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Environment, Human Rights, Poverty, Economics/Industry
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Latin America
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Brazil, South America, Latin America, Rainforest, Amazon, Pollution, Energy, Development
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To document and strive to understand the consequences of Brazil’s major hydroelectric expansion on the ecosystems, communities, and industries within the Amazon Rainforest.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim

2016 — professional

The sound of thousands of different species harmonizing echoed in my ears as I lay in my hammock on my first night in the Xikrín community of Pot Crô on the Bacaja River in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest; the name of the river means “that which flows is our veins.” I awoke at first light to find children playing a game of who could stand in a red ant hill the longest before having to jump into a puddle for relief. In that moment and in the days and weeks that proceeded I saw how those born and raised in the midst of nature were different than the rest of us. Their needs and desires were not determined by material goods, but by what nature simply provided and they were fighting to protect it.

Plans for the Belo Monte Dam Complex began in 1975 under the apex of military dictatorship. It would be built on the Xingu River, home to Brazil’s first indigenous reserve. In 1989 the Kayapó, a tribe of which the Xikrín are a subgroup, mounted a massive public campaign to oppose its construction due to fears their river would be destroyed. International financiers soon pulled their support, and the project was shelved.

In 2007, then Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the Accelerated Growth Program, the largest investment package to spur economic growth in Brazil in the past 40 years. A cornerstone of this program is the industrialization of the Amazon, with the construction of over 60 major hydroelectric projects; Belo Monte has been at the forefront. The energy generated will power cities thousands of miles away and fuel local mining initiatives, such as Belo Sun, which will be Brazil’s largest gold mine and is feared will compound the impacts to the Xingu River. Now nearing completion, Belo Monte is considered the third-largest dam in the world. It is displacing over 20,000 people.

Hydroelectric dams are touted as clean and renewable sources of energy, yet hundreds of square miles of land are flooded and complex river ecosystems permanently transformed while new infrastructure and population growth open the forests to increased logging, mining, and agriculture. Under the guise of renewable energy, the Amazon Rainforest is being eroded along with the cultures and communities who depend on this precious ecosystem for their sustainable ways of life.

I have witnessed the lives and anxiety of indigenous communities facing the impacts of the Belo Monte Dam. Under the legal conditions for the dam’s operation these communities were promised fair compensation for the destruction of their habitat, yet as the reservoir fills, those obligations remain unfulfilled. On the tributaries of the Xingu, I experienced the life of the ribenerious, descendants of the workers from Brazil’s hundred year old rubber boom who have forged sustainable lives from the natural wealth of the rainforest. I also witnessed the struggle of the Munduruku tribe who are fighting to save their traditional lands and way of life on the neighbouring Tapajos River where the next mega dam is planned. 

In recent years Brazil’s development of the Amazon has progressed at a staggering rate, as these new developments come to fruition it is vital to be a witness for both the people who call the Amazon home, and the World who depends upon it’s health. It is far to late to stop the Belo Monte dam, but it must be judged it for what it is. We understands the importance of the Amazon Rainforest, yet what happens there is often shielded from our vision. With the support of the Alexia Foundation I will focus on witnessing the fallout from Belo Monte and other region dams. This will include the impacts of the loss of construction employment for local and migrant workers, the growth of collateral industries such as mining, logging, ranching, and agriculture, and most importantly the stories of those who are being robbed of their birthright, the natural world that surrounds them. I will also continue documenting the struggle of the Munduruku people in their fight to stop the Sao Luiz do Tapajos Dam. The consequences of hydroelectric expansion in the Amazon must be understood, this is my goal.

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March 29, 2014. A group of boys climb a tree on the Xingu River by the city of Altamira, Brazil. One third of the city will be permanently flooded by the nearby Belo Monte Dam. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
February 19, 2014. A child from the Xikrin village of "Pot crô" jumps into the Rio Bacaja, its name meaning "the water that runs in river is the same as the blood that flows through our veins."  The Bacaja, a tributary of the Xingu River which the people depend upon for fish and transportation, will severely dry up after the dam is completed. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
December 15, 2014.  Munduruku women bathe and do laundry in a creek by the village of Sawre Muybu. The Munduruku are currently fighting against government plans to construct a number of hydroelectric dams on the Tapajos River in the Amazon rainforest that would flood much of their traditional lands in Para State, Brazil. Brazil is planning to build over 60 new Dams in the Amazon Rainforest. The dams are part of Brazil's Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC), which also includes a rapid expansion of mining in the gold rich region. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
November 28, 2014. A group of Munduruku tribal members use a computer during an occupation of the FUNAI offices (Brazil's National Indian Foundation) in Itaituba, Para, Brazil. The occupation was in protest to the fact that government has refused to publish official documents that would recognize Munduruku traditional territory. If recognized, flooding of the territory by new hydroelectric development would be illegal under Brazilian Law. Brazil has some of the best environmental and indigenous protection laws in the world, but large scale development such as dams and mines are often decided before environmental reviews have even begin. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Feb 19, 2014. A Xikrin warrior is painted in the village of "Pot crô." The Xikrin are part of the Kayapo tribe that have strongly resisted the Belo Monte dam for decades. Their river the Baraja, will be severely dewatered by the dam transforming their traditional way of life. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
December 8, 2014.  A Munduruku family watch Brazilian Soap Operas  in the village of Sawre Muybu. Although living completely off the land their villages have generators, fridges and televisions. Many indigenous communities are provided with these goods by government and industry hoping to win their support for the proposed dams. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
February 21 2014. A child from the Xikrin village of "Pot crô" stands for a photo on the banks of the Rio Bacaja, its name meaning "the water that runs in river is the same as the blood that flows through our veins." The Xikrin are a warrior tribe that have strongly resisted the dam, but were recently dived into 8 smaller groups due to negotiations with Norte Enegria, the company building the dam. Many of the chiefs were paid off with boats, motors, and televisions, while others maintained resistance. The Bacaja, a tributary of the Xingu River which the people depend upon for fish and transportation, will severely dry up after the dam is completed. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
March 14, 2014. A family moves their belonging out of their flooded home in Invasao dos Padres, a neighbourhood in Altamira that is being permanently flooded by the Belo Monte Dam. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
April 5, 2014. Veia balances her child who she and her husband David, left, have yet to name in their home on the Extractavist Reserve of Riozinho do Anfrísio. Extractavists are the descendants of Rubber Tapers who came to the forests generations ago during Brazils Rubber Boom. They now live along the river banks with an economy based on harvesting sustainable natural products such as rubber, nuts, and oils. Aaron Vincent Elkaim
NOVEMBER 26, 2014. Members of the Munduruku indigenous tribe walk on a sandbar on the Tapajos River as they prepare for a protest against plans to construct a series of hydroelectric dams on their river in in Para State, Brazil. The tribe members used the rocks to write 'Tapajos Livre' (Free Tapajos) in a large message in the sand in an action in coordination with Greenpeace. The Munduruku live traditionally along the river and depend on fishing and the river system for their livelihood. Although the tribe has over 10,000 members and has lived on the river for many generations, their traditional lands are unrecognized by the government giving them little legal protection against development, but have vowed to fight against the dams. Aaron Vincent Elkaim