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.
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.
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.
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?