Technological solutions monitor return of riverside communities to their home region

Communities living around the Xingu River may experience a humanitarian crisis similar to the one faced by the Yanomami, given their situation of extreme poverty.
13 六月 2023
Technological solutions monitor return of riverside communities to their home region

In 2016, the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant started up and it drastically impacted the lives of hundreds of riverside dwellers along the Xingu River. Since then, the hydroelectric plant has continued to function and even after several legal procedures and protests, the region’s traditional inhabitants have still not been able to return home, putting them in a precarious situation. Now, a project carried out by Fundação Getulio Vargas, using technological georeferencing tools, may allow riverside people to once more live along the Xingu River, giving them the living conditions required to maintain their traditional way of life.

The results of a study carried out as part of this project indicate the potential for a major food insecurity crisis if these riverside people do not return to their territories with proper living conditions. The numbers show that fruit production in these communities has dropped 70%, while fish output has fallen approximately 30%. There have also been declines in the production of grains, meat and vegetables, among other products.

The researcher in charge of this study, Flavia Scabin, explains that in the project’s next phase, researchers will return to the region to use technological tools to monitor the actions taken by the government, the company responsible for administering the hydroelectric plant and the Brazilian environmental protection agency, Ibama. It was Ibama that helped riverside dwellers along the Xingu River to resettle after being displaced to make room for the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant.

Scabin says that constant monitoring work will be done to “prevent these riverside people from being left behind” and ensure that no actions or policies lead to discrimination, exclusion or increased inequalities for people who are vulnerable in terms of race, ethnicity or gender. According to her, this purpose is aligned with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Technology used to tackle food insecurity

As part of this project, scientific knowledge has been added to local teachings, giving rise to a platform capable of monitoring the quality of water, fish and soil. In addition to supervising the return of traditional people, the intention is to help make communities resilient so that they do not experience health or food crises, through real-time access to information regarding management of the adaptation process.

“Food insecurity is one of the factors that worries us the most and in relation to this aspect we may draw a parallel with the situation of the Yanomami. According to a survey that we carried out of 122 families that were displaced from the Xingu River region and resettled far from the river, there are perceptions of a deterioration in the production of different types of food, as shown in the graph below on food production by families that were not relocated close to the Xingu River,” Scabin says.

Note: The survey covered 122 families that were not resettled near the Xingu River for each category, referring only to the percentage of people who mentioned that category. The percentages presented do not add up to 100%, given that people were allowed to mention items in more than one category.

The researcher explains that, given this situation, although it was expected that the installation of the hydroelectric plant would promote local development, the data collected in 2020 indicates a decrease in food production and an increase in poverty, as these families’ right to maintain their traditional way of life has not been ensured.

Scabin says that a georeferenced information monitoring system was created in an attempt to reverse this situation. This is a technological solution that was built together with the displaced riverside residents of the Xingu River region, to monitor various parameters that make up this community’s quality of life.

“First, we carried out a diagnosis showing how urgent the situation was. Then we built a monitoring schedule supported by technological solutions and artificial intelligence. We are now in the process of returning to the community to understand why these people have not yet returned to their territory and also to ensure that when they do return, they can count on adaptive management, guaranteed good living conditions and a more resilient community,” she explains.

On the verge of a humanitarian crisis

Before understanding the impact of the current situation, it is necessary to remember that these riverside people were forced to leave their homes because they were displaced by the hydroelectric reservoir. Professor Scabin points out that although the licensing process is designed to assess the different risks that a construction project may pose, in the case of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant, the people who lived along the Xingu River were left out of this analysis and they could not participate in decisions about the measures that the company was required to take in order to obtain the construction license for the plant.

“If they had stayed in the region, their homes would have been flooded and they might even have drowned,” the professor says.

She says that the solution found by the company to continue with the construction work and remove the riverside people from the region was to transfer them to new urban districts built by the company on the outskirts of the city of Altamira, in northern Pará. However, the riverside people did not adapt to that region, as it did not suit their fishing-based lifestyle and culture.

Anthropologist Ana De Francesco, who based her doctoral dissertation on work involving the people of the Xingu region, says that the community had a strong bond with their territory and when they were forced to leave, they stopped living off the land and water, becoming part of the poor population on the outskirts of Altamira.

“It’s been almost 10 years since they were forced to vacate their territory. What happened may be described as ‘ontological displacement.’ This means that the world they lived in ceased to exist. These people lost the material basis of their lives. All social, economic and symbolic relationships were modified precisely because that whole world was based on memories, landscapes and the river itself. All of this was modified after the construction of the power plant. It was a radical life change,” says the anthropologist, who has been studying and working with this community since 2014.

Research demonstrates that the transfer of riverside dwellers to the outskirts of Altamira resulted in greater vulnerability and poverty for these people. In light of this situation, the Federal Public Prosecutors’ Office filed a lawsuit, together with the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science and the Council of Riverside Dwellers, to demand that these people can return to their original region.

This was when FGV was commissioned to carry out its research. According to Scabin, it is important to guarantee that these people have decent housing and welfare conditions, not only to improve their current situation but also to strengthen their communities and prevent any humanitarian crises.

Impacts on lives of riverside dwellers

The riverside inhabitants of the Xingu region have experienced several consequences, including a sustained decline in fish quality due to river contamination, as well as a major reduction in quantity.

Professor Scabin states that when the 122 families compulsorily displaced and not resettled near the river were asked about their food production before and after their compulsory displacement, only 6% said they are now producing enough flour, 13% are producing enough vegetables and 59% are catching enough fish. Thus, it is possible to identify a deterioration in relation to what they had before. 

Ana De Francesco adds that abruptly changing people’s way of life can harm their ability to plan their own future. “This leads to mental illness and impacts on health, routines and production. There is a whole chain of simultaneous and interconnected consequences,” the anthropologist says.

In addition, there are the challenges of dealing with the invasion of cattle into areas assigned to resettle the riverside families. Scabin warns that these animals tend to cause great destruction in communities. And anyone who thinks that the consequences are only related to physical and infrastructure damage is mistaken. Scabin recalls that when construction work on the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant began, there were numerous reports of sexual abuse and child labor. 

“In this period, there has been irreparable damage to the mental health of this population. As evident as this is, it is difficult to demonstrate these factors in a concrete way. However, with regard to the environmental impact, specifically the quality of water and fish, these riverside dwellers will now have technological tools based on artificial intelligence to measure the impacts experienced and enable the public authorities to demand improvements,” the researcher explains.

Human rights and community resilience

Concerned about these people’s situation, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science invited several scientists from different Brazilian universities, including FGV, to contribute to the construction of a solution to protect the livelihood and rights of compulsorily displaced riverside dwellers.

“The objective was to offer a diagnosis on the living conditions of these riverside dwellers, covering a wide range of dimensions, including health and diet. The results of these studies showed the need for these people to return to the river, as the only way to guarantee their rights to their way of life, food, health and so on,” says Scabin.

Tamara Hojajj, a researcher who also worked on the project, says that it is necessary to think of a way to make these people less vulnerable to risks, so they can have the capacity to develop and live according to their own standards of well-being.

“The concept of well-being considered in this project needs to be aligned with their point of view, but to achieve this, we must include riverside people at the center of the debate, in order to understand, in first place, what quality conditions should be demanded. And that is how the Council of Riverside Dwellers came about, involving community members who are participating in discussions to negotiate their own lives,” says Hojajj, noting that this is the first council of this type to be created in Brazil.

Scabin notes that it was Ibama that decided to include the riverside inhabitants in the resettlement plan, determining that the plant could not operate unless the company complied with their demands. However, very few people have managed to return to their region of origin.

“The plant is fully operational, but until today the riverside people have not returned to their home region. In our project, after diagnosing the situation, we built a monitoring agenda, using technological tools, to find out whether in fact their home region has good conditions to ensure their quality of life and whether there are mechanisms to carry out adaptive land management, in order to ensure that these communities can return and stay there,” she says.

Rebuilding a lost world

Outside their original homes since 2014, around 200 families are waiting to be able to return to the surroundings of the Xingu River. Documents produced by the Council of Riverside Dwellers and approved by Ibama include a comprehensive plan adapted to their realities.

“We are talking about planning houses, who will live next to whom, rebuilding neighborhoods and community life itself, in addition to replanting vegetation. There are many proposals aimed at rebuilding a lost world,” explains anthropologist Ana De Francesco.

While this process takes place partially, researchers will continue to monitor the situation to guarantee the rights and quality of life of riverside dwellers. According to De Francesco, it is crucial for researchers to work together with local residents and exchange knowledge.

“In this process, the researchers contribute theoretical knowledge and methodologies, adding them to local perspectives and needs in the field. This generates essential knowledge to understand ways of life and the impacts of economic development policies,” she says.

She adds that knowledge is being built collaboratively, involving FGV researchers and local researchers, who are also members of traditional communities. “We have our researchers working together with people who have extensive knowledge of this culture. We seek to build solutions that are appropriate for local contexts and that are incorporated by these people,” the anthropologist concludes.

To learn more about this and other research, please visit the website of the Center for Human Rights and Business (FGV CeDHE).


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