Indigenous, riverside and academic researchers presented alarming data to the Attorney General's Office that show: the Xingu River is dying
Updated on 27/03/2022 at 14:26 pm
The pulse of the Xingu River is what guarantees the life of the river itself and all the beings that inhabit it. The indigenous and riverside peoples of the Volta Grande do Xingu – the stretch of river right after the damming of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant – have always known this.
Over the last few years, they gathered information in a deep and meticulous monitoring of the region to support their assertions: the Belo Monte dam drastically altered the water flow of the Xingu River and, therefore, it is dying.
There is a way out. And it goes through ensuring the flood pulse again, that is, that the water in the river increases at a certain speed and amount in a certain period of the year, and then reduces a few months later, at the right time.
In the Xingu, the water needs to start rising in November, which is the beginning of the year for local riverside cultures. This is because it is the month when new water arrives, which must remain in the flooded forest areas. This water needs to increase day after day until it reaches the peak of the flood in April.
This is the necessary period for the reproduction of fish, the piracemas. From May, the water begins to retreat day after day, marking the ebb period and reaching the maximum dry peak in September. This is the breeding season for the tracajás, a species of chelonian, abundant in the region before the damming of the Xingu River by Belo Monte. A cycle that repeats itself for thousands of years
This is a common cycle of Amazonian landscapes. The cyclical alternation between the flood, which occurs in the rainy season, and the floodplain, which occurs in the dry season, guarantees the high complexity of the forest and the local biodiversity.
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“Belo Monte is not a fait accompli. Belo Monte is an ongoing destruction in a highly complex environment like the Xingu River and this destruction must be reassessed and mitigated, and not taken as something that has already happened”, says researcher Camila Ribas, from the National Institute of Research in the Amazon (Inpa). Ribas is one of the experts appointed by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) to assess the impacts of the plant.
Ribas and other MPF experts presented some of their conclusions at the headquarters of the Attorney General's Office (PGR), in Brasília, on March 14. The event also featured speeches from the Juruna, Arara and riverside peoples of Volta Grande, impacted by the reduction in river flow.
Throughout the day, indigenous and riverside researchers and MPF experts presented impact monitoring data and a detailed proposal for water flow into the river that resumes, at least in part, the Xingu flood pulse and guarantees the reproduction of some species of fish.
Rodrigo Agostinho, president of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), Joênia Wapichana, president of the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (Funai), Juma Xipaya, representative of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, in addition to members of the Chief of Staff, National Water Agency, Advocacy-General of the Union (AGU) and Secretariat for the Environment of Pará were present and listened to what these people had to say.
Ibama is in charge of renewing the plant's operating license and defining how much water will pass through its turbines and how much will be released into the Xingu River. Furthermore, Joenia Wapichana added that Funai will organize a plan for free, prior and informed consultation with the peoples impacted by Belo Monte before the renewal of this license, and that this consultation will begin with the peoples of Volta Grande do Xingu.
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The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, which began operating in 2015, is a run-of-river power plant. That is, the water from the Xingu follows its flow to the seat of the municipality of Altamira, in Pará. Nearby, its course is diverted to the reservoir, where the water passes through the turbines and the energy will actually be generated. Below this point, it is the stretch of reduced flow. Who controls the water flowing down the river are the gates of the hydroelectric plant and, therefore, the concessionary company of Belo Monte, Norte Energia.
Indigenous and riverside monitoring
Independent Territorial Environmental Monitoring (MATI) has been in place since 2013, when it became clear that Norte Energia was an interested party in the monitoring results it carried out. For this reason, indigenous and riverside communities decided to collect their own data to prove the environmental impacts.
Over the years, researchers at Mati have seen a drastic reduction in the number of fish. Sara Rodrigues, a researcher and riverside dweller in the Baleia community, showed photos of croaker and hake deformed due to lack of food.
More recently, in a tragic episode, researchers found a burial site of curimatã eggs. A great nursery of potential life was rotting due to irregular and insufficient water flow.
“We are in a war. We, traditional and indigenous peoples. It's a fight over water. And if it's a fight for water, it's a fight for life”, says Sara Rodrigues. “Today it is very difficult to live in Volta Grande. Due to the lack of fish, the difficulty of displacement. The river is ending. They are diverting 80% of the water from the river. For us, who depend on the river, it's been very difficult”, denounced the researcher.
Belo Monte: After fish disappear, indigenous and riverside dwellers prepare proposal to guarantee life in Xingu
This stretch of river, in the Volta Grande do Xingu, has many islands. Historically, they make up the stretches of Juruna occupation. To this day, they are considered sacred places for this people.
Before the damming, in the natural flow of the river, the islands began to be flooded from November, when the water in the river starts to rise and when the year starts for the residents of the region. From that time on, the trees begin to bear fruit and release food into the river, consumed by the fish.
Fruits such as golosa and sarão, typical of this region, fall into the water and fish such as pacu and tracajás feed on them.
The islands are also essential for the reproduction of fish, as this is where piracemas occur: the water forms hidden pockets inside the islands that offer the necessary calm for the fish to deposit their eggs and then the fry (baby fish) to develop enough until they managed to leave the piracemas and follow the flow of water along with its descent until reaching the main course of the river.
The plant changed not only the amount of water flow, but the period of onset of the flood and, consequently, the permanence of the water. This is making piracemas unfeasible and, therefore, fish reproduction. In addition, there is a rhythm of abrupt and daily changes in the amounts of water.
Currently, in this artificial and deadly pulse, the water only starts to rise between the months of February and March, when there is no more reproduction of fish. In addition, the plant operates with abrupt changes: monitoring records show that, on 20/01/2022, the plant released 11.825 cubic meters per second. On 13/02/2022, less than a month later, the plant released almost half of the amount: 6812 m³/s.
"The water is in disarray. One hour it's dry, another time it fills up with the subway, another time it dries up in the subway. It's an accordion effect that's difficult for us, imagine for anyone who lives in the water. The fish are disoriented", he says. Sarah Rodrigues.
In the words of Seu Raimundo, a riverside dweller from Volta Grande, a Mati researcher and writer, the fish is "river illiterate".
“Norte Energia sends water when it wants to, and it is not enough for life”, says Adauto Arara, head of the Arara da Volta Grande Indigenous Land. “In the past, fish ate camu-camu (sarão), which has a lot of Vitamin-C, and we ate fish and ended up absorbing this vitamin. Today that no longer happens, ”he explains.
“We are not here for compensation, we are here for water, because we need life in that region”, says Gilliard Juruna, chief of Muratu da Paquiçamba Indigenous Land.
Listen to an episode of Xingu on the Casa Floresta podcast:
On the 8th of February, Josiel Juruna and other researchers found thousands of curimatã eggs rotting in the Odilo piracema. The episode was narrated by Josiel during the seminar. He monitors this piracema almost daily. Every day, he goes to the piracema and photographs the rulers that measure the water level at that point. Afterwards, this data is related to the water flow data posted by Norte Energia on the project's website.
The day before, heavy rain fell on Volta Grande. Because of this, the water of what would be the piracema was rising fast. With that, Josiel noticed that the curimatãs were entering that place.
An apprehensive, worried expectation took over the group, which returned to the Muratu village. On the 8th, the rain had ceased. And the worst was confirmed: the water from the Xingu, at levels far below historical averages, had not “held” the water in the spawning pool, which had flowed back into the river and emptied the area where the fish had deposited eggs.
In what was once a nursery, the group found the Roe Graveyard. “It was a catastrophe for us. It was very sad to come across this moment”, said Josiel. “My brother Gilliard, who is present here, was also there, and he, as the oldest, said he had never seen it happen, nor had my father ever seen it happen,” he said.
Jansen Zuanon, an ichthyologist at INPA, also spoke about this episode during the seminar. “Fish need environmental cues. No one goes to the ear of the fish to say that he needs to spawn. What informs the fish is the consistent rise of the river. There is a great deal of synchronism for this, ”he explains.
“Then the fish interpreted a 'more or less' signal and spawned, but the conditions didn't hold and the eggs died. It is an act of desperation”, defined the professor.
The mitigation proposal presented by the researchers points to amounts of water and periods in which they must be released to guarantee the reproduction of the fish. The “piracema hydrograph” also establishes that changes in the river flow must be gradual, both in the flood and in the ebb, trying to bring the artificial pulse closer to the natural pulse of the river.
In hydrographs A and B, proposed by Norte Energia, the variations are abrupt and without any connection with the times of nature.
In this proposal, resulting from collaborative research, the water flow begins to increase subtly from October, having a more substantial increase in November and a gradual increase until April, when it begins to decrease. This allows the flooding of several piracemas during the reproduction period of some species.
The flood period, when the water needs to rise, needs to occur gradually to ensure the development of baby fish in the igapós and lakes. The newborn fish needs about three months to develop in calm waters, and it needs, in the same way, the water flow going down to be able to take advantage of the current generated by this change and move again from the piracema to the river bed .
In addition, the flooding level of at least part of the igapós must be reached during the fruiting period of its trees. In this way, the fruits fall into the flooded waters and serve as food for aquatic species.
Rodrigo Agostinho, president of Ibama, stated at the end of the seminar that the issue is a priority and will be analyzed “with care”. And he was asked by riverside researcher Sara Rodrigues: “until you do these analyses, what are we going to eat? Because fish, we don't have any more”.
Learn more about the impact of the different hydrographs on the Volta Grande do Xingu: