by Eliane Brum (English translation by Rebel Girl)
The legendary bishop of Xingu, threatened with death and under police escort for six years, says that the PT has betrayed the people of the Amazon and the environmental cause. He also asserts that Belo Monte will cause the destruction of the Xingu and the genocide of indigenous groups that have inhabited the region for centuries. At the epicenter of the less and less silent and invisible war being waged in Amazonia for the last 47 years, Erwin Kräutler embodies a chapter in the history of Brazil.
On Monday, a big man with a warm smile and white hair boarded a plane to Brazil. Not just to Brazil. To Amazonia. After 40 days in Austria, his native country, he misses the geography that he chose to be his from the moment when, still young and stumbling in Portuguese, he discovered in amazement that the Rhine is "a stream compared to the Xingu." Dom Erwin sighs, longing for the river, the people, the smells and even the climate of the city of Altamira, Pará, with such intractable temperatures and moods that it only appeals to the strongest. This man, who moved freely through the pristine streets in the Austrian spring, where he was digging for resources for social projects in Amazonia, is now back to his prisoner's routine. For the last six years, Erwin Kräutler, bishop of Xingu, has not taken a step in Brazil without being under escort by four policemen who take turns protecting his life.
At almost 73, Dom Erwin, who welcomed, and then buried, the slain missionary Dorothy Stang, lives in the sights of the gunmen. Men hired by big shots to silence a voice that for almost half a century has raised in pitch in defense of the poorest and most vulnerable, the indigenous, the riparian and extractavist people of Amazonia. Dom Erwin has written, with rare consistency, a crucial chapter of a little told story in Brazil: the role of the Catholic Church, especially of the religious linked to liberation theology and Christian base communities, in the protection of forest peoples -- and the Amazon itself -- since the second half of the 20th century.
Most of the indigenous groups and Amazonian communities who won lands and rights in recent decades owe part of their organization to the more progressive sectors of the Catholic Church. Just as some of the political leaders who now influence the direction of the country emerged from the grassroots work of the Church. This goes far beyond religion -- it's history. And a history whose meaning the more conservative wing of the Church would prefer to downplay. In this chapter, Dom Erwin, who is able to speak classical Greek as well as the language of the Kayapo, is one of the most fascinating protagonists.
And one of the toughest. Each year, despite advanced age and back pain, he visits the 15 parishes of Xingu. To reach them, he journeys through outback communities. He sleeps in the boat, he sleeps in a net. He has become so accustomed to the local diet that he is happy to eat fish for lunch and dinner all week long. He is worshipped by the poorest people -- and hated unreservedly by the elite of Para, who also attack him through the press of Belém do Pará.
Since Lula's, and now Dilma Rousseff's, decision to move Belo Monte off the drawing board, the almost legendary bishop of Xingu has been a relentless opponent of the dam that has caused controversy within and outside of Brazil. Because of it, he became a troublesome presence for government sectors and the PT, which he once supported even with his vote. Troublesome, especially, because it's difficult to destroy the reputation of a bishop who has remained consistently since the military dictatorship in one of the most embattled regions of the country, who helped write the articles of the 1988 Constitution that guarantee indigenous rights, and who hasn't flinched even in the face of the threat of losing his own life.
In this interview, Dom Erwin says what he thinks about former allies with the same boldness with which he denounced land grabbers and rapers recently. He accuses the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores -- the Brazilian Workers' Party] of being a "traitor" and says that some PT members are "religious fanatics." He states that Lula and Dilma have implemented a "civilian dictatorship" by "disregarding the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in the Constitution." And he says that Lula will go down in history as "the president who destroyed Amazonia and struck down the indigenous peoples."
On the eve of Rio + 20, Dom Erwin Kräutler's testimony opens a window to understanding contemporary history. The following interview was done at the bishop's house in Altamira with the military police who protect him just outside the door, but alert. The four officers demonstrate a concern that transcends duty. They love Dom Erwin, who knows their wives and children and listens to their woes each day.
In three hours of conversation, Dom Erwin did not dodge any questions. It's worthwhile to take an opportunity to listen attentively to a man who is able to point out the contradictions and highlight the complexity of the strategic moment Brazil is in, in which the choices made today will determine what we will be tomorrow.
What do you do when you're in Austria and how does it feel to live without an escort, without police around you?
I must spend at least a month each year in Austria in order to get resources to maintain and sustain the social and pastoral work in Xingu. I also have many invitations from universities and organizations defending human rights and the environment. When possible, I stay in my mother and father's house and live, outside of the commitments, a "hermit"'s life. That does me a lot of good. I walk freely through the woods of the land of my birth. I admire nature, flowers, fields, trees that in the spring are clad in their leaves of such varied hues. I get up before 5 o'clock to "hear the morning silence" and see the first rays of the sun. It's wonderful. It's a feeling of total freedom that is good for the soul and heart.
How did an Austrian first hear the word "Xingu" and end up moving to Brazil and making Xingu his home?
I first heard the word "Xingu" when I was four or five years old, during World War II. My mother always talked about her brother, Don Eurico Kräutler, then Padre Eurico, who had been in Brazil since 1934. Once he sent, along with the letter, some photos. I remember perfectly the houses of straw -- him in front, at the time in his cassock, with a child, a little Indian boy, pointing at the camera with his finger. As we say, "Look at the birdie!" It was the first photo of the Xingu I had seen in my life.
How did you feel?
(laughing) I felt deep sympathy for that child who was different, who was painted. Since then, we always asked my mother about the Indians. My uncle sent the letters, which were read at home by my mother, then went to my aunt, and then to my godmother, going around to all the relatives. We had a picture of an Indian on the wall. I even remember his name, "Patoit". It means "strong arm". We have his picture at home (in Austria), with his wife and son.
That photo's still there?
Without a doubt. In my room, in my parents' house, it was replaced by a more recent photo of an Araweté woman with her baby. For us, the Kayapo were distant, different people, but they seemed like relatives. Because when people talked about Uncle Eurico, they also talked about the Indians of the Xingu. My uncle could only return to Austria after the war ended in 1948. I was 9 years old and was an altar boy, so I remember very well when he arrived. My uncle gave lectures, you know, with slides. And he showed a lot of sunrises, sunsets ... But my uncle had his ideas about the Indians, which I don't share today. I had a different view.
What was his idea?
His idea -- and you must understand that he was a son of his time -- was to "civilize", "pacify", words that don't pass my lips. It's not about that.
What is it about?
They are different people. And we respect them in their otherness. And not only do we respect them, we must take a step further. We love them. I experienced this. I remember when I went to a village here, of the Kayapo, and I didn't speak a word of Kayapo. Nothing. I said, "Never again will I step into this village without knowing Kayapo." And I learned it. I won't say that I speak it the same way I speak Portuguese, but I learned. And the second time I went there, you can't imagine. My God! Wider, friendlier smiles, more intimate, I would say. "Now he is one of us, he speaks our language." They know that people are trying and, through communication by words, we understand their world.
When you were in Koblach, your hometown in Austria, what inner stirring made you cross the ocean and settle here for almost half a century now? What led you to make a such a big, such a radical move?
I was a young man like any other. I studied, I was at the School of Philosophy, I played guitar, did theater. I had a very good youth, with many friends. Then I saw the people from other provinces, who didn't speak our language, our dialect. And they were marginalized. And that hurt me. But why? Simply because they were different, because they spoke another language, they were excluded? We began, then, in youth, to build our movements and seek out these people who stood on the margins. We were able to integrate them. It was then, when I confronted exclusion because of difference, that the idea of being a priest arose. I studied theology. I was ordained. It was in the same congregation as my uncle, the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. At that time, my superiors wanted me to continue the study of ancient philology, Greek and Latin. I still like that today. I read the Bible in Greek, the New Testament .... But suddenly, the penny dropped: "I'm going to Xingu." I mean, I didn't tell people, "I'm going to Brazil." I told them, "I'm going to Xingu."
Why "I'm going to Xingu"?
I think there is also the story of the child, that I never forgot. The Xingu was exactly where the Kayapo are. And not just the Kayapo, but tappers, fishermen, and a tiny town, very small, which was Altamira. Altamira had 1,800 inhabitants in 1950. And then I dreamed of this. And I told my superiors that I wanted to go to Xingu. It was January 12, 1965. I was ordained a priest in July 1965. I left my home on November 2nd, my father's birthday. I went to Hamburg, in northern Germany, and left on a freighter. There were only two passengers, other than the crew. I had never seen the sea, that sort of thing. I was a young guy, 26 years old. And I crossed the Atlantic.
How many days, in those days?
We went out on the 4th, at night, and then docked at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, on November 11th. We spent one day there, we set sail again and arrived on the 18th. It was 4 p.m. when I first set foot on Brazilian soil at São Luís do Maranhão, where I stayed four days, before traveling, also by ship, to Belém. There in São Luís, I slept in the convent of the Franciscans and began to learn Portuguese.
You knew nothing?
What did you have in your suitcase?
I didn't bring mementoes of my land, I brought nothing. A couple of family photos. What I brought were things I wanted to give children here. Because the people there filled me with a thousand and one things to bring. So many children came here to this house: "Who is the priest who brought a doll?". I was happy. Dolls here and there. Then a problem arose, because someone said, "But you gave a doll to a believer, and we haven't gotten anything yet." And I answered, "I'm going to ask if he was a believer or Catholic? For me, it was about a doll - and a beautiful doll." As for personal things, I just brought the notebooks of my university days, both the Schools of Philosophy and Theology. I still have them today! Other than that, a crucifix I had gotten and a bedcover. I still have that bedcover today. It's on my bed.
What difference did you sense between the mythic Xingu, the one of your imagination, and the real Xingu, at first glance?
The Xingu impressed me in a way that I had never felt before. Because there in Austria we have the river Rhine, but it's a creek in comparison with this one here. So, the first time I saw it on December 21, 1965, aboard a Cruzeiro DC3 plane, coming from Belém...Holy Mother, what a marvel! I was so delighted with this land, and still am. And this is one reason to have very great reservations about the destruction that is hovering over the Xingu and us all. I was so impressed, words failed me. I think I lost my breath. It wasn't crying ... It was joy. A mixture of joy and wonder about such a thing. You keep looking and looking ... You don't need to talk, you take in, so to speak, all this wonder. And I was enchanted. The word "enchanted" is used in Portuguese. The Xingu is enchanting.
The Xingu is different from all the other rivers in the world, at least those I know. Perhaps something mythical, too, because of the indigenous people who have lived here for milllions of years. So, I see it as the Indians do. The Kayapo don't call it the Xingu; they call it the Bytire. "Tire" means grand, majestic. "By", according to an explanation from a Kayapo elder, means something very mysterious, inexpressible. And, therefore, holy, untouchable, inviolable. I said, "I want to live here." I never thought of going back, you know? Never.
Do you feel like this is your land?
I don't want to deny my roots, of course...The world over there is different now, and I feel like a fish out of water. I spend a month in Austria, but then I come back here. My life is living here.
In Brazil as a whole, and especially in the North, there is a political sentiment which can be summed up in the following sentence: "The gringos are invading Amazonia." Are you treated as a gringo?
No. I've never been. People also rarely ask me where I was born. I was naturalized Brazilian. I have a Brazilian passport, identity card, voter registration, everything.
A Brazilian who was born in Austria ... I've seen you say that.
I always say that: a Brazilian born in Austria. I wasn't sent here. It was my decision. I identified with the Xingu, with Brazil. Of course, I wasn't born here. My parents and my ancestors are from another country. My ancestors already lived there in 1400 or so. It's a very traditional family. But each one makes his choice. When I got here, I knew I would stay. I could have returned the next day, if I hadn't been happy. I have lots of work anywhere in the world. But it never crossed my mind, even for a second.
You have been one of the most critical voices against Belo Monte. Why don't you want a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu?
Altamira suffered the first "shock" with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. I remember when President Médici (Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the general who was president of Brazil during the most violent period of the military dictatorship, from 1969 to 1974) came here. He began the work, in a place called "Pau do Presidente". Have you been to see it ("Pau do Presidente”)?
You haven't missed anything. The only thing that's left is the trunk of the chestnut tree; they stole the plaque. Eliane, you know of course that around here we use the expression "pau do presidente" with certain malice!
I can imagine...Did you witness the chestnut tree being knocked down?
Yes. All the people raving at the podium ... delirious even! Clapping! People, knocking down one of those trees! And saying it was progress that was coming. It cut me to the heart... How could it be? Applauding that the queen of the trees of Para and Amazonia is falling, and with a tremendous bang. How is it possible? It is written on the plaque that they stole: "The president begins the conquest of this giant green world." And there was a plaque on one of the three ugly, very ugly, columns that they made: "After 20 months, the president will return to inaugurate it, taking another step to integrate ...". That's what it was at the time: "Integrate; don't abdicate" and "Brazil, love it or leave it" ... Stuff like that. I saw it.
Where were you watching all that from?
In the midst of the people who went there to see the president. There were two bishops, dressed in bishops' clothes, who thought they would be called to ascend to the podium -- the bishop here, who was my uncle, and the bishop of Maraba. They didn't call them up there because the one from Maraba was no friend of the military. He had denounced a lot of things. At that time, there was the Araguaia guerrilla, so they didn't call the bishops to go up on the podium ... I thought, "Well done!" But I didn't have the courage to give my opinion because I was the new kid. But the bishops also felt that progress was coming ... Altamira was a forgotten city, in the middle of the woods.
Knocking down a chestnut tree, a huge tree, as a symbol of the coming of progress and development is very symbolic, isn't it?
Then they talked about "benefit". The land has to "benefit" to advance you a bank loan, for example. So it had to be knocked down.
What was Altamira before the Trans-Amazonian Highway?
It was a forgotten little town. It lacked water during the day; it lacked lights at night. It had a city hall car that ran for the last time when the mayor's daughter was 15. In the 60's, they wanted to make a trail to Santarém to connect it to the world and they killed I don't know how many Indians. Then came the Trans-Amazonian. A friend of mine who worked as a telegrapher at the time, said: "Look, buddy, now progress is coming. There's a telegram from some guy in Incra saying they're going to build a road. They're saying it'll rain money."
A very similar argument to the one now, isn't it? It will "rain money", progress will come ...
That's the idea: "Progress" will tame this whole area. So, in fact, it started at 5 kilometers, with the knocking down of that tree, where it was all bush. And now you see it's all wilderness. The route of the Trans-Amazonian was already made like that because they were thinking of future hydroelectric dams like Belo Monte. In the 70s, they had already done all the research. In 1950, Altamira had 1,200 inhabitants. In 1960, 2,800. And then, I think 1965 onwards, about 4,000, 5,000. But then came the boom ... people came from the Northeast first, then from the South. Then Altamira gained other features. And with the Trans-Amazonian, in 1975, there was talk of a possible hydroelectric dam, but it was something very far off. In the 80s, then, the thing has been more shaped out, until, in February 1989, the Indians came...
Were you present at the First Encounter of Indigenous Peoples of Xingu in 1989? (On that occasion, Tuira, a Kayapo Indian, pressed the blade of his machete in the face of Antonio Carlos Muniz Lopes, of Eletronorte, to express his anger about the Belo Monte project, called Kararaô in those days. The photo of the scene went around the world ).
No. I was in Switzerland ... The Indians came to talk to me. They wanted to hold the First Encounter of Indigenous Peoples of Xingu. So I was meeting at that time, I don't mean the first step, but the second step at the World Bank in Bern. And they told me: the World Bank will only provide credit (for the work) if the indigenous clause and the environmental clause are observed and fulfilled. That, to me, was the sign that it was being discontinued. I thought that the danger had now passed. While I was there, there was the episode with Tuira here. I know that Antonio Carlos Muniz very well ...
How do you know him?
He invited me, when I was in Brasilia in the 90s, to his office, and showed me everything. He wanted to engage me, win me over to the project. I was very well treated, you know? But when we are treated so well, with candy, etc...you have to stay pensive. When it's like that, something is on the line. It's not because they like you a lot, but they want to prepare you, they want to take advantage of the fact that you're alone and convince you.
In that sense, Brasilia scares you?
Yes, it scares me. My God! I've met with Lula twice, too, and with others. I've had good contacts, good people in Brasilia who were on our side. Now, lately, we are in a certain isolation. Because those people who once fought for us, who were on our side, who advocated the same thing, who fought for the same cause, now argue the opposite.
When Lula was elected, the social movement in Amazonia was certain that Belo Monte was definitely buried. How were your meetings with Lula?
The first time was on March 19th, 2009. I went with a lawyer from CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionário -- Indigenous Missionary Council), a long time friend of mine, and with a political adviser from CIMI, who now has been won over to be a member of the president's cabinet. I was with Lula some 20 minutes, maybe half an hour. I presented our anxieties and concerns, and he was the first to stress that there should be a constructive dialogue, that the pros and cons should be evaluated. I said, "See, I want you to listen to the people." He asked, "What people?" I said, "The people of Xingu, the representatives of the people of Xingu." He said (Dom Erwin imitates Lula's voice and manner), "Send for them!" Then we agreed on a second visit. I remember that, at the end of that first meeting, I said, "Regards to Marisa, your wife." Lula was even frightened, because he was not accustomed to receiving greetings to his wife. When someone meets with the president, they don't remember he's married. I felt Lula was someone who was very friendly, sympathetic.
Was it the first time you had met him?
No. I had already met him during the campaign.
What did you think of Lula?
He was like a rifle, speaking this way and that. The people saw he was campaigning, and the people were part of that campaign. They shook hands, took a picture...But, in 2009, it was a meeting...very friendly. I still hoped that he would be convinced that it wasn't for this place. I even wrote, "Thank God, Lula understood." And we set another audience, on July 22nd of the same year. It was very interesting. We brought two Indians, two river people, Antonia Melo (one of the main leaders of the Xingu), two prosecutors and Professor Celio Bermann (of the Institute of Electrotechnics and Energy at USP). But Gilberto Carvalho (chief of staff of then President Lula, now Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency in the Dilma government) wanted only me to speak on behalf of all. On the other side, there was the whole energy sector of the government, all the big shots ... We, on one side, humble, poor things, feeling like fish out of water, and over there, those people who rule and are still ruling... But the people were sure of what we wanted. And, when Lula came, he sat beside me. I said, "President, you'll have to listen to these people. These people have come from far away, they want to talk with you. You can't pick just two to represent the others because they will leave with boundless frustration!" Then Lula said (and Dom Erwin mimics the booming voice of the president), "Leave it to me! We'll do it." So, in fact, he gave everyone a chance to speak.
What did they say?
The people talked about their anguish, that they couldn't leave their land. Then, the prosecutors talked about the unconstitutionality of the Belo Monte project, that the Indians hadn't been listened to. Célio Bermann then brought in the technical and financial points that made the project unviable. And it's here that I saw Lula was frightened. He looked around him, saying, "You will have to give an immediate answer to the professor." But that answer hasn't come to date.
Do you think Lula was being sincere or was it political theatre?
It was theatre, a political game...Afterwards, he grabbed me by the arm and said (imitating his voice), "Dom Erwin, we aren't going to shove this project down anyone's throat. Trust me. The dialogue must continue. Second, Brazil has a large debt to those affected by dams, and that debt, until now, has not been repaid. There are a lot of people wandering around here who didn't receive compensation, and life was almost cut short for them. Third, we won't repeat (the hydroelectric dam at) Balbina. Balbina is a monument to insanity. And fourth, the project will only go forth if it's to everyone's advantage."
Lula said that?
He said it! Literally, sitting next to me, holding me by this arm (he shows his left arm). I thought, OK...the president wouldn't say this if it wasn't true. But women are more sensitive, they have more intuition. Our friend Antonia Melo didn't want to have her picture taken. All the others knocked out a photo with Lula. I was wondering, but she felt, at that time, that it was just a show. Funny, women, on this point, have an intuition that men don't. I thought, "No, Lula's not going to lie to my face!" And on top of that, while holding my arm...(imitating Lula's voice again) "Dom Erwiiiin ....".
You imitate Lula's voice well...Did you come out relieved?
I won't say relieved, but very hopeful, because in the end he still said, "The dialogue will continue, we'll meet again." And then, suddenly, I realized that there had been no dialogue at all. Because he spoke, but he didn't ask what our ideas were, he didn't ask what we thought, nor how we thought it would be possible to resolve certain impasses.
What was the atmosphere of that meeting?
The first part of the audience with Lula was without him. Only with the energy sector, Funai and other government bodies. These government people cursed the prosecutors, saying they didn't understand anything, that they weren't from their branch, that they were getting into an issue that didn't concern them. And they were even raising their voices, you know? I was even frightened, thinking that those gentlemen's manners were long gone. I remembered that he who shouts reveals that he has no arguments to convince the interlocutor. Basically, this gang had to admit that reason and common sense were on our side. Thus, they opted for authoritarian attitudes and arrogance, trying to intimidate us, saying we didn't understand anything about the topic. On our side, nobody ever lost their composure. They didn't respond to the shouting. The screams came out of the others' throats. Right at that moment, Lula came "on the scene", asking, "Are you alive?". Because it was a screaming session, it wasn't a dialogue. Lula's entrance in the room seemed like a shower of cold water over his gang. Suddenly, they composed themselves. I found it ridiculous! They seemed like quarrelsome boys in the classroom who, when the teacher comes in, suddenly become afraid of any punishment or bad grade and then settle down. Then Lula greeted me warmly, as if we were longtime friends, "companions" in the struggle from the outset. And, I don't deny it, I felt very comfortable and I thanked him for having received us, praising this gesture of seeking open "dialogue." Since, at that moment, I really believed in dialogue.
And it wasn't?
I only realized it when, in October of the same year, I spent a week in Brasilia waiting for the continuation of this dialogue. The audience was postponed from morning to afternoon, from one day to the next, until, finally, I got a phone call on Friday night from Gilberto Carvalho who apologized, saying it was no longer possible to be received by the president since he had to travel to Venezuela. That trip was surely already programmed at the beginning of that week and was being used as a pretext to avoid the embarrassment of being forced to tell me that the president and his staff were no longer interested in continuing the "dialogue." On September 23, 2009, I wrote a letter to Lula, still calling him "my president". I never received a response.
Had you believed the promise of dialogue Lula made?
I believed it. We had taken an important step, because we had arrived there. And now that government sector, although it had screamed before, would have to give an answer by order of the president. But there was never a dialogue. At that meeting we showed what would happen, the absurdity of this work in all respects, including its financial viability. And no one ever responded to us, proving that we were wrong. Celio Bermann spoke, and I delivered to Lula a summary of the position of Oswaldo Sevá Filho (professor and researcher in Mechanical Engineering at Unicamp), who could not join us because he was sick, as well as the position of other great teachers and researchers in this area in Brazil. And all showed the impossibility of Belo Monte, as well as the destruction it will cause. Why didn't these people receive a response?
Because there is no response. The arguments are unbeatable. You have to take apart the opinions of the greatest minds in this area in Brazil, you have to have arguments that are grounded in reality, but the government doesn't. And, if it doesn't, it would have to feign: "We have to do this. It's a political decision, not a technical one." If the decision were technical, Belo Monte would never be built. Therefore, the dialogue was aborted at the outset. What Lula did was just a show to please the bishop.
In the case of Belo Monte, the government argues that the Indians won't be affected. But many environmentalists and researchers refute that statement, showing that it isn't possible to dam up a river without affecting the communities that live around it. How do you view that question?
If the Belo Monte project becomes reality, those people who live along the Volta Grande do Xingu will be affected. The government denies this because, for the government, affecting the indigenous people is only if it floods, the village is flooded. A flood, in fact, isn't going to happen. But the opposite happens -- the water is cut off. If you look at the map, you'll notice that, in the 100 kilometers of Volta Grande do Xingu, little water is going to come. I'm absolutely certain that these people will no longer have the conditions to be able to fish and sustain themselves. Then, agriculture will be harmed. And, in the end, they will have no way to get around. They will be barred. People who are subjected to life under these conditions don't survive. Or they survive for a while, and then die. They will fall apart. Maybe they'll become urban Indians. They will lose the culture, lose the language. They will be here, in some suburb of Altamira. I don't mean to say that they will stop being Indians, but they will no longer be Indians who live in their own context, with their organizations and their language.
- It's a dying culture, a way of being in the world that is dying. Is that it?
We have to make a distinction: there is physical death and there is cultural death. And here in Xingu, because of Belo Monte, both things could happen. Cultural death, because it would take away from them the possibility of surviving in a specific area that's very important to them because it's the ground of their myths, their rituals, it's where their ancestors are buried. If you take it away from the Indians, you cut the umbilical cord between them and the land. We must understand that they have another relationship with the earth, different from ours. For us, land is something that's bought and sold. For them, it isn't. Apart from cultural death, it's likely that physical death will also occur because they aren't prepared to live in the city. The Arara, for example, were decimated by diseases after they were contacted. That story has never been well told.
You state that Belo Monte is just the first of many dams, a way of overcoming resistance to impose a project that's much greater and that will completely destroy the Xingu. How can you be so sure?
All the serious scientific arguments show that this dam won't work throughout the year. In the summer, the Xingu goes down to a very low level and there won't be enough volume of water to run the turbines. Therefore, they'll invest billions and billions of reais on a hydroelectric dam that doesn't work for months. This is absurd. And the government knows perfectly well that it's absurd. So it's logical that Belo Monte will be only the first dam. We must do everything so that people accept this first dam, after decades of resistance. So that, then, the others will come. Because only with other ones will Belo Monte be a good deal. The second, third and fourth are going to block the river farther up at Sao Felix do Xingu. And then, all of these areas that are on the left and right banks of the Xingu, that are indigenous areas that have already been approved, will suffer. And then, the Assurini, the Araweté, the Paracanã, the Arara, and the Kayapo will be affected. That's why the Kayapó up there, even those in the Xingu National Park, are against it, although they are a thousand kilometers away. They already know this story. After building the first dam, the storm passes, resistance decreases - and then it's easier to complete the work. This is the government's strategy. And here I'll say: it's the fatal blow. They're going to kill the Indians, culturally and physically.
Part of the Brazilian population believes that the Indians have too much land and there are even those who believe that the Indians are an obstacle to development. Why do some Brazilians think like this?
Well, first we must understand that, for the Indians, the land is not a commodity. Let me tell you a true story so that people can better understand this completely different relationship that the Indian has with the land. A white man showed a piece of paper where it was written: "Federative Republic of Brazil, Final Land Title, from this creek to the other, facing the Xingu river front and 2, 3, 5, 10 kms deep." So the Indian asked: "How can you, with this piece of paper, say you're the owner? How? It's a piece of paper. Did you make the forest? No. And the wildlife within the forest? No. Did you make the river and the fish that are in the river? No. Do you make it rain? No. Do you make the sun shine? No. So how can you show me a piece of paper and say you're the owner?".
They're totally opposite ways of looking at the world, aren't they? Except that one of them has the power to impose its world view as the only true one...
This culture clashes with the culture of the majority society, which treats the land as a commodity. And the land as a commodity must be exploited, because it only makes sense if it's depleted. So it's exploited until the land is razed. Until the last drop of blood has been drawn, that is, until the ore and all the riches of the soil and subsoil have been extracted, the one who is forged in that mentality will not be satisfied. It is clear therefore that people who see the land as a commodity in a free market system, will think that the Indian has too much land. Interestingly, these same people never said, "This farmer has too much land." No, not that. When a farmer puts up a sign and says the land belongs to him -- and here the illegal occupation of land, as we know, is huge -- these same people don't complain. But when the demarcation of an indigenous area is made, everyone screams. And what's most curious, there are people who suddenly learn geography. "They have land the size of Belgium! They have land the size of Portugal, land the size of Switzerland!"
What is land to the Indians?
To the Indians, land is life. And, according to the system of most Brazilians, land is a commodity. Perhaps we will manage to make them understand each other, but at least, by staking out the indigenous areas in Amazonia, we will save a piece of the Amazon region.
Do you believe that part of Amazonia is still being preserved because of this clash of world views?
Yes. And people need to remember that Amazonia has a regulatory function in the global climate. I mean to say: If Amazonia dies, the gaucho down there, the miner, the resident of Espirito Santo will suffer the consequences. And we still don't know what the real extent of these consequences is. If the temperature rises three or four degrees, just to take one example, it will be terrible! The truth is that the consequences of the destruction of the Amazon will not stop at the borders either of the North, or of Brazil. Thus, Brazilians of all regions should be grateful that there are indigenous conservation areas, extractive reserves, and national parks. It's only because there are those reserves that a part of Amazonia is still preserved. But unfortunately, people don't realize that the destruction of Amazonia will also affect their lives.
It's strange how people feel safe, isn't it?
From the information I've received, 61 hydroelectric dams are planned for Brazil, most of them here in Amazonia. And even the EPE (Empresa de Pesquisa Energética - Energy Research Company) doesn't deny that the indigenous areas and also national parks will be directly affected. They talk about it blatantly. So I wonder what will be left.
Most sectors of society, including the government, are talking about "sustainable development". Nobody says they don't want sustainable development. But, in practice, the argument that runs through society is an opposition between development and the environment. Why do you think this view still persists so strongly?
It's a myth. What development is this? Who will benefit from this development? Just look at the situation that Altamira is in today. And the work is just beginning. Of the promised conditions, nothing. Of the 40 conditions set by IBAMA itself, and another 24 by FUNAI, almost nothing. There hasn't been any infrastructure, no housing, no health care or education. For me, development is giving people the opportunity to live with dignity. That is, let's invest in health, education, transportation, housing, basic sanitation and safety. But here, development is making money, it's ensuring energy for the large multinationals and exporting raw materials. Who will benefit from this development? People don't even agree. And these groups, who are in favor of Belo Monte and the major projects for Amazonia, spread the false idea that we're against development, against progress. But we have always fought for health in this city, for education, for sanitation. This development they're preaching is for a few, not for the people.
People are afraid of a "blackout"...
Yes. These groups that are favorable to large projects in Amazonia, are also operating with the ghost of a blackout, an outage. They are saying, "Look, let the gauchos take care, because in the winter, the gaucho will no longer have a hot shower, and then he'll no longer be able to watch a soap opera." Lies! This energy will be exported in the form of aluminum ingots. And it's not clean at all, much less cheap. Don't we have excellent universities, first class scientists, cutting-edge technology? Why not invest now to seek alternative sources of energy? Here, we have sun from six in the morning to seven o'clock at night. In southern Germany, for example, there isn't more than one house that doesn't have a solar panel. And look what a long winter they have. There, in December, the sun rises at 9 am, 10 am, and by 5 pm, it's already dark. And we here at 6 am are already seeing the sun rise. We have sunshine until 7 pm. Why not take advantage of this divine gift? And then there's the coast ... Brazil has a huge coastline, which has no end. Why not take advantage of a part of it, at least, where there isn't tourism, for investment in wind energy? And yet, most of the transmission lines are obsolete. An enormous amount of energy is lost because of this deterioration. Why not invest in the repair and restoration of the transmission lines?
Why do you think the government wants to build Belo Monte so much?
That's my big question. And I don't have an answer. I can hardly guess. Why was Lula against it and suddenly he's in favor of it? Why was the PT against Belo Monte and after getting into power they moved to advocating for exactly what they used to fight against? Why are the deputies we elected from here now in favor of it and they don't even know why? Why this chameleon-like metamorphosis? During the campaign, they were against it, as in the case of deputy Zé Geraldo (PT-PA), who was walking down here, on the edge of the river, lending a hand and praying, in a white shirt, participating in the mystical. And now, my God! He argues the opposite, "Belo Monte has to come out, we can't put Amazonia under a dome." Nobody is proposing an untouchable Amazonia. What those of us who are united in the stand against Belo Monte are advocating is that the riches of Amazonia be used in an intelligent way, not a stupid way.
Historically, the resistance movement against Belo Monte alway supported Lula. What happened?
Here, the resistance against Belo Monte always identified with the PT, and the PT identified with the resistance against Belo Monte. That, even when Lula took office. When we found out that Lula had changed his mind, we came down to earth. My God, how could he do that? And then the PT party members also changed sides. They even started to harass people who still defended the Xingu against this monster. There are people who used to sit here in this room who no longer show up today, because they know that the bishop is still against Belo Monte. There are people in the PT who seem like religious fanatics. Religious fanatics are terrible, aren't they?
Because there's no discussion, there's no dialogue. With a fanatic, you'll never get into a dialogue that pays off. He already thinks he owns the truth, he's sure of himself. So the PT says, "The reasons advocated by the party have to be above the very conscience of the party members." And many people pray according to the PT directive because they think everything is settled there. In fact I can't, because of my party affiliation, have my own opinion, or a different opinion. Here's where those who had their own opinion and didn't want to betray their consciences, such as Antonia Melo, disaffiliated from the party.
Was this change of position in relation to Belo Monte a very big blow?
It was a betrayal, a huge blow. It's very hard to be betrayed by people whom you gave a hand to. They even asked me, in a small voice (he whispers), "Bishop, who are you going to vote for? You can't talk about this in the sermon, but who are you going to vote for?" I said, "I'll vote for Lula. After all, it's the party that was born and grew out of the grassroots, etc. We have to fight for another Brazil, people." Later, the people went on to say, "Now the bishop has to live with this ...".
Is it hard to swallow what you are calling a "betrayal"?
I never spoke publicly about my vote, but everybody knows we want a different Brazil, a just and fraternal Brazil, without corruption, a Brazil with ethics and with all those ideals we held and still support. But the chiefs of the early days of the PT have left. Which of the old ones are here? They've withdrawn. They noted that they were betrayed too. I feel betrayed. Now they say: "The bishop was for that gang from the PT." And now I have to live with it...
Do you think the construction of Belo Monte will be a black mark on the biographies of Lula and Dilma Rousseff?
If Belo Monte becomes a reality, Lula will be remembered as the one who destroyed Amazonia, and gave the blow to the indigenous people. It's the most macabre expression of his pride -- making a monument to himself at the expense of the people who, through the same monument, are condemned to death. And, deep down, deep down, this monument will help foreign countries more than Brazil. Lula will go down in history as the one who devastated the Xingu. Not only the river, but also the people of the Xingu. And I wouldn't want to carry a reputation like that on my shoulders until I die -- and even beyond my life in this world.
What do you mean by "monument"?
Lula wants to have this monument in his name. Lula has no idea of development. Development for him is having more money available and exporting, exporting, exporting, increasing the GDP. Except that this work will not be reflected in an improvement in the lives of the people. On the contrary.
So you believe Lula doesn't understand Amazonia?
He never understood it. And he understands the Indian even less. He never bothered to get into it. He only came to Amazonia to campaign. But he has no idea of the complexity of Amazonia and never asked ... You can't compare Rio Grande do Sul and Pará. When I visit the South, they ask me, "But where do you live?" I answer, "Altamira". They then say, "Oh yeah, Altamira? We have an aunt in Recife too." Recife. People don't really know where the North is. They confuse it with the Northeast. The aboriginal cultures here, the indigenous cultures, are different. And you have to live here to understand this. Lula has never understood -- and he never thought it was necessary to understand.
And, at the end of his term, he went into delirium.
Delirium. Power. He reveled in numbers, statistics. Right here, he told a fib.
He said that people who are against Belo Monte are "boys and girls who don't understand." He said he too, when he was younger, was against Itaipu, because they said, at that time, that it would flood Argentina. He scoffed at the pain and the legitimate demands of the people of Altamira, whose ideas and experiences were different from his. I said, listening to his speech, "My God, and this from the mouth of the president!"
Did he discredit anyone who protested?
Yes, he did. In 2006, at a banquet offered by then governor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, winner of the "Golden Chainsaw" award for his contribution to the deforestation of the country, Lula also let himself be led into a compromising statement. He identified the Indians, the quilombolas (descendents of slaves), the environmentalists and even the prosecutor as "obstacles" to progress. He even characterized pieces of environmental legislation as "ornaments", since those legal parameters were snagging the country's development. Hence the order is to disregard, or at least not give much importance to, social and environmental impacts. Otherwise the country, according to Lula, would be doomed to stagnation. It may be that the president subsequently repented of what he spoke extemporaneously, but the media had already reported the gaffe.
What do you think of the argument that "Amazonia is ours!" which seems to be used for everything, including destroying it?
Amazonia is ours...(he laughs) Nobody ever doubted Brazil's sovereignty over Amazonia. Who's going to doubt it? Who's going to believe something like "Now some Americans are coming to take over here..."? It doesn't make any sense. That's not going to happen. Whoever sees, in his conscience, the configuration of today's world knows that is never going to happen. Now, Lula himself and former presidents who said "Amazonia is ours" gave part of it to the multinationals who rule here. Where do all these firms come from? They're all multinationals. They have their Brazilian part, no doubt. You have to have a Brazilian name, but the capital...
But this xenophobic argument usually works, doesn't it? It turns a hypothetical other into the great enemy and takes the focus off of what's really at stake ... We see it everywhere, even with our neighbors ...
Yes, it's a savage nationalism; we already know it historically. And what did it give us? Nationalism is bad; it always leads people to aversion to what comes from outside. It undermines the whole relationship, because the message is: "We are so much, and the others are nothing." They even claim it, sometimes, when they go abroad, to other Latin American countries. I remember a meeting I attended and everyone had to introduce themselves. So I said, "Soy el obispo de la circunscripción eclesiástica más grande de Brasil" ("I'm the bishop of the biggest church district in Brazil.") The Xingu prelature is the largest in Brazil and I thought it was important to say so, so they would understand where I was coming from. But they looked at me with a certain disdain and said, "En Brasil, todo es lo más grande." ("In Brazil, everything is the biggest.") Latin American countries have a very strong aversion to Brazilian imperialism.
It's as if Brazil were "the United States of Latin America," isn't it? I hear this expression wherever I go...
I shut up and didn't say anything more. So if we, within Brazil, create this kind of xenophobia, we must realize that this is from the dark ages, it belongs to a historical period long past. We must change our mindset to live up to this new historical moment. In a so-called globalized world, we can't live that way. Why don't we really become brothers and sisters? Here in Brazil, we shout our aversion to foreigners and, when the Brazilian goes abroad, he feels the same under his skin.
You experienced the military dictatorship's plan in Amazonia, the "Big Brazil" mentality. Do you find similarities between the dictatorship's plan for development in Amazonia and the plan for Amazonian development of the democratic governments of Lula and Dilma?
Yes. For me, the only difference is this: today we have a civilian dictatorship...an elected one.
Why a dictatorship?
Dictatorship is when someone rules without respecting the Constitution: "I'm the one in charge." The paradigm is Belo Monte. Contrary to what Lula states, it's a project that has been imposed. The public hearings, provided for by law, were merely a window dressing ritual. They mounted a massive police apparatus to intimidate those who were against Belo Monte. Those who will actually be affected by the dam had no opportunity to express themselves. Most of them couldn't even be present because they didn't live in the city where the hearing occured. To today, I maintain the conviction that the licenses that were granted to start the work are unconstitutional. The conditions previously established by the government itself through IBAMA, as I said, were not met. The chaos in Altamira is the most eloquent proof that the government disregarded a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants, treating it like the garbage dump of the world. The constitutional parameters that give support to the citizens in terms of health, education, housing, sanitation, security, transportation simply weren't and aren't being respected. And the government is overlooking this. It doesn't care. And there's still a politician who says, with the greatest chutzpah, that it's the price we pay for progress. The truth is that neither he nor his family pays it. It's Pará that's still being treated like a "colony", exploited and degraded, condemned to pay, in environmental terms and in harm to its people, an exorbitant price for the "progress" of the rest of Brazil.
How did presidents Lula and Dilma fail to respect the Constitution?
Articles 231 and 232 in the Magna Carta of Brazil, which deal with the indigenous people, are being disregarded. The hearings for the indigenous people provided for under the law didn't happen. We can even prove that the Indians were deceived. They promised them hearings and then, dressed up as a "hearing" a simple informal meeting in which the Indians were mere listeners and were never asked their opinion. Bad faith! Deception! Shameless! If the government takes positions that are inconsistent with the Constitution, then Brazil, as a democratic state of law, is in serious danger. The government is not above the Constitution. If the government behaves unconstitutionally, then we're living in a dictatorship again.
Edison Lobão, Minister of Mines and Energy, talked about the "demonic forces against hydroelectric dams." And you've already referred to Belo Monte as an "apocalyptic monstrosity." When you talk about an "apocalyptic monstrosity", what are you saying exactly?
The demonic forces are the ones Lobão is using to raze Xingu. Destruction doesn't come from God. And Lobão speaks without knowing anything about this place. I've never seen him here. Things are decided from there, from the heights of the Planalto. Incidentally, this is our plight here in Amazonia. Decisions are always made elsewhere, without knowing our situation, without asking anyone anything. Our Pará and Amazonia are still treated like a province. In the past, Brazil was a "colony". The metropolis was Lisbon. Today the metropolis might be São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre. We are treated like a colony here. A colony is where people go to look for stuff. And that's why Amazonia is called a "mineral province", a "timber province", an "energy province" and "the last agricultural frontier." The people come, take what they have, and feel no remorse, or duty to pay the bill. Carajás is the most emblematic case: the ore was taken out and what's left is a landscape of lunar craters. When the reference is to natural wealth, they state in a loud voice: "Amazonia is ours." On the other hand, when Amazonia really needs effective collaboration, specific solidarity, it has the impression it doesn't belong to Brazil, that it's another country. They're two conflicting arguments. "Amazonia is ours," but in practice it isn't ours -- that is, it's only ours when we need its resources. Moreover, it's far away, let it turn itself around.
Why do you think this colonial relationship of exploitation has perpetuated in Amazonia up to today?
It's a historical relationship. It's even worth remembering that Pará only got its independence a year after the so-called "Grito do Ipiranga" ("Cry of Ipiranga"). Amazonia always seemed like another world. And that situation has perpetuated up to today. Amazonia is "a different Brazil", it's a "colony" for the rest of Brazil, it's a "province" full of natural resources for others, not for its own use and benefit. I think the state of Pará is the richest in natural resources. However, it remains one of Brazil's poorest.
Do you think the fight against Belo Monte is lost?
No, I don't think so. I'm not the kind who throws in the towel quickly.
The resistance seems to be decreasing now that the work had already begun and whole communities have been removed. What's your perception?
It seems that the resistance is decreasing. But appearances are deceiving. There are fewer rallies, fewer marches, fewer public demonstrations. But there's more press. Belo Monte, in the media nationally and internationally, continues to be featured, even more intensively. Where we didn't expect any support, very critical and questioning voices are now emerging. There are people who years or even months ago defended Belo Monte and today are speaking against it. Of course, the chaos that settled in Altamira helps people to reflect. Was this what we were hoping for? Is this the progress we dreamed of so much? Is this the development promised by the government and sung and poured out in verse and prose by politicians as "the salvation of western Pará"?
How is the relationship in Altamira between the opponents of Belo Monte and the staff of Consórcio Norte Energia (North Energy Consortium) who are performing the work? After all, Altamira is not a very big city ...
We always use peaceful means to express and demonstrate our position. Those who are reacting aggressively are the government and its Consórcio Norte Energia S.A., who whittle down and violate rights, harm the Federal Constitution itself and come to the absurdity of banning the presence of representatives of the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre ("A Living Xingu Forever Movement") near the construction site. I've always been against any use of violence. I'm for nonviolence, but active nonviolence. We will use all nonviolent means to make this monstrous work collapse. The proof that the violence is on the other side is that I've been under police protection for six years. Why would they have decided to put me under the tutelage of the military police, if they weren't afraid of some assault that could be fatal? Who killed Sister Dorothy? Who killed Dema (Ademir Alceu Federicci, a community leader assassinated in 2001 in Pará)? Who ordered the killing of so many others in Amazonia? Might it be because they were the ones who were engaged in the defense of human rights and the environment in Amazonia against the unscrupulous actions of thugs wearing suits and ties at all levels of politics and the economy, big business and the land grabbers on duty?
How do you deal with needing an escort 24 hours a day, every day? I imagine it's pretty hard...
You never get used to it. The relationship with the military is very good, they're very respectful, they're discrete. Now, for example, since you're here, they won't stay at the door to hear what you're talking about, because you had called, and our meeting was arranged. But they're very sensitive when they don't trust someone. It's a complicated life for me. When I cross the square to celebrate Mass, or to eat lunch, or for any move I make, I have to take the police with me. When I'm invited to a birthday, for a baptism, I have to say, "Two or three policemen are coming with me." If you invite me, let's assume, for dinner tonight, on the waterfront, to eat fish, I have to warn you: "I accept, but I'll be coming with two men." Thus, I usually decline any social invitation.
You don't have privacy anymore ...
No. Not since June 29, 2006 at 10 p.m. On that date, at that time, the captain appeared with two cops here and since then, I'm under escort. For me, life changed a lot from then on. They forbade me everything. Instead of walking at 5 am on the edge of the Xingu, I walk here in this hall -- 65 steps forward, 65 back.
And is it going to be like this forever?
As far as I can see...On January 26, 2009, the regional superintendent of the Federal Police of the State of Pará, Manoel Fernando Abbadi, received me in an audience. He was very gentle and understanding. On that occasion, he advised me seriously not to seek to get out of the protection program. If I released myself from the program, I would become an easy target for those who want to eliminate me and they could do so without major obstacles, since I travel a lot within Brazil.
Because you've had death threats?
I think there are four reasons. The first is Dorothy (Stang). The people who killed her, who ordered her to be killed, know I have information. They don't look kindly on me.
I always took sides in favor of her. They said that Dorothy was arming the people and I don't know what else ... I, who welcomed that woman here, always defended her. I told her, "Be careful, Dorothy." Someone even chartered a plane here in Altamira to meet me in Sao Felix do Xingu. They asked me to take Dorothy "out of circulation" and send her back to the United States. Yes, they chartered a plane! An hour and a half flight. It was 9 o'clock in the morning. I prayed the breviary in the rectory, just before going to a community. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door and I opened. "What are you doing here?" They were farmers. "We must speak with you urgently, we chartered a plane to find you. You will have to take this woman out of Altamira."
Have you told the police this yet?
The police? In those days, I didn't talk to the police. I didn't talk to them because I didn't trust them, but I waited to be called into court to tell what I know. It never happened. They didn't remember that I was the one who admitted her into the Xingu Prelature in 1982 and suggested that she go to Transamazônica-Leste, to the area that is the municipality of Anapu today. On February 15, 2005, I buried Dorothy. I buried her. You can't imagine what goes on in a person's heart when faced with someone who for so many years worked and gave the best she could give. Who asked me if she could work among the poorest of the poor. And I said, "Woman, you won't be able to bear it. You're coming here from the United States, with comfort and everything, you can't take it." And she said, "But let me." I let her, and she stayed until the day she was murdered. Suddenly, at the airport in Belém, when I'm coming back here, I get a phone call: "They killed Dorothy." And there was that whole mess, and I finally buried her, there in Anapu.
How did you feel?
It was a terrible experience! Terrible! Impossible to describe. Senators, deputies, a representative of Lula came, so many politicians came for the funeral. We stood there, in front of the casket, a Brazilian flag over the casket...I can give you all the homilies I've given on the anniversary of Dorothy's death. We celebrate her death each passing year, and I give a special homily. But what I felt there, at that moment, before her coffin, I have no words to express, there are no words for it. (There's a long silence) They killed Dorothy. She didn't die a natural death, as they say, but she was murdered. And why? Because she stood on the side of poor wretches who don't have a pot to piss in. And the fact that she stood on the side of the poor put the greed and ambition of those insatiable people in check.
What has changed since her death?
It's embarrassing for me to answer that question. There have been advances, yes, in the management and administration of the PDS (Projetos de Desenvolvimento Sustentável - "Sustainable Development Projects"). The simple people today feel supported by the death of Sister [Dorothy] in the struggle for their land rights and survival on that land. The Romaria da Terra ("Pilgrimage of the Earth"), which takes place in Anapu every year in July, is proof that the people of the rural area remain firm and resolute in defense of what's theirs. But there's another side, which is very sad. So I say that it's embarrassing to answer. There are people who now occupy political positions and have improved living conditions that used to walked arm in arm with Sister Dorothy and us before. Today, they're on the other side and support what they once condemned. We call these kinds of people traitors, just as we also call the party that incorporates these people a traitor. They sold their mother, betrayed their ideals, lost their ethics.
What were the other reasons, other than Sister Dorothy's death, for your permanent escort?
The second reason for the protection is that I'm the president of CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionário -- "Indigenous Missionary Council") and I work for the indigenous people. I have always fought on their side. I know the Church committed many errors throughout its history, but there's no point in regretting the past and condemning what happened. What's important is to act differently. As our role was fundamental in the inclusion of indigenous rights in the Brazilian Constitution, it was in this context that I had an accident in 1987.
An accident or an assassination attempt?
So far, they've never investigated it. I was in the hospital six weeks. I broke my face, literally. But they fixed me. A priest died, who was only 31 years old. The first days were terrible. I learned what pain was in the hospital, unable to sleep. The night never ends, and you also begin to evaluate your life. I thought a lot about the family of the priest who died, the only son of those parents. It was terrible.
How was that accident?
In August 1987, for five days, the two newspapers with the greatest circulation in the country published horrible materials against CIMI. They accused us of everything. And I was president of CIMI. A Joint Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry was established. You've heard of Márcio Thomaz Bastos, haven't you? At that time, he was president of the OAB (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil -- "Order of Brazilian Attorneys"). I met him at the headquarters of the CNBB (the Brazilian Catholic Bishops' Conference). Dom Luciano Mendes was the president of the CNBB and my great friend, a staunch supporter of indigenous peoples and their rights. I consider him a saint! Well, Márcio Thomaz Bastos said to me, "Dom Erwin, don't worry. These accusations are completely baseless, they're coarse and low. We'll prepare a complete dossier and respond to every calumny." CIMI's lawyers asked me not to leave Altamira, or at least not to go far. Brasil Novo is about 45 kilometers away. And the Trans-Amazonian communities were gathered there to demand that the government repair the roads. Winter, the rainy season, was coming, and the roads were impassable. There was no access to the hospital for a doctor and even a toothache could be fatal. So I went to be in solidarity with these people on October 15, 1987. We celebrated Mass, we sang. And then they asked me if I couldn't come back the next day, because it would be the closure of their demonstration. But they made the mistake of announcing over the loudspeaker, "Look, our bishop will be coming back tomorrow, and at 3 pm we'll celebrate Mass. Afterwards we'll close our demonstration by reading our letter of demands." So I went there. Right in the middle of the journey, the accident happened. At the top of the hill, I saw a light colored car. And I thought this car was coming to meet me. But it hasn't come so far. They say it was just there to give the signal. At the very top of the hill, which opens to a straightaway, I saw a truck and it rammed our Gol. Although I was seriously wounded, I never lost consciousness and I saw two men get down from the truck and run away. I tapped the shoulder of the priest beside me and called his name. He no longer answered. He was dead.
Was it an assassination attempt?
That's what they said. But until now there's been no investigation. The driver disappeared. In the car that was there at the top of the hill to give the signal that we were coming, was the delegate of Brasil Novo. He was killed a few months later, while watching television at his home. Eliminating the witness? I don't know. I only know that I was out of action and have yet to be called to Brasilia to testify and take a stand against criminal defamation and slander. The lawsuit was filed away. A stranger came to see the priest who died in the morgue of the hospital where I was admitted for first aid. He pushed the sheet from the deceased's head and declared, "The wrong man died." Macabre! Even today there are people who don't accept my work with the Indians. And they curse: "This bishop has nothing to do, he's defending these caboclos ("mestizos")." The defense of the Indians, then, is the second reason why my life is being protected. The third reason is Belo Monte. In O Liberal they wrote, "This priest who's in Altamira has to be eliminated."
But who said that?
In 2006, the businessmen and politicians declared war against the bishop of Xingu and the social movements. They shouted from the top of their podiums, "Let's go to war." And they promised to "bring down the stick", an explicit incitement to violence. They underpinned this sordid assault with an article published on page 11 of O Liberal, in Belém do Pará, on June 5, 2006. The article was signed by the economist Armando Soares and titled "Reacting is the watchword". Even the CNBB itself filed a lawsuit. So, among other things, they were always shouting, "As long as the bishop is there, Belo Monte will not go forth." A few months ago, a guy screamed in front of one of our officials, "They killed Dorothy, who had nothing to do with this. The one who had to be killed was the bishop." It's with all this hostility that some treat me. It's a minority, I would even say insignificant, but very noisy. A mafia. The people aren't against the bishop, that's for sure. Rather, I have never received such a declaration of love as since these episodes. In the church, they hung banners: "We love you." A woman came to the altar, took the microphone, wept and said, "Dom Erwin, I know what you're going through. But, look, don't throw in the towel, for God's sake. We're by your side! We love you ... ". And the fourth and final reason, which may even be the last straw, the one that broke the camel's back, was the sexual abuse of girls. Another terrible chapter I experienced. We were fighting at the time for the emasculated ones (a series of boys castrated and murdered in Altamira), I don't know if you've already heard about ...
It happened from 1989 to 1993. The Prelature took on the defense of those families and we're still filing lawsuits today. No one did anything until the prelature took up the cause. And we were screaming in Brazil and around the world. And suddenly, in March 2006, came the mothers and the teachers saying, "Bishop, it's really bad. There's some nonsense going on here. People went to the precinct to give a report, but they called our daughters 'little whores'." They took the girls here at school on a Friday afternoon. Girls of 12, 13, cute, in a big car, saying, "Let's go for a spin!" They took them to a farm and had sex with them. Alcohol and drugs were rolling. True orgies. And as if that weren't enough, they filmed it all. You could get a DVD here on any corner, with the school girls that way. Then they came to talk to me. Then I took on this matter. I then wrote a letter to Secretary Paulo Vannuchi (National Secretary for Human Rights under President Lula), and then to the Minister of Justice, the Secretary of State for Public Security, and to all the bigwigs. And, indeed, it had an impact. They sent a delegate, and she asked me to tell her what I knew. She invited me to a meeting at the Women's Precinct. Then I told all. But I said: "Look, the only thing I won't tell you is the names, because the people who confided in me could be at risk." She agreed. So I signed the deposition. And when I left that office I saw one of those guys sitting there. He recognized me, and I recognized him. And then later the news spread through the city that the bishop had reported that gang. Afterwards, the TV channels came to interview me and I, of course, didn't mince words. During the interview I said, in front of the TV, "These guys are all monsters who have to be arrested and locked up. They don't deserve to live in the midst of society." Then there was a virulent, a strong campaign against me, even with banners.
How do you deal with impotence, in the sense that, despite all your efforts, there have been many defeats and, as you said, many betrayals?
We need to understand that not everything is defeat or failure. If I compare the 1965 era to the current period, I see that the people have also become more mature. The people no longer take any guff. Previously, the politicians came here, bought a crate of rum, got everyone drunk, ordered a pig killed, and left elected. Not today. The simple people of the town have gained political maturity. And, since the construction of the Trans-Amazonian, we have formed leaders in the communities who are heading them today. When I see, too, indigenous rights in the Constitution, Articles 231 and 232, I know I did my part. I can't say I'm frustrated, no way.
My attention has been drawn to the number of women at the forefront of the struggle against Belo Monte. Outside of a couple of men, it's been the women who have been leading this resistance. How do you view this phenomenon?
For me, it's about the psychological predisposition that women have. Men are short-term thinkers. We hear this, "You're going to have money in the bank!". I would also say that men are naive. There was one merchant who thought he was going to "get rich" because of Belo Monte. But others have already started to smell a rat because they've noticed that the money hasn't come up to now. But women are attached by their being, their hearts and their psyches to the generation to come. Women put people in the world, they give birth, and so they're almost instinctively concerned about the future of the offspring. This thesis is supported by anthropology and psychology. I've noticed throughout the years that women always have a greater vision for the future because it's about the son, the daughter, the grandson, the granddaughter, whose lives are at stake. Men think about money, about what's immediate. I'm not saying all men, but most of them. Politicians too. The politicians talk about the salvation and redemption of eastern Pará. With rare exceptions, they don't have a vision that goes beyond the ambition to win votes and keep themselves in office. And once again I turn to the Indian. In 2007, at the end of a meeting, an Indian climbed onto a truck, grabbed the microphone and said, " Look at the Xingu and think of what will happen to our children. We're not going to allow the culture of our ancestors to go to the bottom of the river." He made the bridge between the future and the past.
But there are reports that most indigenous groups gave up the resistance in exchange for "benefits", from basic baskets to boats and televisions. What is your perception?
There's a new way to eliminate the indigenous people -- "auricídio" ("death by gold") in addition to genocide and ethnocide. The Indian culture and community organization is killed with money. And this assault may be worse and more subtle and shameless because it kills the culture and social organizations of indigenous people under the guise of solidarity -- and under the cloak of compensation to mitigate negative impacts and effects of Belo Monte. I'd never say that the Indian is in favor of Belo Monte. After centuries of living on the margins of society, in need and rejected by the majority society, he's suddenly in the spotlight and is rewarded with all kinds of gift and benefits. Who's going to advise him not to receive such benefits? It's just that behind these gifts is a system, a strategy to break the resistance of indigenous people.
When you talked about women's leadership in the struggle against Belo Monte, you attributed their motivation to concern for future generations. How would you fit President Dilma Rousseff into that view?
Yeah, about Dilma, I don't know what to say...
She's the first woman in the presidency of the country...
I like having a woman in the presidency but I thought that, as a woman, she would be more sensitive to our situation. But it was Dilma who gave birth to the PAC (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento -- "Growth Acceleration Program"). So politically, she'll never get away from it. We can do a demonstration of what to do. But she cuts off any dialogue, already at the root. Belo Monte is not an issue to discuss. She's very tough, uncompromising, doesn't accept dissenting opinions. She seems to be obsessed by the idea of being the builder of the third largest dam in the world and, perhaps, being the president who will operate the first turbines. The environment, the Indian, the river people, the people of Altamira -- to Dilma none of that matters. Building Belo Monte was not a technical decision, but a political one, made against the warnings of scientists and teachers in our finest universities. The history of the Amazon, Brazil and soon the earth will judge Lula and Dilma quite severely as unscrupulous predators and authors of impacts that have irreversibly altered the planet's climate. We all know the climate regulating role that Amazonia plays. Belo Monte will have a domino effect. With Belo Monte, the green light is given to dozens of hydroelectric dams that have already been planned for Amazonia. Belo Monte is the dagger wielded by Lula and Dilma and the gang to mortally wound the heart of Amazonia.
How is your Xingu today? You had the mythic Xingu of your childhood and then the Xingu when you came here...But how is the Xingu where you are now, at 73 after 47 years?
For me, the Xingu symbolizes the strength of the people and the people who are here. In the past, they didn't dream they would need to resist, obviously. But today, the Xingu tells the story of the people here and also the massacres of the past centuries. And massacres that aren't so distant in time, when entire villages were razed. The Xingu have a history of bloodshed, but today it's also the story of the resistance of a people. So we talk about the Xingu Vivo para Sempre ("A Living Xingu Forever -- a movement against Belo Monte which brings together several social organizations). Because we can't believe the Xingu will be given the ultimatum, that this grand river will simply become a sewer.
What's the size of this loss, for you?
For me, it's always the last piece of paradise that God created. This impact ... I can't agree with that. It's not for sentimental reasons. But the Xingu isn't just the river, the water, the shores, it's also the people here, who have lived here from time immemorial, and then the river people who came in the 18th, 19th, early 20th centuries. And then the immigrants who also came in the 70s. They are now identified with the Xingu, they now belong to the Xingu. They have blue eyes and blonde hair, but they're from here. All these people, mixed together, for me are the Xingu.
You fought for decades against Belo Monte. Do you think there's a chance to win this struggle, since the construction is already underway and with so many people giving in? What's the scenario today and what are your expectations?
I could be considered naive, but I still don't believe it's a lost cause. I also have the feeling that the Xingu river itself isn't going to stay "quiet" when they want to kill it. Geologists and people who understand the matter talk about the Xingu as a river that's still "in statu fieri". I mean, it's not ready yet, it's still forming, building itself, it's moving, imposing itself. The Xingu is a "living" river. I don't trust the studies of those who support Belo Monte at all. Those studies were done simply to corroborate a political decision that had already been made -- and those kinds of studies, to me, lack rigor. The Xingu is enigmatic and unpredictable in its way of reacting. But I also think that the men and women who are now supporting Belo Monte will wise up some day. I hope, at least, that when they wake up, the damage won't already be total.
In the coming days, Brazil's going to host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio + 20, two decades after Rio 92. Do you have any hope for this conference?
Yes, I have hope. Not so much in official discussions, but what happens at the margins or around Rio + 20. I know that people everywhere are going to take advantage of the opportunity and they won't be silent. And also the Xingu and Belo Monte and Amazonia will be topics discussed by point people, both at the level of Brazil and worldwide. And there's more. While Rio + 20 is happening, in Xingu, Xingu + 23 will be happening, remembering our fight against Belo Monte, which has lasted 23 years and surely won't be a lost struggle.
Eliane Bru is a journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker. She has won over 40 national and international awards for reporting. She is the author of a novel -- Uma Duas (LeYa) -- and three books of reportage: Coluna Prestes – O Avesso da Lenda (Artes e Ofícios), A Vida Que Ninguém Vê (Arquipélago Editorial, Prêmio Jabuti 2007) and O Olho da Rua (Globo). And she is co-director of two documentaries: Uma História Severina and Gretchen Filme Estrada.