Life as an Amazon Activist: a Profile of Juma Xipaya

by Peter Speetjens / Mongabay

Juma Xipaya. Photo by Tinko Czetwertynski.

  • Socio-environmental activists are an endangered species in the Brazilian Amazon, with regularly occurring assassination-style killings like those of activists Chico Mendes in 1988 and Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 creating an ongoing climate of fear.
  • According to human rights watchdog Global Witness, Brazil in 2017 was the world’s most dangerous country for environmental acivists: 57 out of 201 deaths worldwide occurred in Brazil. Intimidation and murder of activists continues into the present.
  • Activist Juma Xipaya saw the village she grew up in fundamentally changed by the building of the Belo Monte mega-dam. When she later exposed corruption and incompetence she faced death threats and now lives perpetually on guard.
  • In recent years, Xipaya has been repeatedly pursued by a white pickup driven by two armed thugs, but police fail to respond to her pleas for help. The men eventually made an attempt on her life — a close call that almost killed her and her children.

The Pimental dam, part of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project which met with intense international and indigenous resistance. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto on Visual hunt / CC BY.

In November 2019, a large group of angry Brazilian landowners and farmers, some of them armed, disrupted the “Amazon: Center of the World” international conference in Altamira, Brazil. The moment tilted precariously toward violence when a young indigenous woman stood up, took the microphone and made a passionate plea for all to safeguard the Amazon.

“Her name — to remember and protect — is Juma Xipaya,” wrote journalist Eliane Brum of that day.

“It was very tense,” recalls Xipaya, a 28-year old medical student as she speaks to Mongabay outside her school, the Federal University of Pará in Altamira. “When I was about to speak, one man came very close and shouted that we all deserve to die. And after the conference there was a big guy outside, screaming that ‘Indians do not exist!’ The police were there, but didn’t do anything.”

Event organizers, deciding on the side of safety, arranged a hotel room that night for Xipaya, and she stayed with friends for the next week instead of going home. That’s nothing new.

Xipaya is no stranger to danger. As a young activist and cacica (an indigenous spokesperson and leader), she came out fiercely against the $11 billion Belo Monte mega-dam and the massive corruption that financed its construction. She has since received numerous threats and survived one nearly successful attempt on her life.

“These days I walk a few hundred meters from my house to the university and back, and I never walk alone,” she says. “I hardly have a social life. Only when I go back to my village. But, today, that is a sad life as well.”

On November 27, 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with wife Michelle Bolsonaro beside him (next to plaque), celebrated the official end of Belo Monte mega-dam construction as its last turbine was installed. The banner reads, “Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant: Brazilian Giant, Fully Operational.” Photo credit: Palácio do Planalto on VisualHunt / CC BY.

Thrust into the activist life

Xipaya was born in 1991 some 400 kilometers (248 miles) west of the city of Altamira in Tucama, then a small indigenous community with a population of some 40 people on the Iriri River.

A member of the Xipaya people, she led a relatively peaceful life until construction began on the Belo Monte dam in 2011. The next year, she attended a public hearing in Altamira. Eight and a half months pregnant, fearing for the future of her children, she offered a powerful testimony in tears and vowed resistance against the dam.

But she lost the fight. Backed by the Dilma Rousseff government and by billions from BNDES, Brazil’s gigantic development bank, Belo Monte began operation in 2016.  Last November, the 18th and last turbine was inaugurated by an exuberant President Jair Bolsonaro , even though experts say the project will never generate the power and profits its boosters have long promised, while doing vast well documented environmental and social harm.

Over those formative, turbulent years, Tucama underwent drastic change. Out went the wooden homes and a natural diet based on fruits and fish. In came cement, fridges, TV sets, sugar and processed foods.

“During my childhood my village was my only truth, my only culture,” recalls Xipaya. “A world of liberty, security and happiness. I could never have imagined that an outside force like Belo Monte would change everything.”

In those days villagers would rarely visit Altamira. They did not need to. The river gave them fish. The forest gave them nuts and over 50 kinds of fruits. And besides, Altamira was simply too far away to be easily reached by foot or paddle.

“We only had canoes then,” she explains. “It would take up to a month to go and come back. One man in the village had a voadeira, a motorboat. So, he would go from time to time and bring things for the entire village.”

A tree submerged by the Belo Monte reservoir still shows above the water’s surface. Photo by Zoe Sullivan / Mongabay.

Then came fridges and industrial food

Xipaya left Tucama in early 2006 to pursue her education in Altamira. In 2008, she joined the growing Xingu Forever movement opposing the big dam. Gradually, Xipaya saw it as her mission to communicate the dangers the new Belo Monte reality posed to her community.

Upon finishing high-school in 2012, she studied law in Belém, but after less than two years, dropped out. “That was a very difficult time for me,” she recalls. “You could say I went through a depression. I gave all my love and strength to fighting Belo Monte, only to realize that law and justice are two very different things.”

A few months later, in 2015, the people of Tucama asked her to become cacica, a great honor. Aged 24, she became the first ever female to lead the Xipaya people. In that capacity, she studied the many plans put forward by Norte Energia, the company that built, and now operates, Belo Monte. She attended meetings with other indigenous leaders and with FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency.

But all those heart-felt efforts did little to slow the dam or fulfill demands. “It is sad to say, but there has never been a strong united indigenous movement against Belo Monte,” Xipaya remembers. “From the start Norte Energia sought to divide. And succeeded. Many [indigenous] leaders received cars and boats, and forgot about other things like health and education. With their cars they could go to the city [of Altamira] to drink and party. I believe this was the first step in a deliberate process of destruction of our culture.”

Public prosecutor Thais Santi has gone so far to characterize the undermining of indigenous culture by Norte Energia and the Brazilian government as “ethnocide” — the premeditated and purposeful destruction of a culture.

Santi references Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” — how a well-oiled bureaucracy like that in Nazi Germany made the unthinkable acceptable — as she describes the insidious process by which indigenous cultures along the Xingu River were co-opted and corrupted. Thais argues that the Rousseff government, working in tandem with Norte Energia, overwhelmed indigenous and traditional communities with modern gadgetry and glimmering empty promises.

In the end, the people were tempted into embracing a totally new and foreign cash economy, which simultaneously cut them off from the subsistence livelihoods and spiritual life that had nurtured them for generations.

The issue of consultation

A Norte Energia spokesperson told Mongabay that indigenous representatives have been consulted since the project’s conception and continue to be heard. In the villages, the company built 40 ‘casas de farinha’ (flour producing houses), 779 homes, 354 sanitary units and 28 water supply units. It also introduced a security structure consisting of 8 protection units and 65 contracted professionals, equipped with 8 small trucks and 8 motorcycles. All these actions were planned and executed in coordination with indigenous representatives, following a survey to determine their needs, the spokesperson said.

But according to Xipaya, the Xingu basin’s indigenous peoples were never properly consulted or informed about Belo Monte’s impacts, as required by the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, of which Brazil is a signatory. Instead, negotiations focused on who got what benefits. The company called these “gifts.” Critics called them “bribes.” The result: jealousy, suspicion and division among the riverine communities.

Before the dam was built, there were 11 indigenous communities in the Xingu region. Today, there are more than eighty. According to Xipaya, every time someone disagrees with someone else, he and his followers leave the community to establish a new settlement and seek company benefits.

“In 2012, Norte Energia introduced an emergency plan, which really was but a commodity list for people to fill in,” said Xipaya. “Thus they received stoves, fridges, TVs and tons of food items. Most of our homes today are made of brick and cement. Most of our people eat industrial food like instant noodles and drink soft drinks. As a result, we now have everything we didn’t have 10 years ago: diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, obesities.”

The fear today is that other “novelties” may be on their way, especially COVID-19. Pará is one of the hardest hit Amazon states. On July 11, it had registered 125,714 cases and 5,289 deaths. According to the Altamira Distrito Sanitario Especial Indigena (DSEI; Special Indigenous Sanitary District) some 80 indigenous villages in the Xingu region have maintained a strict quarantine. By mid-June there were 65 indigenous cases and two deaths, mostly concerning people living in or near Altamira. There have been more since then.

A Norte Energia billboard in Altamira saying that the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is “a project inspired by the enormous power of women in the region.” Image by Peter Speetjens.

Uncovering corruption and incompetence 

In 2017, Juma’s husband became coordinator of the DSEI in Altamira, while Juma headed the municipality’s indigenous health department. Together, they went out to visit all of the Xingu region’s indigenous communities to investigate the state of health and health care. The poor conditions they found match conditions round the world where modern and indigenous cultures meet.

On the one hand, there were all kinds of new modern health complaints and diseases; on the other, there was a lack of basic care. Everyone, they found, depended on the Casa Saude Indigena (CASAI) a single medical facility in Altamira, which at that time had a 250 bed capacity, but which was serving an overflow population of some 600 patients.

According to Xipaya, by 2017 Norte Energia had outsourced most indigenous interfacing and services to third party companies. That included access to food, food production and healthcare. Yet, by her assessment, not even the minimum of what Norte Energia had agreed to was being provided: no local health units, no schools, and the cacao trees provided to her village had been planted in the dry season and soon after died.

Xipaya and her husband later found that the firms who had won the Belo Monte contracts were some of the highest bidders, not the lowest.

The Norte Energia spokesperson strongly denied any wrongdoing.
He emphasized that the companies executing the indigenous component of the basic environmental plan were contracted on the basis of technical capability, quality and price; they conform to the company’s good governance guidelines and with the knowledge of indigenous leaders.

According to the spokesperson, 31 basic health care units have been built and numerous initiatives were launched to produce food and generate income, including fish farming, the creation of orchards, and the cultivation of cacao, corn, peppers, mandioca and beans.

“The third party companies were among the most expensive, yet indigenous leaders in 2015 had insisted that all communities work with them,” Xipaya recalls. “We suspect they were paid to do so. We suspect we uncovered a scheme, from which both public and private actors profited. So, we called for the contracts to be cancelled. And as cacica of Tucama, I did just that. I was the only one. That is when the problems started.”

Luiz Alberto Araújo, head of the Altamira municipal government environmental department in the state of Pará, assassinated in October, 2017. Photo courtesy of Altamira(PA)/Photo Archive.

A constant threat of violence

About a year after joining DSEI, her husband lost his job. “Some 150 indigenous people had occupied the DSEI to call for his removal,” Xipaya remembers. “They were paid to do so, I’m sure. One day I was there and suddenly a man, drunk, attacked me. He pushed me over. I was three months pregnant.”

Shortly thereafter, two armed men in a white pickup truck started appearing. First the vehicle would idle in front of her house, then wait for her in front of the university. The men inside didn’t do or say anything. They were just there. But killers in Brazil often show up and hover in pairs; this duo was almost certainly meant to intimidate.

Killers came in pairs for environmental activist Chico Mendes in 1988, and for landless activist Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005. Two murderers on motorcycles assassinated Altamira’s environmental secretary Luiz Alberto Araújo in October 2016, a man who dared to investigate the massive illegal deforestation arising in the region surrounding the Belo Monte dam. One morning as he left for work the killers riddled him with bullets in front of his family.

According to human rights watchdog Global Witness, Brazil in 2017 was the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists: 57 out of 201 deaths worldwide occurred in Brazil. (In 2018, it ranked fourth.)

“I was scared, of course, but I tried not to feel intimidated,” recalls Xipaya. “One day I left my aunt’s house in Altamira. I was five months pregnant and had 2 cousins and 4 children in the car. It rained a lot, so I drove slowly. Suddenly the white pickup truck hit me from the side. We rolled over three times. It was a miracle I didn’t lose my son and none of us was seriously injured.”

She filed a complaint, but the police told her that there was not much they could do without evidence, and that they lacked funds to offer protection. After her son was born in June 2018, Xipaya decided to give up her position as cacica and return to university. She became the first indigenous woman ever to pass the entry exam to study medicine. A week after her classes began, the white pickup began appearing again, this time in front of her school.

“That day I was in the lab on the other side of the building,” she remembers. “Some students warned me, and I left from the back entry. In the second week, my son fell ill and I took him to a doctor. Halfway there, the pickup truck showed up, and followed me all the way. Again, I went to the police, but again they said they couldn’t do anything.”

“This is when I contacted Raoni [Metuktire, cacic of the Kayapo people],” she continues. “I told him what happened. He contacted an organization he works with, which took me to Switzerland. I stayed there for several months. I told them my story. Filed a complaint at the United Nations. However, the only solution they could offer was for me to stay as a refugee in Switzerland.

“But my land is here, my forest is here, my family is here,” she says with quiet courage. “Cutting the cord would kill me. Also, I don’t want to flee. I did nothing wrong. They did. If I have to, I prefer to die here. With dignity. So, I came back.”

Since her return to Altamira, Xipaya has kept her head down. Then came the November 2019 conference, where she attended not as a participant, or leader, but only as a member of the public. She only said a few words that day, because organizers had been unable to find any local indigenous representatives willing to talk. The result for her: another week of hypervigilant watching for the white pickup.

“I’ve lived through a lot of fear in recent years,” says Xipaya. “They wanted me out of the way. I don’t participate in anything. I live alone. My children and husband mostly stay with my family in Tucama. For a long time I lived my life fighting for others. Today, I’m a mother. I’m a student. For one thing I know for sure: I don’t want to be the next Dorothy Stang.”

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