Sixty Minutes story on the damming of the Amazon
Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producers: Stephen Rice, Julia Timms, Jo Townsend
There are few places on Earth quite as isolated or as spectacular as the Amazon.
Venture deep into its heart and you enter a world completely untouched by the 21st century, where people live as they have done for thousands of years, surviving on the bounty of South America's mightiest river.
But their simple life is under threat.
The Brazilian government has just approved construction of a huge hydro-electric dam. And 60 such dams are being planned all along the Amazon, flooding vast areas of rainforest and wiping out local villages.
But as Allison Langdon discovered, the native people have one very powerful weapon - some well-placed friends in Hollywood.
For more information about the fight against the Belo Monte dam, visit Amazon Watch: www.amazonwatch.org
To see Cristina Mittermeier’s photographs of the Kayapo, visit www.cristinamittermeier.com
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a way of life I thought no longer existed. Simple, innocent, unscarred by the outside world. But for how long? The Kayapo people who live deep in the Amazon, are under threat.
CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: It makes me it makes me so upset it’s hard to really cope with it. They don’t really truly understand what’s coming their way but we do. We know exactly what’s coming here.
ALLISON LANGDON: And what’s coming is this - massive hydro dams all along the Amazon. It’s shaping up as the world’s biggest ever environmental battle.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: My greatest fear is that there will be a showdown and there will be bloodshed.
ALLISON LANGDON: But you’re saying that if neither side backs down, that we could see people killed?
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: I think so. They’re fighting for their way of life.
ALLISON LANGDON: For the Kayapo Indians, it’s reached boiling point and you can understand their frustration when you meet the bureaucrats in charge. You are telling me that you are going to build a massive dam and it’s not going to affect any native tribes?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No, no, no.
ALLISON LANGDON: It truly is one of the most magnificent places on earth.
CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: I truly think it is – it’s so far away, very few people get to come and see it.
ALLISON LANGDON: Cristina Mittermeier is a world-renowned photographer who’s been visiting the Amazon for 20 years. There’s really no path through here.
CRISTINA: Yeah, we’re creating a trail.
ALLISON LANGDON: This is where you really know you’re in the Amazon. To get some perspective, we’re heading to the top of a mountain called Standing Rock – the place where, for hundreds of years, Kayapo warriors have come to keep watch for their enemies.
ALLISON LANGDON: Just spectacular, isn’t it?
CRISTINA: Sure is.
ALLISON LANGDON: Up here you really get a sense of what’s at stake. For 360 degrees, all you can see is thick rainforest, and the river. It’s completely untouched by humans, but for a handful of native tribes – and what they worry about is that not one, but 60 dams are planned for the Amazon. Which makes you wonder – what’s going to happen to this beautiful place? It’s taken us many days to get here and a stark reminder of this violent conflict - as we get on one plane, a body is unloaded from another. Murdered? Shot dead? In the ruthless grab for land by loggers, miners and now the power companies – life is cheap and the rainforest is rapidly shrinking. Our final destination is Kendjam, a remote Indian village – whose people still live as they have for thousands of years. And what a welcome!
CRISTINA: I can imagine as a mother of children in the village not knowing what the future holds when, you know, ever since the past few hundred years it’s been certain every day. Every day they don’t need to worry about much. They go fishing, they go get some water, they do some cooking and life is good. For me, it truly is a window into our humanity. You see people that have been surviving this way for thousands of years and it gives us a glimpse into our own past.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a place where the men still hunt as their ancestors did and where the women do well, pretty much everything else. Thank you so much. Such warm and generous people - so pretty much all their food comes from the river?
CRISTINA: Without their river these people are dead. Because they use it to go hunting, navigate. Most of their protein is fish. The river is what provides.
ALLISON LANGDON: Their needs are simple and the river is their lifeblood. Wow! How’s that? We had the line in for about two minutes!
CRISTINA: That’s a very large fish! You know, in this place if you know what you’re doing, you don’t go hungry.
ALLISON LANGDON: I had no idea what I was doing, and look what I caught! And does this just wash off?
CRISTINA: No, this is going to stay with you for a week, a week and a half.
ALLISON LANGDON: The ancient traditions of the kayapo are still alive and well.
I feel like we’ve been accepted into the community with this.
CRISTINA: In their mind you don’t look quite so ugly any more.
ALLISON LANGDON: What a relief! And the necklace as well.
CRISTINA: Oh, look at you!
ALLISON LANGDON: I’m nowhere near as ugly as I was when this whole process started.
CRISTINA: I think you could walk out there and be a good catch.
ALLISON LANGDON: But these traditions may soon be lost forever. Further down the river, a couple of markers are the only indication that the world’s third largest hydro dam – known as Belo Monte – will soon wipe out all life here. So this whole area will be dammed? As far as the eye can see?
CRISTINA: As far as the eye can see. It’s about 600 square kilometres, that’s a huge area.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s hard to fathom that you know we’ll be underwater.
CRISTINA: Yeah, well the wall is 14 metres high so you can imagine all that water above us here.
ALLISON LANGDON: If you’re wondering what a big dam on the Amazon might look, check out a small one. This is the Santo Antonio dam which is currently being built further down the river – and I have to say, it is the biggest construction site I have ever seen. But how’s this - the Belo Monte dam will be twice as big again – 12 times the size of Sydney Harbour. That’s a vast stretch of rainforest under water – gone for good.
CRISTINA: We’re talking about 40,000 people are going to be displaced or affected in some way.
ALLISON LANGDON: While some villages will be flooded when Belo Monte is built, others downstream will see their river run dry.
CRISTINA: With this dam they’re going to become poor and desperate and people that were able to provide for themselves are going to have to go and beg in the city.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a sad thought isn’t it?
CRISTINA: It’s a dramatic thought. It’s pretty upsetting, yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: But these proud warriors won’t go down without a fight. When this electricity company official told a protest meeting they should welcome the dam, they were attacked with machetes and barely escaped with their lives.
VILLAGER: If they come we will fight, if we have to kill for this river we will. We will be killing each other. Indians and whites will die.
ALLISON LANGDON: You are not afraid? You are prepared to die?
VILLAGER: We have spears and we are strong.
ALLISON LANGDON: If it sounds like the plot for a movie, that’s because it already is. The film Avatar is based on the plight of the kayapo. In the movie, the Na’vi tribe are forced to defend their world against greedy corporations intent on plundering the natural resources of the planet Pandora.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: As someone who played Grace Augustine, a Botanist who clearly was on the side of the Na’vi, you know it the parallels are just very uncomfortable. It’s really siding with industry over people and over nature.
ALLISON LANGDON: Actress Sigourney Weaver and director James Cameron have become real-life crusaders against the hydro dams.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: I guess I’m not prepared to imagine what it what will happen if they build these 60 dams. It’s ah . . .
ALLISON LANGDON: The end of the Amazon?
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: Oh, for sure. It’s the end of the Amazon and this is their opportunity as this brilliant you know successful country to lead us you know in solar and wind. Ah, they have huge capacities for both.
ALLISON LANGDON: But how can we sit here and ask them to do that when I mean the US and Australia are some of the worst culprits? I mean we’re still pulling dirty coal out of the ground.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: I’m just saying it as a citizen. I’m not saying that my country you know is a shining example. It’s a disgrace.
ALLISON LANGDON: There’s no doubt Brazil - with one of the fastest growing economies in the world – needs more electricity. But critics say hydro-dams are not the solution.
CRISTINA: It’s inefficient because this is a flat place, so for hydro-electric power to really work, you need water to run fast. Here it runs really slow, you know it’s just, it’s lazy, rivers that meander through the landscape. It’s actually going to be running about 10% of its capacity.
ALLISON LANGDON: For 30 years scientists and environmentalists have been fighting against the Belo Monte dam. Last month Brazil’s environment watchdog controversially gave it the go-ahead – but only after the previous head of the agency resigned in protest. The new boss – Curt Trennepohl -wasn’t pleased to see us.
ALLISON LANGDON: Your predecessor quit because he wasn’t willing to live with the decision about Belo Monte – are you?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Yes, the decision is mine.
ALLISON LANGDON: Isn’t it your job to look after the environment?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No.
ALLISON LANGDON: No? That’s not your job?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No. My job is to minimise the impact.
ALLISON LANGDON: But if the environmental agency of Brazil isn’t looking after the environment, who is?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Our problem is that we need energy.
ALLISON LANGDON: The river will run dry where the tribes live.
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No tribes are going to be impacted.
ALLISON LANGDON: That’s a joke. They will have to move.
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No – that won’t happen.
ALLISON LANGDON: So do you sleep easily at night?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Of course, of course.
ALLISON LANGDON: The tribes in the Amazon aren’t, because of this decision.
CURT TRENNEPOHL: We finish here.
ALLISON LANGDON: Finish here – no more questions?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: No.
ALLISON LANGDON: But we hadn’t finished. After cutting short our interview, Curt Trennepohl ordered his aides to lock our camera crew out of the room.
ALLISON LANGDON: … and – forgetting he was miked - told me what he really thought.
CURT TRENNEPOHL: You have the Aborigines in Australia. You don’t respect them.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you are going to do to the Indians what we did to the Aborigines?
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Yes.
ALLISON LANGDON: You are!
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Yes.
ALLISON LANGDON: See, we accept that what we did to the Aborigines was wrong.
CURT TRENNEPOHL: Hah! You know it’s wrong!
ALLISON LANGDON: This river flows through every part of the Kayapo people’s lives – the one certainty they take with them from childhood and soon it could all be lost.
CRISTINA: When the Amazon is dammed the largest most powerful river in the world will never be the same again.
ALLISON LANGDON: So these communities won’t exist anymore?
CRISTINA: No and we will all be the poorer for it.