Image 2: Riverine man in his boat on the Xingu River. Source: Patchineelam, S. (2018)

Xingu river & city of Altamira, State of Pará, Brazil

This pilot project is a result of a Ph.D research project on riverine women’s adaptation after development-induced resettlement.

The construction of the second biggest dam in Brazil, the Belo Monte Hydropower dam (image 1), has resettled the local riverine community from the riverbank to the outskirts of the nearby city, Altamira. This involuntary resettlement has disconnected the riverines, also known as ‘people of the waters’ (image 2), from the river and the forest, which was their primary source of income and livelihood.

Image 1: Aerial view of the Belo Monte dam. Source: Patchineelam (2020)

This shift has also resulted in the loss of the riverines’ spatial identity, livelihoods and traditions. There are six Collective Urban Resettlement (CUR) sites spread throughout the city of Altamira (image 3).

Image 3: View of a Collective Urban Resettlement and the Xingu river in the background, with the centre of the city of Altamira in between. Source: Patchineelam, S. (2018)

The riverine families were resettled gradually from their neighbours, thus rupturing their social networks and communities. These CURs (image 4) are home now to riverine people, indigenous families and city dwellers—a fusion of peoples that the company brought together without considering their different livelihoods and lifestyles.

Image 4: Street in a Collective Urban Resettlement, with a school on the left side and houses on the right side. Source: Patchineelam, S. (2018)

With the formation of the reservoir, the natural environment has changed dramatically (image 5). Aquatic and terrestrial animal diversity have diminished, and the vegetation has altered. This shift has affected the riverine population, which relied on natural resources for food security and financial capital. These changes have resulted in the riverines becoming dependent on the monthly monetary compensation from the company responsible for the construction of the dam.

Image 5: Dead trees in the reservoir of Belo Monte Dam. This image is showing a riverine boat parked in the reservoir-bank of the Xingu River. Source: Patchineelam, S. (2020)

A Riverine Council was formed by those affected by the dam many years later and a Riverine Territory was created on the reservoir-bank to enable families to return to the riverside (image 6). However, because of federal environmental laws, the riverine families are currently not able to utilise the land fully and to grow vegetables to sell in the market, and the reduction in the number of fish has also affected riverine food and economic security. 

Image 6: Meeting of the Riverine Council. Source: Patchineelam, S. (2020)

In the river bios component, the project team tries to understand the riverines’ history and origins, and to understand the disruption that the Belo Monte dam has created in their lives, through stories recounted by the population.

In the mapping component, the project team joined the NGO Instituto Socioambiental on an expedition to identify the territory of the riverines. With this exercise the team was able to link the stories and histories of the riverines with the land. During the expedition the team and the NGO mapped the vegetation, the soil and animal tracks in every piece of the land, to prepare for the return of the riverine families. Only after analysing the land the Riverine Council indicated in which areas their community would be able to survive. 

As part of the revitalization component, the pilot project aims to achieve transformative resilience by means of an action plan to strengthen the riverine people’s self-empowerment and territorial empowerment, as well as their financial stability. The project team aims to transform current livelihoods of the riverine people in the reservoir area within the context of the changed natural environment.  This action plan must be connected to riverine traditions and to empower the riverine community, which has been invisible and marginalised throughout the resettlement process.

Image 7: Altamira on the Xingu River Source: Patchineelam (2020)