Nearly 14 months ago, when the construction of the Belo Monte dam began, Sebastião and his family were forced off their land and to this day they have not received any compensation. Maini and her sister say often, “They have not given even a kilo of salt in compensation.”
by Sarah Freeman
April 1, 2013
It was 7 a.m. when I started talking with Maini while she waited with me in line for four hours at the Altamira private hospital in the remote jungle boomtown deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Maini is the second oldest of Seu Sebastião’s four children. Ten years ago, her father Seu Sebastião built his life as a farmer near the banks of the Xingu River. At that time he couldn’t have predicted how much his life would change because of his country’s desire for “progress.”
This 17-year-old girl with long hair, exuberant and full of energy, did not try to hide her anger about what happened to her family. She told me that she was now dedicating her time to studies and fighting against the Belo Monte dam.
I started by asking her what her best childhood memories were. At that moment it were as though she had been transported into another dimension. With a smile flooding over her face, memories started to rain in back to age seven, taking her first steps onto her families land, a place she would call home until Belo Monte.
“So many memories, good memories … In the early years my brother and I would harvest nuts – the cacao we planted wasn’t producing yet and we needed another way to bring in money,” she recalled.
“We would get up at 4 a.m. to collect nuts wearing our machetes and our collection bags. We would clear the forest to get to the trees, walking very quietly and listening attentively to hear the nuts falling through the loud chorus of birds.
“We also grew a variety of crops – sometimes we would harvest around 6,000 kilos of pumpkin a week in addition to the cacao. It would take us three days to take all the pumpkins we harvested to the river, then bring them to the city by boat.”
She said that in those times her family had everything they needed and were very happy. This thought resonated through my mind. I feel that it is important to highlight this because I believe that people in the city often have a distorted view of what it means to live well. And our society’s concept of progress is backwards and wrong, if you ask me.
“We used to do everything. I really enjoyed what I did, I never had a boring routine; our life was pleasant and warm,” Maini went on, illustrating how the work had been pleasant and that she missed the old days. “We had a beautiful plantation of passion fruit, pineapple, banana, coconut, cacao, corn and yucca…There was everything! We usually spent our mornings in plantations and then we would all have lunch together. In the afternoon we used to go fishing. Every day our mother would make cakes for us. I especially loved that! I was so happy there, I never wanted to leave.”
I asked her what her fondest memory there was.
“It was the day that our land was prepared for us to plant cacao trees. My mother called us over to look at the saplings, telling us, ‘Look here, these trees are your future.’ We planted over 6,000 cacao trees that week. My mother was eight months pregnant at the time and was able to carry more trees than my brother and I combined. She is truly amazing.”
Imagining her happiness and how much her life has changed now, I could not help asking her what she felt the day she learned her family could lose their land due to the construction of Belo Monte dam. At that moment her facial expression drastically changed. It was as if the sky fell on her head, moving from paradise to hell in a second.
“I felt very sad. I grew up there. I never imagined that we could be removed from our land. When the eviction order came it was horrible. My father resisted and occupied the land for several days. One day, ten federal cars came while my dad was working in the fields. They started tearing down the house with everything still inside. Then they started to tear down the cacao fields. My father tried to stand in front of the bulldozer to make them stop but they sent a clear message; if he were to stand in the way he would be cleared away with the trees. At the last minute he ran out of the way, then he disappeared into the forest for several days.”
Then I asked, What has changed in your life since the building of the Belo Monte Dam?
“Everything! Do you know what it is like when everything has been turned upside down? Everything has been smashed to pieces. It changed everything. We had money, we had all the food we needed, we had everything; they came and they destroyed everything. They didn’t pay us a penny, not even a kilo of salt! We used to rent a house in the city for 150 dollars a month and after the construction of the dam our rent went up to 500, then a week later we lost our land. Without any compensation or a way to make money we had nowhere to go. My sister’s godfather was luckily able to help us. My parents are living in the yard of their house as a favor and my father now works for someone else. My sister and I are studying in the city, living in Xingu Vivo’s house. If they didn’t take us in, we wouldn’t have had a place to go. For me this is an injustice, to work hard to build a life, then to be forced to leave it with out any compensation. After the construction started my mother couldn’t go back to the house because it made her too sad. She thought that the river was angry with her, as if it was trying to tell her something.”
And what is your worst memory? I asked.
“It was the day I came back to our land to see everything had been destroyed,” she replied without hesitation. “I could not control myself. I started to cry. I wept for the destruction of nature, our lives, and our history. I felt that I had no future anymore. I felt that my life was over. You know when you throw a coin in the drain and it swirls down slowly, that is how I felt. I did not know what to do. My mother asked someone from Norte Energia what they would do to our land. He replied that they would build a place to store garbage. My mother replied, ‘Do you really have so much garbage that you needed all of our land to do that?’ He replied, ‘We will put all the trees we cut down there.’ And my mother said, ‘But they are not simple trees! We use them to make tables and chairs! The trees are not garbage!’ That day I felt horrible, I felt my mother’s heart break and at that precise moment, my heart broke as well.”
Maini is so young and she has already lived through so much in spite of everything that has happened. Her young eyes, her gaze, are marked by violent destruction and injustice, and her pain is as clear as the spring waters that used to bathe her lands.
She concluded by telling me, “We used to have a chestnut tree on my land that was so large you needed five people holding hands to hug completely around it. Where is the justice? How can they come, break, break down, and throw away that chestnut tree? Where’s the justice? This is absurd!”
Maini knows that this project is being implemented by the federal government, so I asked her what she would say to Dilma if given the chance.
“I would not put up with being civilized. I’d probably scream and curse at her. I’m very angry with her!”
I asked her, What would you say to the people of Brazil?
“My people, what is happening here is not what you think. They are kicking, slaughtering, and destroying everything. Children are being violated, innocent people are suffering, and the environment is suffering. This is all being done with our money – your money! You need to be aware of it! Do not just think about yourself, put yourself in the place of others.”
Finally when I asked Maini about her future plans, she concluded: “For the future, I want to study, graduate, and kick these bastards’ asses. I want justice.”