Lalo de Almeida on the exploitation of the Amazon and his Panos print ‘Hungry Dogs’

My aim with this project ‘Amazonian Dystopia’ is to show people how complex the situation there is, there’s no easy answer for the Amazon. When people think about the Amazon they think of a green carpet of trees with some naked indigenous people going around. And okay, so there are some naked people, but there are many kinds of indigenous populations and many other traditional populations that are non indigenous that live in the forest, and you have cities, small cities, medium sized cities, all these people, you know, and you have to preserve the forest. So how do you put all these people’s interests together? There’s so many conflicts. It’s a super complex situation here.

This image shows stray dogs looking into the windows of a butcher’s shop. It’s one of the last shops in an almost abandoned village called Villa Hasakah in the Amazon. The village was formed by small-scale gold miners, and now a Canadian company has bought all the land around here and plans to make it the largest open gold mine in Brazil. It’s going to have a huge impact on these communities.

A drunk resident of the Quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) community of Pedras Negras passed out on a bench. The process of providing land deeds to communities started by former slaves was already slow before Jair Bolsonaro’s election, but the president’s vow not to demarcate ‘a single centimetre of land’ for indigenous communities has completely stalled further progress. Rondonia, Brazil.

Villa Hasakah is just a few kilometres from the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. People have been seriously impacted by the construction of this dam, which diverted water to generate power. People who live downstream have just 20% of the water that they had before and this big goldmine is just a few kilometres from Belo Monte, so people are very worried. In Brazil, we’ve had some big mining disasters in the last couple of years. In Mina Jarez an ore mine collapsed and more than 200 people died. The gold mine will be using big machines and probably dynamite and it’s so close to the dam, that worries people.

Along this river, the Xingu river, you have indigenous populations and also people we call river dwellers, people that have lived in this way for probably, three, or four generations. Their way of life depends on the river. This was a village of river dwellers and small gold miners. They made very little impact on this land, and now they are going to see another big transformation. So I see these dogs, as if they were these people, abandoned by the government, watching something that they don’t have access to. You know, this project is not going to be for them. It’s not going to bring any development for them. The meat in the butcher’s shop is like the gold.

Indigenous Indians prepare to attend a funeral ceremony at Yawalapiti Village amidst the smoke that has covered the Xingu Indigenous Park due to the large number of forest fires. Mato Grosso, Brazil.

The model of exploitation of the Amazon has been the same from colonial times to today. Brazilians, we’ve always seen the Amazon as a colony, just to provide raw materials to the richest part of Brazil. All these projects are conceived from outside, and they don’t leave anything for the local populations. They are not worried about the preservation of the forest. This process is just repeating and repeating.

I’ve been working in the Amazon for 28 years, working for a Brazilian newspaper. I followed the process of this huge construction of the Belo Monte Dam for seven years, from the first public hearings to it’s completion and impact. In the first years, the city changed a lot because there was an increase in the population by about 50%. Most of the of the workers that came to build Belo Monte were men. I think almost 90% were men and single. So you can imagine what this brought to Altamira, a city that was already super precarious. The city became very violent, with a lot of prostitution and drug trafficking. And this impacted of course not just the urban population of Altamira, but also the people who are living nearby.

Indigenous Indian men participate in the ‘Quarup’, a funeral ceremony, in Yawalapiti village amid smoke from forest fires. With the warming temperature, caused by the climate change, the number of forest fires in the Xingu Indigenous Park has increased annually, threatening the traditional way of life of these populations. Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Some governments care a bit more about this and some less. We’ve had a situation with Bolsonaro where the threat to the Amazon Rainforest is at a level I’ve never seen before. He didn’t invent deforestation in the Amazon, this is a historic process, but he accelerated a lot. He dismantled all the enforcement agencies, IBAMA, the Environmental Enforcement Agency, FUNAI which considered indigenous rights. He made a complete value inversion in Brazilians minds. He is a man who really believes that the environment is an obstacle to progress, to development. He made these agencies out to be the bad guys who are stalling our development. Before Bolsonaro the state at least was saying the right thing. At least they were supporting their own federal agencies. People that were doing illegal activities in the Amazon weren’t completely free to act. Now they feel free to act, to do all kinds of crimes. Because if the President says okay, they feel empowered. But Lula was responsible for the construction of Belo Monte, which was a disaster for the region, in all ways, socially, environmentally. That’s why I’m saying this mentality of this model of exploitation of the Amazon is the same since the colonial times.

I have some hope. The ingenious people are very organised and very connected. Many of their young leaders, they are mostly women, are very combative. They’ve done a really great job with Bolsonaro. I think they could be the leaders of a new movement to combat deforestation and think of new ways to preserve the forest. I see them as a great possibility for the Amazon.

This is a lifetime project for me. I will keep photographing in the Amazon as long as I can, it’s an interesting, big story – how are we going to live with the Amazon rainforest?

Hungry Dogs

from Amazon Dystopia

Altamira, Para, Brazil 2013  

Stray dogs stare hungrily at a butcher's window in Vila da Ressaca, an area previously mined for gold but now almost completely abandoned. 

The Amazon rainforest is often referred to as the "lungs of the earth", absorbing tonnes of carbon dioxide and in turn producing some 20% of the earth's oxygen. It is also the most biodiverse region on the planet, home to some three million species of plants and animals. Three fifths of this priceless natural habitat lie within the borders of Brazil. Yet just as the threat of climate change is starting to be taken more seriously by world leaders, exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon continues unabated, with logging, mining and hydroelectric power generation the main drivers of environmental degradation. This process has been accelerated by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain, who has little time for environmentalists and has expressed doubts about the incontrovertible evidence of global warming. Over the course of the Bolsonaro presidency, destruction of the Amazon rainforest has increased sharply as environmental policies have been dismantled, funding has been cut from enforcement agencies and environmental charities. While communities in the Amazon region are often the poorest in Brazil, little, if any, of the money generated by mining and logging ends up being reinvested locally.


About Lalo de Almeida

Lalo de Almeida has covered news and social issues for publications in Europe, America and Brazil, working for the Folha de São Paulo for 27 years while pursuing his own documentary projects.

For his first long term project The Man and the Land Lalo met people from various traditional Brazilian populations, to understand and communicate how ancient traditions influence the communities relationship with the environment.

In 2012, Lalo won an award from the Brazilian National Arts Foundation to explore the social impacts of the construction of the Belo Monte hydro-electric power plant on the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. This process led to a fascination with the fate and development of the Amazon basin, where Lalo has worked for the past decade, documenting the effects of industry and infrastructure projects on the fragile ecosystems of the rainforest and its people. This work culminated in the project Amazonian Dystopia for which he won a Eugene Smith Fund Grant in 2021.