Juma Xipaia has been defending her people’s land in the Brazilian Amazon since she was 13, when her eyes were opened to the impacts of the planned construction of the nearby Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex on her village. Located on the Xingu River, Belo Monte, which began operations in 2016, displaced an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people and eventually diverted 85 percent of the river’s normal water flow away from thousands of Indigenous and traditional fishing communities.
Almost a decade after she realized she needed to take a stand, Xipaia — a member of the Xipaya Indigenous group, which has 173 people living on its traditional territory and many others spread across the region in other communities — became chief of her village. Juma Xipaia, now 30 years old, was the first woman to head an Indigenous group on the middle reaches of the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon.
Xipaia has faced a host of challenges, including illegal incursions by heavily armed miners and loggers on Xipaya territory, which covers nearly 700 square miles. Widespread illegal gold mining has led to mercury pollution of Xipaya rivers. As she has fought to protect the Xipaya and other Indigenous groups, and has battled corruption among some of her fellow Indigenous leaders, Xipaia has faced death threats. Through it all, she has continued studying to be a physician and was one of 40 Indigenous leaders to represent Brazil at the COP26 climate change conference in Scotland last year.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Xipaia looks back on the moment she decided to become an activist, discusses the major threats the Xipaya and other Indigenous peoples face, and talks about the insidious effects of development projects like Belo Monte, which has led to corporate handouts of large quantities of processed and non-traditional foods, weakening the Xipaya’s millennia-old way of life.
Yale Environment 360: What threats are you currently facing on the Xipaya Indigenous Territory?
Juma Xipaya: There’s the threat of the government, which not only my village and my territory are facing. All Indigenous people and territories in Brazil are being highly threatened and impacted by the genocidal policies of the current government [of Jair Bolsonaro], a violence against Indigenous peoples that is very much encouraged.
But unlike other regions, where their villages have been violently attacked by [arsonists], here, in my territory, one of the biggest problems is related to illegal mining inside the nearby Kuruaya Indigenous Reserve. Our biggest concern is with mercury [contaminating our water and food sources]. We’ve seen what has happened to the Munduruku people, who are our neighbors. We’ve seen their fight, the whole process of denouncing [the contamination], and their concern not only now with present, but with future generations. We see the impacts of mercury, and we are concerned. Next to us there’s also the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractive Reserve, which is full of illegal miners and loggers. We suspect they’re already entering our territory too.
In the past we carried out inspections, and they made a difference. Now, these miners and loggers are heavily armed. They have no problem with threatening us. They want confrontation. And we are afraid. We see what happens in other territories [violent attacks and murders of activists], and we know it won’t be any different here. Despite the fact that we’re very far from the city of Altamira, we’re not free from these attacks or from the impacts of land grabbing, mining, logging, illegal fishing.
“The Indigenous peoples were never consulted about anything regarding the Belo Monte dam.”
e360: How has the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex affected your people and your land?
Xipaia: Along with the obvious environmental impacts of Belo Monte came the impacts of its related social programs. One of the programs with the greatest impact on Indigenous lands is the so-called “productive activity program,” which led most communities to stop producing traditional foods after they received tons of industrialized foods. Since 2012, I have been denouncing the impact, not only on Indigenous health, but also on the territory itself because of the garbage it created inside the villages. We have a very high rate of new diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and even cancer. In my village alone, there have been three relatives who died of cancer … The rate of depression is very high, and so is the rate of attempted suicide, including in children.
In the past, within the communities, the diseases that existed were influenza and malaria. Now there are several types of diseases, many caused by this issue of food and eating habits that have been drastically changed here in the Middle Xingu region.
And then there’s the stress caused by the presence of non-Indigenous people from the companies that carry out these programs on behalf of Belo Monte. The Indigenous peoples of the middle Xingu were never consulted about anything regarding the Belo Monte dam. They decided to create the Indigenous component of the basic environmental plan without our participation.
We are talking about a project that has been on the table for over 30 years in which there was no participation of, and no consultation with, Indigenous peoples. It was imposed, drastically changing not only the social life of the population, but the food and the culture. They built modern-material houses and tore down our traditional houses. They caused division and conflict among peoples and a very high rate of co-opting and corruption of leaders.
e360: You first became an activist when you were very young. What was the moment that made you realize that was what you wanted to do?
Xipaia: When I started at around 13 years old, I didn’t even know what the word activist meant. I had no idea. I didn’t know it existed. But one thing I did discover was that Belo Monte was not a big waterfall, like they had told us. It was the same way they had presented the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam to us in 2004. We were amazed. I remember — I was very young — seeing that much water and thinking: Wow, what a big waterfall!
And when I started out as an activist, it was very much based on the example of other communities. In 2009, I participated in the first South American meeting of people affected by projects financed by BNDES [the Brazilian Development Bank, associated with the Ministry of the Economy]. And I found out at this event that Belo Monte was also financed by BNDES. I heard reports there from people from Bahia, Rondônia, Manaus, Espírito Santo — all different places — people who have been dispossessed, people who have been assaulted, people who have seen murder. And there was already the example of Tucuruí [which inundated 925 square miles of rainforest, displacing Indigenous populations], so I thought that Belo Monte would be no different, because I saw that the process was the same. It just changed locations.
So it was based on indignation. It was the quest for justice. It was because I understood early on that if we didn’t get involved, if we didn’t try to find out what was happening, the same thing or worse could happen in my region. Especially because we had no idea what the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam was. To this day, many have no idea what this great enterprise is. I was worried, because here we have people of different levels of understanding. We have some who understand Portuguese very well, and we have some who have only recently been contacted.
“They decided about our lives… They made decisions about our futures without our direct participation.”
I found myself obliged to understand and explain to as many people as possible what the hydroelectric dam was. And I understood that the fight was mine too. I understood that all previous fights of our relatives were to defend our territory. There was no way not to get involved. I gave myself, body and soul, to the fight against Belo Monte — not only against Belo Monte, but any type of project that aims not only to impact Indigenous peoples, but animals as well.
e360: You attended COP26. What did it get right, and what did it get wrong? What could have been done better?
Xipaia: COP26 was the first time we’ve seen such a large delegation of Indigenous peoples. There were 40 leaders [from Brazil] and the majority were women. For the first time there was the largest participation of quilombolas [an Afro-Brazilian resident of quilombo settlements first established by those who escaped slavery] in history.
The only reason there were so many of us was because there was a very large mobilization that started with us, that came from our organizations. It’s not because we were invited or brought to this climate discussion, so much so that during the discussion itself, during the decision-making, there was no participation of any traditional peoples. Others decided. They decided about our lives. They talked about our forests. They made decisions about our futures without our direct participation.
“They are taking our space, taking away our land and, together with it, our dreams and our culture.”
So I believe there needs to be greater involvement of the people. It needs to be democratized. Many people have no idea what this big climate event is all about. There’s no use holding this conference and gathering only select people to participate. This discussion has to reach the communities, it has to reach every country, it has to reach all the peoples and not be restricted to small groups or only to governments. Because, as we can see with Brazil, governments don’t always represent or defend the people.
e360: Indigenous peoples across Brazil and around the world are facing similar threats to their lands and their lives. Is this something we should look at as one homogenous issue, or are they different issues we should consider separately?
Xipaia: I don’t think they’re different. There’s an attack against our rights. Not just an attack, but a regression in the rights of Indigenous peoples in general here in Brazil. And these threats are not just for my people, but for all Indigenous peoples, putting future generations at risk. The illegal mining attacks, the invasions by illegal loggers, they are not just restricted to the territory of my people.
There is oppression, a great deal of criminalization, a great deal of violence directed at Indigenous peoples. So much so that in some ethnic groups you see that they no longer have a territory to call their own. Then they say that Indigenous people no longer have culture. It’s not just culture. Land is life. Dreams were taken away.
Look at, for example, the Guarani-Kaiowá people. They have a very high rate of suicide among all ages, [particularly among young men]. This is violence. This is a torture. They are invading. They are taking our space, taking away our land and, together with it, our dreams and our culture. And they leave a sadness. They leave a hunger. They bring death onto our land.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.