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The municipality of Altamira complains loudly that Norte Energia has not fulfilled its legal requirements to prepare the region for the dam's negative impacts. But despite these concerns, dam construction forges ahead nearly 24 hours a day without any intervention from the federal government. Altamira was built on the grit of farmers, fishermen, and migrant workers looking for work on the Trans-Amazonian highway when it attempted to bring development to the jungle in the s and '80s.

Historically, Altamirans are a hardscrabble set, and the fishermen claim a special place alongside the toughest. A cofferdam upstream from the main turbine site is choking off the flow of the river so the dam's main power station can be built on dry land. Roughly the same amount of earth as the Panama Canal will be removed for a meter-wide dyke to divert the river to the main turbine.

The Big Bend, once a fertile breeding ground for unique marine life, will be left dry once the water is diverted. Some believe this will cause the extinction of regional species. Sometimes, fishermen say, dynamite explosions at construction sites send powerful shockwaves through the water that either kill fish or send them scattering. Norte Energia has closed off parts of the river, where nobody but consortium employees are allowed, limiting the fishermen's mobility. The increasingly rapid flow of water at the cofferdam site has made the presence of fish unpredictable at best.

He sits next to his wife, Adaides, in his living room near the river, the concrete walls painted a cheery blue. Orlando has the sinewy musculature and deep tan of a Xingu fisherman, and his bright blue eyes shine from his lined face. Orlando is 62 years old and has been fishing for 40 years. He tells us his father was a fisherman. I live and fish there through the week. Orlando says living and working at his fishing camp can be lonely, but it is what he knows and does best.

The income from his fish supports his family.


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Fishing has always required hard work, but Orlando says the dam is making it nearly impossible for some of Altamira's pescadores to earn a reasonable living. Before the dam, I could catch about 50 kilos of fish in five days. Now I work 10 days to get the same amount. This has led to a drastic measure that fishermen discuss amongst themselves with disbelief: Altamira is now importing fish from surrounding river regions. This is what the proud fishing industry of the Big Bend has resorted to.

Sometimes in the evenings , after the midday heat dissipates into the falling darkness, I walk along the cais , or wharf, along the mighty Xingu River of Altamira. As I look at the stilt houses over the water, I become acutely aware that I am just one of many foreigners passing through this embattled outpost town. The story of the dam brought these foreigners here for various reasons, for research, etc. But for the fishermen, these facts and figures are a daily reality; it is their inheritance from the dam.

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A Bend in the River Character Descriptions

When Belo Monte construction first began, fishermen took a stand with local indigenous tribes, staging numerous protests and occupations of the dam's construction sites. But to no avail—although these protests spurred several meetings with governmental bodies, the fishermen say no concrete concessions were made to meet their needs. Now, sadly, bitterness exists between the fishing community and the indigenous community.

While indigenous groups are guaranteed constitutional rights to their lands and lifestyles, the fishermen feel their community has been largely ignored. Maria Reis, a small but hardy fishmonger who, over 23 years of growing her fish business, has become a pillar of the riverside community, crumpled into tears as I spoke to her. Maria, like many of her colleagues and friends, is also facing flooding, displacement, and an uncertain future.

I am too old to do everything over again. Despite the difficulties the fishermen of Altamira face, one gets the feeling that if any community can weather through such a storm, it will be these resilient and hardworking people. I realized this was why I had traveled so far to toil in the middle of the jungle: it was the earnest message of a small community that inspired a reason to care, a desire to bear witness. Perhaps, if we listen to their distress call and repeat it enough times, then one day President Rousseff herself will get their message. Perhaps, the Pescadores will know they have at least been given the dignity of having their voices heard.

The simple act of listening can shape the future.

A Bend in the River: Study Prompts

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