River Activists Visit Amazon Villages
By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune
When Klamath River activists finally arrived at a remote Amazon village, the Xikrin indigenous people there were surprised that so many of the American visitors were Indian.
Some of them had seen a movie once, a western, where all the Indians were killed.
The village, a place called Poti-Krô, is threatened by dam construction that will flood their homeland. They told their Klamath visitors, “It brings us hope to see you here now standing in front of us.
The Brazil trip was an eye-opener as well for the seven locals who just returned from their travels there. It was their political statement of unity that would link the South American villagers with there own efforts to remove four dams from the Klamath River.
One of them, Mahlija Florendo, is a 16-year-old junior at Hoopa High. She said she traveled before with family to Mexico, Canada and even France, but those were just vacations.
Besides that, both her parents—Annelia and Chook-Chook Hillman—are river activists from Orleans, and she has attended protests with then. Last year they were part of demonstrations at the office of Senator Ron Wyden, an effort to speed up congressional action on the Klamath settlements.
Mahlija heard about the trip from her classmate Damien Scott, a nephew of activist Dania Rose Colegrove. Both of them were going along with Dania Rose’s daughter Anna Rose Colegrove. Mahlija asked Damien if she could help and maybe even join the trip.
Dania Rose knew the first rule of organizing when anyone offers help and recruited Mahlija into the delegation, a prospect that Mahlija said both scared and excited her mother.
The other Klamath travelers were fish biologist/organizer Nat Pennington, his daughter Halle Pennington and Sammy Gensaw III, a college student and longtime Yurok river activist.
Their first task was fundraising so they staged events in Hoopa, Orleans and Arcata, packed their bags and headed off for 11 days in Brazil. From Rio de Janeiro, they headed up to Altamira and then up a tributary of the Amazon called the Xingu.
Mahlija said they arrived at very small villages and met the locals who, until their arrival, had thought that they, the Amazonians, were the last surviving indigenous people,
She and her cohort noticed similarities. Their baskets seemed familiar and so did their dances. “The women were funny,” she said, “And the children were really like home—playful and flirty, swimming in the river.”
She described the landscape as flat jungle and the air as hot, humid and very uncomfortable.
They also met organizers from Amazon Watch and from smaller local groups who are resisting the Belo Monte Dam, already under construction, and several other dams still in the planning stages. Mahlija and her fellow travelers explained their own experience with the problems created by the Klamath River dams and of their work to remove them.
All these conversations had a three-part translation, from English to Portuguese to Xikrin and back.
The visitors also received painted “tattoos”, lattices on their cheeks that the locals wore. The ink, made from coal and plant oil, was applied in quick strokes by local women with vines as brushes that made perfect lines.
They also held a well attended press conference and flew over the dam construction site.
Recalling the flyover, Nat Pennington, said, “My heart soared to see the expanses of untouched virgin rainforest as we climbed above the tiny grass and dirt airstrip. We banked left following the Xingu upstream and the enormity of the river became clear. The banks of the braided river were covered by thick forest and the occasional indigenous fishing settlement. My heart sank as the construction site of Belo Monte Dam appeared on the horizon. Shades of green and blue that I had never seen before in my life turned to eroding brown mud fields, yellow excavators, thousands of dump trucks, concrete walls, massive diversion canals and huge levees. The area that the dam will inundate is virgin rainforest…Over 600 different fish species call the Xingu Basin home; some of these are believed to be endemic only to the basin. Working as a fish biologist on the Klamath River, I witnessed dams sending fisheries like this to the brink of extinction.”
Dania Rose Colegrove, who like Pennington is on the board of directors of Klamath Riverkeeper, said, “If the destruction in the Amazon continues, not only the indigenous people, but the entire world will suffer the same fate. Now is the time for the world to unite against the greed and stupidity of these projects before we lose the world’s lungs and its largest river.”
She said the travelers, now home again, would continue delivering the messages they learned on their visit and a filmmaker, Ivan Castro, is making a movie about their journey and its lessons.
Sammy Gensaw explained some of the lessons: “If construction of Belo Monte Dam continues, we fear for the lives of the, Xikrin, Kayapó, Juruna and Arara Tribes. Already, we see deforestation, pollution and mining corporations like the
Canadian company Belo Sun moving in. As workers from other areas inundate the area for the short lived jobs offered by the dam’s construction company, Norte Energia, the region’s inhabitants are being pushed out. If the dam is completed, these people will be forced to work in mines, log in the rainforest, or move to the cities to live in slums.”
Damien Scott added, “It’s depressing to see the future of indigenous children depend on this company, which seems to have no idea what it’s like to live and depend on the Xingu River.”
Team member Halle Pennington said, “I believe it’s time we learn to unite together as brothers and sisters for in the end we are fighting the same battles, inequality, injustice and oppression… We may not win every battle but if we don’t fight at all, we have already lost.”
Mahlija Florenda said her Hoopa classmates thought the trip was a gee-whiz vacation before they departed, but since they’ve returned the friends are “real excited and very supportive” of all efforts to remove the dams.
She has made some plan changes of her own. She wants to return to the Amazon Basin and, to make herself more effective when she’s there, she’s started gathering materials to learn the Portuguese language.