I, Xingu, Am Dying

Eliane Brum writes from the perspective of the Xingu River, in Brazil, which faces imminent death as hydroelectric power plants and dams threaten natural and human life.

WORDS BY ELIANE BRUM

PHOTOGRAPHS BY LALO DE ALMEIDA

TRANSLATED BY DIANE GROSKLAUS WHITTY

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The ancient peoples call me “father.” Or “mother.” The commodities people call me “resource.” Sometimes they stick on an adjective: “natural resource.” It’s fascinating how those who call themselves “human” like to catalogue things. As if I could have a gender. That’s the funny part about these creatures with two legs and multiple ambitions: how they entangle their narratives and their political battles in my waters. Ever since the #MeToo movement—which began much earlier in the Amazon, without any name at all—they’ve been saying, “The Xingu is a woman.” I’ll gladly agree to be a woman if it means less blood of women running through my body and fewer of their bodies being drowned in mine by unpunished killers. Those lungs that are clogged with my waters and those terrified eyes that don’t close give me nightmares. I like living women, and their children tickle me when they stroke through my body. They invented a gender for me, in the image and likeness of humans, but that doesn’t matter to me. Being called a resource—that does. It’s precisely because they call me a resource that I needed to write this petition to the International Criminal Court. I’m leaving myself and wielding their language to denounce that I am now a slave. And I am being murdered.

 

It’s curious how I never thought I could die. Much less at the hands of these beings, who are interesting but rather pathetic. Sorry. I’m not being very precise. The ones killing me arrived here yesterday. For centuries, I suspect for millennia (measured time doesn’t make much sense to me), I lived peacefully with different types of humans. I watched them create this forest they call “the Amazon.” Not all of it, obviously, because the trees and various other beings the newcomers call “animals” already existed before the first humans reached me—coming I don’t know where from, because I never cared about knowing. They seemed insignificant compared to the jaguars, anacondas, and giant turtles, the most majestic creatures to inhabit me in recent millennia. The ones that move, of course. Personally, I prefer rocks, with whom I have a much more intimate relationship because we take thousands of human lifetimes to penetrate each other and are satisfied with just being. Out of rocks and time, I drew Jericoá Falls, whose beauty is capable of silencing even the noisy commodities people.

 

To be honest, I thought humans were quite ugly when I first felt them inside me. I mistook them for howler monkeys, but soon realized they don’t sing as well. Then I lost interest. Over the days—or would it be centuries?—I began observing them. And I discovered they were shaping part of the forest as if it were a garden. Some believe the Amazon forest made itself, just as it is today. I bear witness that it didn’t. These humans made the forest more varied and more generous with their needs for food, shade, and dwelling places. They didn’t build it with steel, iron, and cement, like the current cities—the ones shitting in me as if I were a latrine. They built it with living things. Build is the wrong verb because I still haven’t gotten used to written language. Those ancient humans didn’t build; they planted the forest.

Part of the Amazon is a “cultural forest,” a term used by academics, a varied group of recent humans who poke themselves into every part of me to study me. Their curiosity amuses the ancient peoples, who place bets on how long they can stand the stinging mosquitoes before deserting for the nearest city. I discovered the concept of “cultural” or “anthropogenic forest” through hearing a professor who was traveling along me. He was rather chubby and not so young. The mosquitoes had orgies on his milky-white body, and I thought he might lose it. I couldn’t help much because it was July and I was nearly dry. When they got out to drag their boat off some rock, the stingrays attacked. For humans, there’s nothing worse than a ray’s stinger. Except, of course, being chewed up by a jaguar or swallowed by an anaconda, but that’s less likely. Rays are always around and not always visible. When their stinger and venom pierce a foot, they can do some serious damage. I’m always shaken by these encounters between species, because humans make such a fuss.

 

The Amazon is older than I am. You must realize: I’m stating this because I need you to comprehend what I have to say. Strictly speaking, neither I nor it exists. But since the share of humans who dominate the planet today separate everything into compartments, I need to speak in such a way that I can be understood. In writing this denunciation, I face the same dilemma as the ancient humans, who the commodities people call “Indigenous.” They too must learn the newcomers’ language to fight them in their courts. When they do, they often lose their grasp of what they are. Language doesn’t only express thought; it also structures it. If someone keeps repeating that rivers like me are “resources” only so that they can be understood at the negotiating table, eventually they’ll believe it’s true, and then they’re no longer able to resist oppression. They’re converted into slaves. The slave is precisely someone who talks like the oppressor—and believes what he says.

You’re killing a being millions of years older than you… I and all my branches occupy a portion of forest nearly the size of France. I extend almost 2,500 kilometers… Yes, die of envy. My orgasms are tantric and have lasted millions of years.

I’m writing to you, commodities people. Yes, you who suck life from the Amazon without replacing what you steal. But I run the risk of making your language, which oppresses me, mine. So, I need to approach you while also resisting you. I can trick you because, in speaking your language, I make you believe I believe what it says. But at the same time, I must not trick you so much that I believe it myself. It’s a dangerous game. But I’ve been forced to risk it because, as I said, you’re killing me. And you’re killing me because you have determined what I am. A resource. And hence a commodity. And hence at your disposal. Words are destiny. And I refuse this destiny.

 

You’re killing a being millions of years older than you. In your own terms, I and all my branches occupy a portion of forest nearly the size of France. I extend almost 2,500 kilometers, from my headwaters to where my body merges with the body of the Amazon River in our endless climax. Yes, die of envy. My orgasms are tantric and have lasted millions of years.

Inside intricate labyrinths of water, rock, and green, I shelter so much life and so many lives that all your centuries of research have failed to capture. Twenty-eight Indigenous peoples live in my body alone, and each is a language and a wholly diverse world. At least 600 fish species call me planet, because they know only me. Hundreds of mammal species, thousands of bird species, millions of insect species are born, breed, and transform themselves into the universe the old peoples call the Xingu. Me. And nevertheless, you, who arrived a minute ago in the world’s time, kill me. I ask myself, What type of being are you? I’d like to hear the answer from your own mouth. Tell me what makes you a devourer of your own home and a being who eats itself. Although you have the worst canines of all the great apes, you, cowardly creature, are capable of chomping up your own children’s future.

 

I stop. I need to calm my waters if I want to finish this denunciation. It’s the roar of the chainsaw that transforms me into fury. I become a banzeiro, which is what the ancient people have named the moment I turn into a vortex. When this happens, no people should come near me. Chainsaws butchering great trees—likewise universes holding thousands of creatures—chainsaws finishing off centuries of existence in minutes. Oh, how I wish I could reproduce the sound of your death machine so you, commodities people, could hear the screams of everything that dies, in all its horror. Believe me, even you, with your indifference to whatever doesn’t start and end in your own navel, would beg for deafness.

 

The human newcomers to the forest—and when I say “newcomers,” I’m talking about 500 years ago—are white. Unlike the ancient humans, who are the color of earth. They came from Europe with their boots, despair, and stench. You can’t imagine how they, your predecessors, stank. When I saw the ancient women raped by those filthy, diseased penises, thrusting in and out of their vaginas until they drew blood, I wanted to cry, too—but my tears are sweet, not salty. The literature of the humans doesn’t make much commotion about sweet tears.

 

To avoid any misinterpretations, I should explain that while I call the European invaders “newcomers,” they consider themselves illustrious representatives of the “Old World.” The predecessors of today’s Europeans thought the world began when they set their fungus-infested feet in it. These humans’ ego is surpassed only by their ignorance. That’s why it’s important to make clear that in this land they call America—and here, where I am, in and of Brazil—there were old worlds, and still are, because we resist all forms of death inflicted on us by the commodities people. Their predecessors carried gunpowder and viruses. In this encounter with the newcomers, 95 percent of the Indigenous died. Those who remained survived the end of their world, and today, in mine and other waters of the Amazon and Brazil, there are 256 peoples with centuries-old roots that speak more than 160 languages you don’t know.

The commodities people came first for the gold, possessed by the illusion of treasure and glory, stupid enough to not understand that the wealth was what they crushed beneath their boots. Behind them came some priests called Jesuits, who gathered the Indigenous to put them on their knees. They didn’t kill them with gunpowder or enslave them, like the men in boots did. The men in frocks tried to steal their souls and turn them into others, likewise a kind of death. The men in boots left devastation, blood, and fleas behind. Children, too, sometimes. The men in frocks bequeathed submission and crosses bearing the image of a man just like them, nailed to the wood. They told a strange story about him, and I really like stories. First they killed their god and then they worshipped him, which says a lot about these dominant humans.

 

Much later, Evangelicals came along and killed, too, spreading viruses with the spittle from their sermons. At present they occupy the state and become a greater threat every day, as they try to go farther and deeper inside. It seems they want to devour all the world’s souls, and now, they use their power to target the ancient peoples, who penetrated me and the forest so they wouldn’t be found. The ones the commodities people call “isolated Indigenous peoples.” I should explain that I hold nothing against any religion, and I live peacefully with all creators. In fact, Xingu, the name the ancients gave me, means “dwelling place of the gods.” However, I want to denounce those who use religion to mask their greed for land and gold. They don’t want to touch hearts and spirits but to appropriate territory and convert it into commodities.

 

Of all the worlds spinning on this planet, this forest, of which I am part, is the most biodiverse. And this forest, which is over 50 million years old, is now being murdered along with me by those who call me a resource and who, when they look at the forest, only see more resources. Nowadays, they look at us and their eyes turn us into commodities. I should tell you that the commodities people aren’t just American and European. More recently, they’re also Chinese. Today, these humans whom I’d never seen here navigate and fly over me. They’re everywhere, speaking a language I’ve just started learning. While we’re being consumed on the other side of the planet, the forest and I are becoming desert, ever nearer to what scientists call the point of no return. The dominant humans—whether they speak Portuguese or Spanish, as during the first colonizing furor, or English, as during the continuing second furor, or Chinese—battled each other for commodities but have much more in common than they imagine: They are all great builders of ruins.

 

I don’t expect to understand you, commodities people. I’ve tried but couldn’t. Even now, I must stop writing to catch my breath because you’ve poisoned me with mercury and other heavy metals, and I’m writhing in agony. When you poison me, the fish who live in me are poisoned, and the humans who eat the fish are poisoned. In all these millions of years, I’d never seen people who set their own home ablaze and poison their own water and food. That’s how I die while also killing. This idea is unbearable to me, because not only do they murder me, they turn me into an accomplice, too.

Before, the commodities people simply came, wrenched out what they could, enslaved who they could, and vanished. In the late nineteenth century, they began establishing themselves here in my world to bleed rubber trees. They call the blood of these trees latex and use it to make rubber. For decades, rubber was the commodity. They brought poor humans from northeastern Brazil to do heavy labor in the heart of the forest, hungry men willing to do anything to keep on breathing, and they enslaved them. For decades they killed Indigenous people, and the Indigenous killed them, while the bosses grew rich exporting rubber to US and European auto industries.

 

You know your American dream, which includes a shiny car and white families with white-toothed smiles inside? Well, the American way of life started here, with the blood of darker-skinned peoples. It still starts here in many ways. In the early twentieth century, Henry Ford took this dream so far that he created a nightmare in the forest. He tried to install a Ford production line in the Amazon to produce rubber for his factories. He built a city along one of my sibling’s waters, the Tapajós River. I could write pages about this capitalist hell in our old world, but that’s for another day. I must return to the principle stream of this narrative before you—your concentration drained from time spent on social media—give up on me. In these times, it’s more prudent not to occupy the other’s “place of speech.” The Tapajós can speak for itself.

Everything is interconnected. What they do to me today will affect you tomorrow, even if you’re on the other side of the world. That’s why my imminent death is your affair. Those who are killing me are also killing you.

When the rubber seeds were stolen from the Amazon and carried off to Malaysia, the capitalists abandoned the enslaved workers in the forest. And they survived. They learned with the ancient peoples and came together through rape or love for Indigenous women. They too became a forest people who today are called “ribeirinhos” or “beiradeiros”—they who live the river, on it and of it. Their abhorrence of slavery is passed down from father to son, and the beiradeiros have come to be averse to the idea of bosses and obsessed with freedom. They are neither Indigenous nor white, but another human who chose to live like the forest and river and who joined the resistance. The beiradeiros love me as much as the Indigenous do. They call me mother and sing to soothe my pain.

 

Ever since rubber, the commodities people come and go. Every time they come, they dump people who don’t leave, and what was a village becomes a town and what was a town eventually becomes a city. The ugliest cities you’ll ever see because the ones who build them believe trees are backwardness and cement is progress. The sun feels like 100 degrees in the summer, but there’s hardly any shade. In the Amazon, to cut and burn trees is to “clean.” And they’re always “cleaning.” As I’ve warned you, you must be very careful with words because language is thought.

Then the time of the generals reached this land that the invaders named Brazil. On the human calendar, this catastrophe ran from 1964 to 1985. The military dropped off colonels from all over Brazil to “tame” what they called the “green desert,” and I pitied their skin, flayed by the sun. They offered up my body for the exploitation of gold and other ores. They opened a megalomaniac highway called the Trans-Amazonian and paved it with the blood of the Indigenous peoples living in the way. They built monstrous hydroelectric dams like Tucuruí and Balbina, feeding construction companies and corruption schemes. They killed more than eight thousand Indigenous people—and no general ever answered in court for this crime. “Justice, remove your blindfold,” said a feisty beiradeira who inhabits me. She’s certain, from her own experience, that the blindfold doesn’t make justice impartial; it makes justice blind.

 

The beiradeira deluded herself that Brazil’s return to democracy would bring some relief. But democracy never came for me and the peoples of the forest. For us, those who don’t take part in decision-making, dictatorship is the only system. Did I vote to get mercury poisoning? Or did the forest choose by plebiscite to be destroyed by fire and chainsaws? Or did the Indigenous peoples decide to transform their villages into roads?

 

Pressured by my murderers, I was forced to study the politics of humans, and I’m going to ask permission to state the obvious. Some days back, an anthropologist dropped a book in me. I could have returned it, but the title made me curious: How Democracies Die. “They die without having ever been born,” I would have said if the man could have understood me. There will never be full democracy if it’s not for everyone. And by “everyone,” I’m referring not just to the humans who have been split off from it but also to nonhumans, to rivers and mountains. And—in the cry of the girl with the braids who talks like an Indigenous person but is white as merengue—to future generations as well.

 

In recent years, I and other mighty rivers in the Amazon, like the Madeira and Teles Pires, have started to be enslaved. The military dictatorship’s big Amazonian dam projects returned under a democratic government portraying itself as popular and leftist. I’ve given up trying to understand human paradoxes; at most, I manage to navigate them. If for a moment I take poetic license to think of myself as an individual, like you do, I can say it was the greatest tragedy in my existence of millions of years. On me they built what they called a “grandiose work of civil engineering,” the Belo Monte—Beautiful Mountain—hydroelectric power plant. This is part of the sadism of the commodities people, evoking beauty when they name their weapons of mass destruction.

Silence.

 

I.

 

Was.

 

Dammed.

 

And. Much. Of. The. Life. In. Me. Disappeared.

 

Monkeys. Pacas. Sloths. Tapirs. Jaguars. Giant otters.

 

Fish. Birds. Snakes. Toads. Caimans. Anacondas.

Insects.

 

Kapok trees. Burn-offs.

 

Humans. Expelled.

 

Pain. Cries. Despair.

 

Fire.

 

Death.

I resume a false fluidity to save paper because paper is trees. But I don’t flow anymore. In the language of the commodities people, a hydroelectric dam is “progress” and “development.” In my language and that of the forest peoples, the name of the dam is death. Today one company, Norte Energia, controls how much water the dam releases or holds. You can’t imagine what it’s like to feel my body suddenly dry up or suddenly swell, at the whim of this creature they call a “corporation.” I don’t think they’ve managed to invent torture as painful as this for their enemies with whom they share DNA. I’ve been made into a slave dragging dead limbs they call lakes, but the only thing thriving in these lakes are mosquitoes that transmit diseases like dengue and malaria. In the Volta Grande do Xingu, the most erotic curve of my body, where wind, time, sun, and rain have sculpted in me a masterpiece that your greatest artists could never reproduce, I am in my death throes. Along with me, two Indigenous peoples, the Arara and the Yudjá, as well as dozens of ribeirinho families, have been condemned by the withering forest and the vanishing fish who can no longer spawn or breathe.

 

You might suspect me to be exaggerating the conditions of my captivity out of self-interest. So, I must remind you that even members of the finance system, above any suspicion that they might be concerned about something other than their own profit, reacted to the massacre. Because of Belo Monte, Norway’s sovereign fund, the world’s largest, excluded Brazil’s main government-owned energy company, Eletrobras, from its portfolio. Their words, not mine: “unacceptable risk that the company contributes to serious or systematic human rights violations.” I prefer the words of a beiradeira outraged by her mother’s fate: “Water wasn’t born to work for anyone!”

 

I don’t know if you can understand what it means for a company to control the water of one of the Amazon’s biggest rivers. And, therefore, control part of the forest. And, therefore, control thousands of human and millions of nonhuman lives. And, therefore, also control your life, because although you compartmentalize the planet, everything is interconnected. What they do to me today will affect you tomorrow, even if you’re on the other side of the world. That’s why my imminent death is your affair. Those who are killing me are also killing you. I call you the commodities people, but you are slaves too, even if you’re smothered in trinkets. What the Europeans did to the Indigenous—trading mirrors for gold—big corporations do to you every day. Those who are killing me are also those who are controlling you. We are, you and me, enslaved by the dominant minority who is leading our shared home to collapse.

 

Torturers are creative when destroying bodies. It’s no different with me. At this moment, a Canadian mining concern called Belo Sun—Beautiful Sun—is using the power of money to press for authorization for what it calls “the largest open-pit gold mine” on the Volta Grande do Xingu. It’s not enough to enslave me; they want to transform me into a gigantic hole full of toxic waste that will condemn life for decades, perhaps centuries. After yanking the land’s guts out, they’ll disappear with their profits, leaving corpses behind. Every river in this forest has seen this story happen before, but maybe not in the proportions now threatening me. I’ll remind you yet again that the planet is one. What happens to me will happen to you. My death has a long reach.

I suggest that they listen to the ancient peoples, the ones who understand themselves as nature, and that they change. There’s no point paying lip-service to sustainable development if your life isn’t sustainable.

Don’t give up in the face of my harsh words. I’m nearing the end. I must warn you, however, that there is no happy ending in a denunciation to the International Criminal Court. No lengthy introduction is needed for the human who is deciding the future of myself and of the Amazon today, a white man who wears a stupider expression than most, called Jair Bolsonaro. Images of the forest in flames should be enough for even the most distracted to remember him. Your fate and mine lie in these hands covered with gunshot residue. Draw your own conclusion.

 

The time of pandemics has arrived. And this man named Bolsonaro left the forest exposed to the virus and denied the Indigenous even drinking water. His actions against the guardians of the forest arouse the suspicion that he’s promoting ethnic cleansing, eradicating the resistance in order to lay the forest open to exploitation. In your language, commodities people, genocide is the word for murdering a group of humans. Ecocide is the name of my murder.

 

COVID-19 is only the first of the future pandemics. When the dominant human minority destroys other species’ homes, they also release viruses. Nearly eight billion humans on their knees before a being they can’t even see should teach the commodities people something. But I fear your species will be incapable of freeing itself. In the Caribbean and Latin America, where I am, 42 people have increased their fortunes by 48 billion dollars, profiting off the pandemic. This should sound a warning in your head. I don’t have a head, but the warning still resonates in mine.

 

An Indigenous thinker suggested that, through the virus, the planet cast humans into silence: a silence that would allow them to listen. I suggest that they listen to the ancient peoples, the ones who understand themselves as nature, and that they change. There’s no point paying lip-service to sustainable development if your life isn’t sustainable. Yes, I need to tell you that the way you live your life is indeed unsustainable. COVID-19 is only a harbinger of what is yet to come, is already coming, if humans don’t create another kind of society able to live with all others. This planet to which we belong, this one I see as my home and an extension of my body and you see as a shopping mall built for your pleasure, is anguishing. The commodities people have caused the superheating of our world and might not be capable of living in a still-living but transfigured being.

 

My name is Xingu. And I am here to denounce my extermination. Pay attention, however. You won’t be here to bemoan my death. Rivers like me are the Earth’s veins. Without me, there is no you. If my murderers aren’t stopped and I finish dying, it will be because the judges and you too will all be dead.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

Shop Volume 04

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

Shop Volume 04

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