Alice Kohler shares photos and thoughts on her time in the Xingu river basin in the Brazilian Amazon
Alice Kohler is a Brazilian photographer who has visited over 20 countries during her career. In Brazil in particular she has travelled into some of the remotest parts of the Amazon basin and spent time with many of the country’s indigenous peoples, including the Araweté, Asurini, Guarani, Kamaiura, Karajá, Kayapo, Kuikuro, Parakanã, Pareci, Xavante and Yawalapiti.
An exhibition of Kohler’s photographs of the Araweté opens in Cusco in neighbouring Peru today, held at a newly-opened Amazon-themed gallery run by Peruvian company Xapiri. Kohler and Xapiri are holding the exhibition out of concern for the impacts on the Araweté and many others of the Belo Monte dam complex – arguably the world’s most well-known hydroelectric power project because of the opposition it has generated – as well as plans by a Canadian-headquartered company, Belo Sun Mining, to develop what would reportedly be Brazil’s biggest open sky gold mine.
The Araweté, living in the Xingu basin in the state of Pará, established sustained “contact” in the late 1970s after their land was opened up by the so-called TransAmazon Highway – part of the BR-230 – partly funded by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. This led immediately to what Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro called, in an ethnography published in 1986, “demographic catastrophe”, with one third of them dying. Today, population exceeds that of pre-“contact” levels, but Kohler – and others – argue the Araweté are now undergoing “ethnocide.”
Here Kohler shares 10 of her photos:
1 “When we arrive in the village, the first thing we always see is the children playing in the river,” Kohler says. “They play all day, [while the adults] fish, go hunting, wash clothes and utensils, bathe, and visit the other villages, which number six in total. . . Everything [happens] in the river. . . The river is life! It is their road! And it is wonderful: warm, clean water, especially [here in Juruanty] as there is a curve on the Ipixuna river which means it is calmer than the Xingu.”
2 This Araweté man is carrying corn back to his village in preparation for a party. Shorts and shirts are popular, Kohler says, because they protect against mosquito bites.
“The path links the village to a communal garden and a special place where they store the corn,” she says. “This storage place is something I have only seen with the Araweté. Very special! They always walk to the garden as a group, sometimes only women, sometimes couples or whole families. In this case they were with the whole family preparing for the party. These rucksacks are common. They make them with ease and very quickly – normally the women. It is beautiful to see it.”
3 Kohler says the Araweté make these clothes themselves, using cotton which they grow and weave and then achiote seeds for red dye. Achiote, she says, has numerous uses – not just for clothes, but as a cosmetic.
“They love to use it, all the time. It is good as a mosquito repellent, but they also use it just to dress up. For parties and rituals, extra achiote is used for appearance. The trees are plentiful around all the villages.”
4 Kohler has visited many Araweté gardens where they grow manioc, corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, achiote, plantains and pineapples, among other things, while out in the forest they collect acai, other fruits and honey. According to the anthropologist Viveiros de Castro, the Araweté can distinguish between 45 different types of honey.
“The most important food is manioc flour with pork or other meat from hunting,” Kohler says. “In particular they love jabuti – tortoise – and they also eat lots of fish. And they brew a corn-fermented drink called cauim for their parties – it is fermented by the women chewing and spitting it into a pot!”
5 “Part of the Araweté culture is this: when someone starts doing something in the village, it will be for the community [as a whole] so everybody follows and helps,” Kohler says. “That day the women decided to go all together to a garden to collect sweet potatoes and they invited me. My brother was with me at the time, but they didn’t invite him. Only women!”
6 Kohler first visited the Araweté in 2009 after meeting a group of men four years before in Altamira during the Indigenous Nations’ Games, when she was working as a volunteer for the state government.
“The teacher from one village contacted me after the event, asking to help them in small projects such as organising donations for hygienic projects like toothpaste,” she says. “So I started doing these projects with them, and finally in 2009 I went to visit.”
7 “I was with a doctor – Aldo Lo Curto – at the time of this photo,” Kohler says. “This [Araweté] group had just moved to a place where local fishermen – ribeirinhos – used to live. It was a Sunday and the Araweté decided to go play football on the white people’s land next door. The ribeirinhos, as neighbours, wanted to be friendly. It was a surreal moment. The Araweté just entered their houses, sat on the table and asked for food. It was everything new for them.”
8 Kohler says the government’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) used to provide natural remedies for diseases and illnesses, but now the Indigenous Health Department (SESAI), within the Health Ministry, has prohibited such remedies and introduced “big lab medicine.”
“At the time of this photo they were very sick with flu and the women were treating their kids with natural cumaru syrup,” Kohler says. “They still have their traditional shamans, but now they believe that the new “white people’s medicine” is superior, even when they have their natural medicinal plants. This change is causing their traditional knowledge to be diluted or lost in such a short space of time.”
9 Kohler says the Belo Monte dam complex, even though it is approximately 200 kms downriver, is destroying the Araweté’s way of life and they are now undergoing ethnocide. As part of a so-called “Emergency Plan”, the Brazilian company running the project, Norte Energía, has given them boats and fuel, and provided a monthly stipend. According to Kohler, this money has caused social conflict and forced villages to split, and led to the Araweté growing less of their own food and introducing a new diet – including sugar, soft drinks and cheap biscuits – which is causing diabetes. The new boats mean they can get to Altamira quicker and more often, but make it easier to contract diseases.
“This is what “progress” is doing to them,” she says. “The money from Belo Monte is gradually killing them.”
But what does Kohler mean by ethnocide? “That they are losing their culture – their food, their language, their traditions,” she says. “Of course, every people changes, but sometimes it feels like this change is happening so fast that the indigenous peoples themselves have no time to understand what is happening and, because of this, they cannot control their own future. They need to be the ones to decide if they want to keep their culture!”
Kohler’s opinion is shared by others, including federal prosecutor Thais Santi, in Altamira, who argues that Belo Monte is causing ethnocide among many indigenous peoples in the region and that the “Emergency Plan” was a deliberate strategy by Norte Energía to silence opposition to the dam. The federal prosecutor’s office is accusing the company and two Brazilian state institutions, including FUNAI, of “ethnocide actions” against nine indigenous peoples, including the Araweté.
“That [ethnocide] is the thesis that the prosecutor, Thais, has built,” Carolina Reis, from Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), told the Guardian. “It makes sense, totally.”
Asked to respond to accusations of ethnocide, Norte Energía stated they are “unreasonable” and “inappropriate” and based on a “clear ideological stance.” The company told the Guardian that one of its “main priorities is to make sure these [indigenous] villages preserve traditions” through a “Basic Environmental Project—Indigenous Component”, that it has spent more than $390 million in 34 villages, that it has built houses, that it is building schools and “health units”, and that the main reason for the federal prosecutors’ legal action was the “emergency plan” which “was the responsibility of the FUNAI.”
“Contrary to what [the federal prosecutors] want to propagate, the villages are being met with works and services on several fronts in order to ensure the territorial security, environmental, food and cultural center of nine races in 11 indigenous lands,” Norte states.
10 “The butterflies in this area are abundant and come to feed from the sand salt,” Kohler says. “This lady was playing with the butterflies. . . she was so happy, like most of the Araweté when they are in balance with their environment.”
Kohler is now particularly concerned about the proposed operations by Belo Sun Mining. The Volta Grande project, as it is called, is downriver from the Araweté and stands to affect other indigenous peoples directly, but she believes the Araweté will be impacted too.
Kohler says that organisations like ISA and Xingu Vivo are supporting the Araweté regarding Belo Sun and she has “talked to them many times and for many years about it, but they don’t realise how dangerous it will be for their future. It’s very difficult for them to understand the possible implications because they live a different life at a different pace. I have an invitation to visit again, in May, and so I will try to see them then.”
FUNAI did not respond to requests for comment.