Chief Raoni, headman of a large Kayapó community located on the banks of the middle Xingu River in Central Brazil, bows his head and covers his eyes with his left hand. His face is contorted with grief, and he wears the traditional lip disk of male elders as well as a bead-work necklace and feather headdress. This photo of Raoni crying at a public meeting in June 2011 hit the international news media at a time when the Brazilian government had made it unmistakably clear that it was determined to move ahead with granting a license to the multi-billion dollar corporations that wanted to build the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam at a site known as Belo Monte along the lower Xingu River. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had publically condemned the Belo Monte project in early June, and the newly elected administration of President Dilma Rousseff responded by refusing to send its ambassador to the Organization of American States, withdrawing $800,000 of support for the institution, and refusing to take any additional steps to protect indigenous rights. These rights are defined not only in international laws and treaties, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, but also in the Brazilian Constitution. Putting an exclamation point on its initial refusal to cooperate with the Organization of American States, the Brazilian government later refused to participate in the October 26, 2011 hearing of the IACHR that was designed to foster dialogue and resolve potential conflicts.
The photo of a weeping Chief Raoni burst into the media spotlight in the early moments of this legal stand-off between Brazil and its indigenous peoples, and the photo later went ‘viral’ on Facebook as the conflict dragged on and Brazil’s government doubled down on its refusal to protect the constitutionally guaranteed rights of its indigenous citizens. Chief Raoni’s photo circulated with the caption that he cries “when he learns that Brazilian president Dilma released the beginning of construction of the hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte, even after tens of thousands of letters and emails addressed to her and which were ignored as [also happened with] the more than 600000 signatures” . This caption was clearly intended as an empathetic statement of support for Chief Raoni and his people, but the real cause of his public act of crying was actually quite different. As pointed out first by Amazon Watch and published later in the daily kos, “he was not crying in reaction to the Brazilian government’s announcement of the license to build the Belo Monte Dam. He was crying because he had reunited with a family member, a common practice among the Kayapo.” The custom of performing a stylized ritual wailing, or keening, when greeting a friend or relative after a prolonged absence is widespread in Central Brazil and has been documented by numerous anthropologists. The ‘welcome of tears,’ as it is called in English, even served as the title for Charles Wagley’s classic ethnography (1983) of the Tapirapé communities living along the Araguaia River. The daily kos article attempted to close the gap between popular and anthropological interpretations of Chief Raoni’s weeping by stating that “Even so, the loss these people face should make you cry because it will be devastating and it should be stopped”.
Cultural misinterpretations of Chief Raoni’s public tears notwithstanding, there is no mistaking the fact that President Dilma Rousseff has ignored an Amazon-sized flood of letters, emails, and petitions from environmentalist and pro-indigenous organizations and individuals in Brazil and abroad, including (among thousands of others) the Brazilian Anthropological Association (ABA) and the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Committee for Human Rights in August 2010 and the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) in November 2011. In the momentary exhilaration surrounding President Rousseff’s inauguration on January 1, 2011, many people had great hopes that Brazil might turn away from environmentally and socially destructive forms of development such as the Belo Monte dam. In her inaugural speech, Rousseff spoke of continuing the legacy of her predecessor, President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, as a rupture from the past, a time when “we Brazilians crossed over to another shore, another time in our history”. However, Rousseff is also known as the “Iron Lady” for her managerial style as former President Lula da Silva’s chief of staff, and as Lula’s Minister of Mines and Energy (2003-2005) she “had frequent clashes with Environment Minister Marina Silva” at a time when “Brazil was still reeling from electricity shortages, caused by a drought that affected hydroelectric dams”.
President Rousseff’s inaugural address was a masterful interweaving of environmentally friendly language with the kind of instrumentalist ‘techno-bankster-econo-speak’ that has become so prevalent in the early years of the 21st Century (think of Alan Greenspan’s phrase, ‘irrational exuberance’). The Iron Lady’s fist conceals brass knuckles beneath layers of velvety soft pronouncements in support of preserving ‘rich biodiversity’ and ‘valuing cultural diversity.’ She describes Brazil as “the world champions in clean energy, a country that will always know how to grow in a healthy and balanced fashion,” then asserts that “Ethanol and hydro-energy sources will be greatly encouraged,” and concludes that “Brazil will continue to give priority to preserving natural reserves and forests.” Rousseff views scientific research and technological innovation as an ‘instrument of productivity,’ ignoring the fact that national and international associations of environmental and social sciences have unanimously condemned the Belo Monte project as an intentional, man-made disaster that will destroy biodiversity as well as sustainable, culturally diverse lifeways whose survival depends on this biodiversity. President Rousseff’s way of valuing cultural diversity reduces cultural value to an economic commodity for sale to the highest bidder on the world market: “We are going to invest in culture, increasing nationwide the production and consumption of our cultural assets and expanding the exportation of our music, cinema and literature, living emblems of our presence in the world.”
In response to the government’s relentless determination to implement Belo Monte in spite of the myriad of scientific, indigenous, and popular voices that have spoken out against it, Chief Raoni and his people are preparing to fight for their rights: “I’m going to keep fighting. I am alive and strong, and as long as I am alive I will continue to fight for my people!”. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chief Raoni gained national and international fame for his ability to successfully fight for Kayapó cultural and territorial rights through a money-raising tour with the rock musician Sting. However, no amount of diplomatic skill or consciousness-raising can provide effective resistance to a massive national government that ignores its own system of constitutional laws. The future grows increasingly dim as President Rousseff pushes her agenda of devastation for the Amazon rain forest, its indigenous peoples, and other local inhabitants. Perhaps the most appropriate words for this moment came from a subsistence farmer, Francisca Guimares, who broke into tears when a reporter asked her about Lula da Silva at President Rousseff’s inauguration ceremony and who had come to Brasilia primarily to say goodbye to him rather than to welcome President Rousseff. “I feel great sadness with Lula’s leaving, my heart is shrinking. He was the first leader who was good to the poor,” Guimaraes said. “I hope Lula taught Dilma how to help the poor. We need her to have the caring heart of a mother if we are to succeed”.
Jonathan D. Hill is Professor and former Chair of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has done fieldwork with the Arawak-speaking Wakuénai communities of southernmost Venezuela and is author of two books about their verbal and musical arts (Keepers of the Sacred Chants: The Poetics of Ritual Power in an Amazonian Society, 1993, and Made-from-Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon, 2009) as well as numerous shorter publications. He served as Contributing Editor for the Ethnology of Lowland South America, Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress (1986-1994), co-editor of Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power (2002-2009), editor of Rethinking History and Myth (1988) and History, Power, and Identity (1996), and co-editor of Comparative Arawakan Histories (2002), Burst of Breath (2011), and Ethnicity in Ancient Amazonia (2011). Professor Hill is President-Elect and Vice-President of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) and will serve as President from 2014-2017.
Ken Routon is the contributing editor of Media Notes. He is a visiting assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of New Orleans and author of Hidden Powers of State in the Cuban Imagination (University Press of Florida, 2010).