not a single need. Hunger was a past tense.
They set their stakes deep. This was their life:
“We had our house on the island, where we got fish, beans, corn, pineapple, banana, golden spoon, green onions, parsley, chicory. All those were sources of income. I made money off all of them. I got the better part of it from the river. I’d come into the city with the things I’d planted, and my fish, and I made a lot of money in one week, cash in hand. I spent more time ‘outside,’ because I started getting involved in social movements. My husband lived there on the island. When he brought the fish in on Saturday, I’d sell it at market and go back with him. And I’d come back from there on Wednesday, on the water bus. I’d stay here waiting for him to bring fish again. That was our routine. During the holidays, at the end of the year, I’d stay there with him. Our life was back and forth. When you live on the river, you understand the river just like it understands you. You respect its limits and then it respects yours. It’s a partnership between you and the waters. It’s like this: The oar is my pen and the river, my slate.”
João and Raimunda began by buying a stilt house in the lowlands of Altamira. Later, they built a brick home.
“It was a longtime dream to have a house on solid ground, on the land. The river gave us one. I was able to buy my refrigerator, my television, my gas stove, my gas tank. I was able to buy my bed, my mattress just like I wanted it. I went to the store and bought things, because I knew the river would pay me back. I’d be able to keep up the payments. The river was my bank, my credit card, my supermarket, my pharmacy, my store. I got everything from the river. Everything I have today came from within the Xingu. What the river didn’t give us, the land did.”
Raimunda immersed herself in the struggles of the Amazon. The women’s struggle, the struggle for land, the struggle to save the environment. She joined the Workers’ Party (PT) and became a human rights activist. Now she belonged. Her verb was no longer one of movement but of permanence. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office the first time, in 2003, the people in the social movements from Altamira and the region believed the Belo Monte Dam complex would be buried once and for all.
Ever since the 1970s, under the civil-military dictatorship, the Xingu power plant had been a threat that resurfaced with each new administration, even after Brazil had returned to democracy. In the past, the state-owned power utility Eletronorte called it “Kararaô,” a war cry in the language of the Kayapo. A historic scene was played out in 1989: An indigenous woman named Tuíra held a machete to the cheek of José Antônio Muniz Lopes, a director at Eletronorte. Tuíra’s gesture expressed resistance to the damming of a river considered mythic by indigenous peoples. The photograph traveled the world. The power utility backtracked and changed the name of the plant to Belo Monte, “beautiful mountain.”
No government had managed to get Belo Monte off the drawing board. Then Lula took office, with the electoral backing of the majority of the leaders and activists from social movements in the Amazon. He was a worker, “a sufferer, a man of the people who knew people’s pain.” Raimunda woke up feeling different. Her father had always been cautious about peace. He used to say it was a maybe. With Lula in power, Raimunda believed peace had acquired the consistency of a certainty.
It was at this point, and not at just any point, that Sofia entered Raimunda’s story and became her closest companion. “She’s black, with natty, kinky hair,” as Raimunda describes her. Sofia is a doll, the first doll in her life. Raimunda was at a women’s meeting in Belém, the capital of Pará, when she spotted a man selling dolls on the street for two dollars a piece. Raimunda thought the price was high but she’d already fallen in love with one of the dolls. She took its name from a story that a nun had told her about a German woman named Sofia. The woman had been poor as a child, and when she grew up, she founded an institution to care for poor children. Now Sofia cares for Raimunda. She was with her at one of the Marches of Daisies by women rural workers and at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. All over the place. Hidden, because João guarantees “they’ll poke fun at” Raimunda if they find out she carries a doll around in her purse. Her, a grandmother of 15. “What Sofia means to me is a deep peace that has no answer,” Raimunda lyricizes.
It is when she finds herself a place that Raimunda can have a doll.
“I wasn’t ever a kid, because I had to work very hard. I wasn’t ever a teenager either. That’s why I won’t give up my old age. I won’t budge for anyone. My daughters say I’m losing my mind. No way. What I’m doing is living.”
It would be years before Raimunda and so many other Amazon activists understood that they were facing yet another clash between different Brazils. Lula was a union leader from the ABC manufacturing region of São Paulo and his worldview was one of industry, concrete, the big city. For a manual laborer, progress was owning a car and flat-screen TV and enjoying barbecue and beer on the weekends. For a country, progress was transforming the Amazon into soybean fields and pastureland for cattle, while big mining companies shipped ore off for export. Lula wasn’t familiar with this other type of living, the life of the forest. Nor did he think he had to be. Climate change was no big threat in his universe. His project for the Amazon has always resembled the dictatorship’s, deeming the region a matter of national security, an unpeopled desert and a place ripe for exploitation. In the first decade of this century, commodity exports, especially to a booming China, were vital to funding anti-poverty programs, boosting the real value of the minimum wage, and ensuring that some 40 million Brazilians climbed the socioeconomic ladder, all without touching the privileges of the wealthiest. The agribusiness and mining sectors put increased pressure on the forest and indigenous lands while energy-intensive industries demanded more electric power. Chief among the major hydroelectric dams planned for the Amazon, Belo Monte became one of the biggest projects in Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program. On the PT’s development agenda, nature paid the price. And it was steep.
The only voice in the federal government or the PT that had some strength to oppose the view that the Amazon was bogged down in the 20th century was Marina Silva’s. An environmental activist of international renown, she was raised in the rubber groves of Acre and was the mentee of leader Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988 for his role in the fight to save the Amazon forest. Marina could only stand the pressure until 2008, when she left the Ministry of the Environment and, shortly thereafter, the PT. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor, never disguised her admiration for big Amazon projects or her unwillingness to listen to the peoples of the forest. Belo Monte started to materialize when she was Lula’s minister of Mines and Energy.
Raimunda and the leading Xingu activists realized too late that only Lula could get Belo Monte off the drawing board. Precisely because he was Lula. On the one hand, the PT in power disarmed Brazil’s social movements; on the other, it co-opted them. Regional parliamentarians who had previously proclaimed speech after speech against the power plant switched to defending “development.” Resistance to Belo Monte had been unified for decades but now it split. The electric power industry had sailed through various administrations as a fiefdom of José Sarney, oligarch from Maranhão and former president. One example is José Antônio Muniz Lopes, the man who felt the Indian woman Tuíra’s machete against his cheek in 1989. He spent the entire string of administrations under Brazil’s democratic rule holding posts in various state-owned power utilities. And he still does. “Only the collar changed, the dog’s the same,” says Raimunda, thus explaining that the reins of the country’s profitable power industry do not change hands. But only the PT and Lula had enough political might to undermine the resistance and make Belo Monte a firm reality in the middle of the Xingu.
The endeavor to erect an engineering project expected to cost over $14 billion is underpinned by an alliance not only of groups that have been on the scene for a long while, like the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), but also of some newer arrivals, like the PT. Construction companies form the third element—or the first, depending on the observer’s vantage point. These interests, woven through decades of administrations, also explain why Belo Monte is becoming a fait accompli, despite the facts that the Federal Prosecutor Office has filed 23 lawsuits alleging that the project violates the constitution, President Dilma Rousseff’s administration is in tatters, and a number of top construction firm owners are serving time for corruption. Belo Monte may be the knot that, when disentangled, reveals Brazil.
As far as Raimunda was concerned, there was just one conclusion to be reached. For her, as for so many others, the PT was never meant to be just another party in power but rather a political project entwined with her search for a place in Brazil and with the belief that this place exists. She took this symbolism literally. And when she felt she’d been betrayed, she lost faith in democracy.
“If Lula would look at the people who elected him, he’d never build Belo Monte. It’s hard for me to say this, but I voted for Lula and I voted for Dilma. And they betrayed us. Because Lula plainly said Belo Monte wasn’t going to happen. And then Dilma said Belo Monte was necessary, there was no turning back. They’re traitors of humanity. Oh, good Lord! If I saw them, I wouldn’t say a thing. I’d go straight for their throats, so they’d learn to have shame. What kind of president lies to a nation? I’m not ever going to vote again. If I didn’t need my voter ID, I’d rip it up. What I plan to do is not put my ballot in the box anymore. I’ll go and justify my abstention.* I don’t know if it’s right, but that’s my plan.”
As Raimunda sees it, Belo Monte is the “monster” that reveals the contradictions of the party she once believed to be hers. Not the party seen as having betrayed the middle class when it displayed the stain of corruption, but the party that Raimunda feels has reneged on its very reason for being: to defend the weak and the unprotected—those who have historically been torn off their land, including the Indians—and those who have historically been exiled within their own country, such as Raimunda herself. It is here at this place on the map, at the final frontier for someone who has roamed Brazil in search of peace, that the PT’s party line about defending the poor appears to have rung false for a long time. But since the Amazon is a far-flung elsewhere for Brazil’s economic and political center, these voices have been ignored.
Raimunda wants the floor.
“I’ll say something else: The river is sick and the fish are all doped up, woozy from the lack of oxygen. Nobody has any idea how big this monster on the Xingu is. Nobody knows what’s going to happen when it starts up. Nobody.”
The only thing missing for Belo Monte to come onstream is its Operating License. Raimunda and all those who belong to the river fear this like someone who expects to hear the world will end before Christmas.
The Interruption: “Belo Monster” blocks Raimunda and João’s life
After João’s legs and voice locked up at the Norte Energia office, he has never again been the same man who made his way through diverse Brazils and diverse hungers. In May 2015, Raimunda took him to Belém to look for treatment. They were to return only three months later. Meanwhile, their daughters saw to moving out of the house in Altamira. They knew their mother wouldn’t have stood for it had she been in town, ready instead to hold out for a fair value. When Raimunda and João got back, they didn’t have a home “outside” anymore. In exchange, they were paid $24,000, not enough to buy a house of similar size, quality, and location.
Raimunda recycled 3,500 bricks from her neighbors’ demolished homes to start building hers in a housing project outside the city. The couple’s canoe became a displaced object, resting on dry land miles from the river. Raimunda plans to use it to make a bench for visitors when their house is ready.
Two of the three dogs that lived with João and Raimunda on the island couldn’t bear life on a leash in the city and passed away. The first to die was Barão do Triunfo, Baron of Victory, a large Brazilian mastiff mixed-breed who kept watch over their house from the bow of the canoe. “I gave him that name because he was a lord,” Raimunda explains. Xena, a pit bull so christened because she was “as authoritarian as the princess” of film and cartoon fame, was the second to be found dead. “I couldn’t let them run loose outdoors because they get violent in the city. But I didn’t know they’d die. If I’d known, I would’ve let them die loose, so they’d die free. They died on the leash,” a guilt-ridden Raimunda laments. “Myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of this leash that Norte Energia put on me. I keep rambling around, getting lost, going to a home that isn’t there anymore.” The only dog left is the mongrel Negão, Big Blackie, “a dog that doesn’t get excited so easy.” Named neither after a princess nor after a baron, Negão endures. Like his black owner, Raimunda.
In order to have “proof” of her forced exodus, Raimunda documented it in photographs and on video. She divides it into before, during, and after Belo Monte. In the “during” phase, two of her daughters went to work on the hydroelectric project, one in the kitchen, the other at the mechanics shop. Raimunda fought with them. “This is just like gambling winnings. You can’t do this to me,” she raged. “It took a while, but I freed my daughters.” Pink camera in hand, she even captured the National Public Security Force protecting Belo Monte from the people. “Just look, they think I’m the threat.”
Raimunda recounts her journey as she flips through the images on an out-of-date cell phone.
Life before Belo Monte:
“I documented my whole history waiting for the future, and the future’s here. Before Belo Monte, this was my story. Look, my house. My garden, my little orchard, all neat and tidy. All swept clean, just right. Here’s my old man with his fields, clearing the land. This here’s lemon grass for medicine, for diarrhea, things like that. Here’s golden spoon, hanging heavy, in a later stage. Look at this golden spoon! They burned it. Everything’s been burned. Here, some friends visiting me. Manioc, looking nice and pretty. Look here, my dog Negão. For them, this wasn’t anything. For me it was everything. This here’s the friend I was talking about, this one, my Buddha belly plant. I’d get home and that was the first I saw. My Buddha belly. Look at the riverbank. Look here. My other dog, who died of sorrow because he wasn’t used to a leash, and I tied him up. We’ll stop here.”
Life during Belo Monte:
“Now I’m going to show you during Belo Monte. During the process of back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Here’s my boat. Right here. This here’s my gas stove, my wood stove . . . Living off the river is so enjoyable. If you know what it’s all about. If you don’t know, you don’t appreciate it. My husband planting . . . Look here. Planting manioc, because the rains were coming, so he was getting ready. My dog, that I don’t have anymore . . . The other dog, he died too.
My old man. We’ve shared our lives for 38 years, always together. I cut, he plants. Today he’s sitting in a chair, waiting for our house to get done. Here’s the weekend I fenced it in, because of the chickens, so I could plant some green onions. But it didn’t work because the chickens were faster than me. This here’s my old blue-eyed white man, a hunk. Today he’s . . . I tell him he’s not worthless because I can still see him in front of me. So he’s still my hunk. And there’s another angle of the island, here, where it’s productive. Let me show you here . . . The plants that were burned. The ones that were closer to the house, they burned those, wiped them all out. This is in the winter. See, we plant and harvest during the high waters, because they come but always on a certain date. Look at my vegetable garden here: green onions, parsley . . . Me picking tomatoes, ginger. That’s for headaches, diarrhea, bloating. Home remedies. And here’s me, in the water, I love the water. Here’s me afraid of a snake. It got ahead of me and I went after it. But it was faster than me, it got away. We sleep in the hammock in the winter. My grandson, who came to spend some vacation with me. My lemongrass plant. It doesn’t die in the water either, see, it stays under water a bit. It only dies if these leaves get covered up. But if it can breathe, it doesn’t die. My house, the one Norte Energia didn’t think was a house. A banana tree . . . just look, loaded with bunches of bananas. Manioc nice and tall. Look at the corn here. Loaded with corn. Here’s me afraid of the snake again. It’s afraid of me, I’m afraid of it. So, this here . . . it’s the end of the story of the life of an island, which is very important to me. Because I didn’t live on the island. I lived from it, and it lived from me. Because we were like friends. Pineapple. More corn. Look at the corn back there. Look at the size of this bunch of bananas. Let me show you here. This here, look, it’s not just fruit to eat, it’s an insect antidote. There’s fishermen who live on the island, and I lived from the island. I nurtured it, and it nurtured me. We were friends. Understand? Let me show you a picture here where the river goes away, says goodbye.”
Life after Belo Monte:
“Here I was, wondering: When will this day come? When I don’t want to leave. My son-in-law saying too late, nothing more to be done about it, that’s that. And me telling him I still had hope. Here’s me telling my plants I was going but I’d be back. But it was a lie, I didn’t come back. My old man wondering if he’d be back some day or not: ‘Do you suppose I’ll ever come back here?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know. God does.’ Look at me here staring at the horizon, asking God to let us stay on the island. My husband crying. This here’s all burned. Norte Energia burned it. Look at this. All that beauty I showed you, that golden spoon, such a beautiful thing. Here it is, scorched. I went there, recorded it again. I recorded the before, the during, and the after of Belo Monte. Look at here. Nothing’s left. They say there’s always evidence of a crime left behind. They left it. Look here. Impunity only exists because justice doesn’t speak up. As long as justice has that blindfold on—that statue they made there in Brasília, she looks like this. Justice only sees who she wants to. When she doesn’t want to see someone, she doesn’t.”
Raimunda wants to write a book. She already has the title: A Fisherman’s Story: Before, During, and After Belo Monte. She’s beginning to think her only place will be her grave. She’s already ordered her shroud, “out of satin, white for peace.”
ACT III: THE IMPASSE
In drawing the layout for her new house, Raimunda made sure it wasn’t at all like the one that was destroyed. “I don’t want a door you go in through the front anymore, I want a door you go in through the side, because I want my future to be different. So I started with my home’s infrastructure,” she explains. “When I go into this house now, I don’t want to be thinking I’m in the other one.” Raimunda has traced out her path through the new house, still under construction. The walls are green “because that’s hope in the future,” the baseboards are brown to show “the barrier of the dam,” the window gratings are black “as a sign of mourning.”
“There’s a story to everything in my life,” she emphasizes. And there is.
Raimunda is a maker of meanings and she goes through life stitching them one to the other. Not João. The day he became paralyzed, he lost his ability to find meaning. Inside himself, he stays locked up. He’s like a man who looked at the sun. The brilliance blinded him. He doesn’t know how to get back, or what his destination is, since there is nowhere there. “I lost the end of the thread. I’m inside this house today, but truth is, all the time, I don’t have a house. I don’t have a house. Understand? I’m outside. I get lost. I don’t know where I am. I’ve lost my way from everything,” he fumes, his eyes like a river but one in an Amazon storm. “I’m worse than Dilma, because she lost the country’s way, but I lost my way home.”
That’s the impasse between João and Raimunda today. Raimunda says:
“I’m a pindoba palm, a plant everyone in Maranhão goes after. The more Belo Monte rips bark off me, the more I revive. I was burned up inside, like my island, but I revive. The pindoba is like that, nobody can kill it off with fire or by yanking it up. It comes back. Like me. I come from people who have suffered lots by nature, suffering is part of our history. I’m not going to die just because I took a beating. No way. I’m descended from slaves and from an indigenous ethnic group that’s almost extinct. I come from folks who suffered way back. I’m a pindoba and I want to live.”
João replies, and it’s as if the two of them are engaged in a poetic dialogue: “But I’m not like that. When I lost the island, I lost my life. I lost my way. It stopped there, understand? From here on in, I only see darkness in my sight. I don’t see a clear world anymore. I see nothing but darkness. I stay here staring at the world, looking for myself. Who can answer this search for me? Nobody. The hole in my life, the hole in my life…”
The impasse came to a head on September 4, 2015. On that date, João “went crazy” at home. Raimunda tells what happened:
“João called the family to go out to the burned island. To serve as martyr. He wants to kill himself there, in protest. I said I wasn’t going and wouldn’t let him either. If he kills himself out there on the island, I warned him that I’ll leave him there to be eaten by the vultures. That’s why I took his canoe away. He can get anywhere on the river, rowing or swimming. But he gets lost outside.”
João closes his brutal poem:
“I want the world to know that Belo Monte killed me.”
*T.N.: Voting is compulsory in Brazil.
Eliane Brum is a Brazilian journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. She has written five books of nonfiction and a novel, translated into English as One Two. Uma história Severina (Severina’s Story), Brum’s first documentary film, won 17 prizes. She has been awarded more than 40 national and international journalism prizes. Brum reports on issues related to the Amazon forest and underprivileged communities in São Paulo, and writes columns for El País and The Guardian.
Diane Grosklaus Whitty has translated prose and poetry by Adriana Lisboa, Marina Colasanti, and Mário Quintana. She also translates screenplays and subtitles, including those for Eduardo Coutinho’s award-winning documentary, Scavengers. Acadmeic translations include Laura de Mello e Souza’s The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross and Regina Horta Duarte’s Activist Biology.