They search for dead meat, and rummage through the trash. They come from the forest and live on the city's waste. They're called "urubus" in northern Brazil, black vultures with curved beaks and lizard-like heads.
The old people say the birds bring bad luck. There are now thousands in the city of Altamira, more than ever before. They blacken the sky when seen from a distance, and at closer range their silence is unsettling. Black vultures, lacking the vocal organ found in birds, the syrinx, rarely make any noise at all.
"The urubus," says Bishop Erwin Kräutler, "are an unmistakable sign that the city is in chaos." Kräutler, a native Austrian, is the bishop of one of the world's large prelatures, which is larger than Germany. He talks about chaos, speaking into every camera that's pointed at him, and he speaks loudly -- too loudly for the big landowners, the corporations and the government. His enemies have placed a bounty on the bishop's head for the equivalent of almost €400,000 ($543,000), and even the largest newspaper in northern Brazil wrote that it was time to "eliminate" him.
Bishop Kräutler is now 73. He's been living in Altamira, on the edge of the rainforest and in the middle of the Amazon region, for almost 50 years. For the last 30 years, he has been fighting the construction of the dam directly adjacent to the city, a project that is financially lucrative for many in the area.
He and his friends from environmental organizations advise the victims, file lawsuits against government agencies and plan rallies. He has spoken with prosecutors and the country's supreme court, has met with the president twice and was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize, but all to little avail.
Altamira's population is expected to reach 300,000 soon, up from only 100,000 not too long ago. The developers call the dam Belo Monte, or "beautiful mountain," while the dam's opponents call it Belo Monte de Merde, or "beautiful mountain of shit." The dam attracts workers, causing the city and its garbage dumps to grow, which in turn attracts black vultures from the jungle.
Kräutler's fight is a struggle against the biggest construction site in the largest rainforest on earth. The first of 24 turbines is expected to be up and running in 2015. Starting in 2019, the dam will have as much generating capacity as 11 nuclear power plants. To achieve this, 18,000 workers are moving as much earth as was moved to build the Panama Canal. They are creating a reservoir larger than Lake Constance to build the world's third-largest dam, which is also expected to become a symbol of Brazil's motto "Ordem e Progresso," or "Order and Progress."
"When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation," Kräutler says, quoting Matthew, Chapter 24, Verse 15. He says that the reservoir will be a dead, putrid lake, and that the dam will spell the end of the river that feeds into it, the Rio Xingu, the largest tributary of the Amazon, which flows directly past the bishop's see. According to Kräutler, there will be a rise in dengue fever, the river upstream from the dam will flood the city, and the government will have to resettle at least 40,000 people, especially the poorest of the poor, who tend to live near the water.
Meanwhile, the indigenous people living downstream from the dam will be left high and dry, forced to leave their land when they can no longer catch fish. Kräutler calls it "the last bit of paradise."
'Avatar' in Brazil
He is convinced that the government, contrary to its promises, will build more dams along the river to produce the electricity it needs for industry and for economic growth in the entire country. Brazil's power consumption is expected to increase by more than half by 2020, at which point Belo Monte will cover one-tenth of the energy needs for a country almost as large as Europe. Given the dam's estimated construction cost of almost €11 billion, say proponents, how significant is a single bend of the river, and how significant are a few hundred local tribes people?
The dam is Brazil's most controversial project. Everyone in the country has an opinion about Belo Monte, especially after it was criticized by a few actors in the serial TV dramas known as telenovelas that are so popular among Brazilians. On the surface, it appears to be a relatively straightforward situation. On the one side of the controversy are the Norte Energia construction consortium, corrupt government officials and the Energy Ministry, and on the other side are the indigenous people, the rainforest and hundreds of thousands of turtles. It's an age-old conflict, pitting good against evil, like the one depicted in director James Cameron's film "Avatar," in which native people shoot arrows at the bulldozers of big corporations.
When Cameron came to the Amazon region in the spring of 2010, because he believed that the story depicted in his film had suddenly become a reality, he arrived on a propeller plane and was taken up the bend in the river in a motor boot. He spoke to a group representing several indigenous tribes. The Cacique Giliard Juruna, a headman of sorts, was also there. He had seen Cameron on television and was proud of the fact that the director had come to the region.
Cameron said: "You already have the greatest wealth in the world." He pointed to the river and said: "You have fish." He pointed to the forest and said: "You have the forest." It was his way of explaining their world to the locals. He also said: "You have the kind of wealth that my world doesn't understand." Then he returned to the city and donated half a million dollars.
It was the same message that his film had conveyed: The local people are saints, but to survive they need a white man, like ex-Marine Jake Sully in "Avatar." One wonders how much that visit actually changed Cameron and what he meant by the wealth that our world doesn't understand. Cameron seems a little like the musician Sting, who once sang at a benefit concert for the indigenous people of the Amazon, but who also flew to New York on the Concorde once and raved about how great it felt to be flying at twice the speed of sound.
Rotting Fish on Riverbanks
Village spokesman Giliard is the son of the best fisherman in Moratu, a child of the Xingu River, as he says, and the great-grandchild of the last great shaman who, as the story goes, could kill people with his breath alone. Giliard lives in the river bend behind the dam, in the place Kräutler describes as a paradise.
He has just been shopping in the city, where he bought a large piece of beef, two packs of Derby Azul cigarettes, a Chinese-made Tiger Head flashlight and extra batteries. He is wearing a T-shirt with the words "Championship - Living your Lifestyle" printed on it. Giliard puts on his helmet, gets onto his Honda and, before pulling the clutch, says: "I don't have a driver's license, so we'll have to drive around the police checkpoints."
He drives out of Altamira, past the fields where investors will soon build new supermarkets, and past housing for the workers. Some of them are from neighboring tribes and think nothing of working on the dam. He continues driving out into the rainforest, as the evening fog rises. Jupiter has risen. The trees aren't on fire yet.
But they'll be burning again tomorrow, set on fire by landowners who need the space for their cattle. To get home, Giliard must cross the excavated canal being built -- day and night -- between the planned dam and the planned power plant.
On the one side, they are filling in his river, which will soon carry only as much water as it normally carries in the dry season, a river where dead fish are rotting and the water is becoming muddier. On the other side, they blast through the rock twice a day to create holes for turbines as big as houses.
German companies are being paid just under half a billion euros to supply four of the turbines, along with generators, all the transformers and the entire automation system. They are part of a consortium headed by engineering giant Siemens and Voith, a mechanical engineering firm. Mercedes is supplying the trucks, while Munich Re is insuring a portion of the project. As it happens, Germany needs the aluminum that Brazil exports and produces in such an energy-intensive way.
It's late in the evening by the time Giliard reaches his village on the edge of the forest, a collection of 12 houses under a starry sky. He puts away his motorcycle, and then he wades gingerly into the river, as if he were afraid to shatter the mirrored surface of the water. The river is so wide that the opposite bank disappears into the darkness, almost unimaginably enormous by German standards.
The generator is running. The Cacique greets his children and turns on the TV. He watches the rich in their telenovelas, idling their lives away without having to work. What does he think when he crosses the canal that cuts through his forest? "I'm ashamed that we could allow it to happen," he says.
Giliard is at work the next morning. His tool is a Swedish chainsaw for hardwood, a Husqvarna with an anti-vibration system that operates at 9,300 rpm. He is standing barefoot on a Brazil nut tree, known locally as a "castanheira." It's on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species and is one of the largest trees in the Amazon. This particular specimen is a beauty, well over 100 years old. Giliard is going to saw the tree into planks.
The lumber would fetch a lot of money on the market, but Giliard wants to build a house with it. He marks the cutting line on the light-colored wood with used oil and a chalk line, tightens the chain on his saw and opens the throttle. Later, when it's quiet again, the birds have fallen silent, and the clearing smells of gasoline, Giliard, exhausted, drinks water from a blue plastic container. Does he really believe that the tree has a soul?
His brother, sitting next to him, bursts out laughing. But Giliard tries to remain polite. These are the kinds of questions only white men ask, men who have never dragged lumber across the ground with a winch, burned down trees or built new houses. "No," he says, "we don't believe in that anymore."
Remembering the Trees
Two days later and two hours upriver, Pedro Blanco, a spokesman for the construction consortium, is standing on a hill, looking away from the Rio Xingu, which has begun to dry up. Blanco's job is to explain what is happening below, where the river will be cut off, where suction devices will pump up the sludge, and where the roots of the trees will dry up.
Instead, Blanco is using his iPhone to photograph one of the last castanheiras left standing. The workers separate garbage on the construction site and rescue baby turtles, and they also leave certain protected trees unharmed. Blanco takes a close-up picture of the tree bark, with the dark leaf canopy in the background contrasting sharply with the sky above. "Porque é bonito," "because it's beautiful," he says later. Of course the tree has a soul, he says, "everything that lives has a soul."
Giliard and Blanco are like dissonant tones in a song. One of them should love nature but sees it as a raw material. The other one should love his dam but romanticizes nature.
Volunteers and environmentalists rave about the region's 25 tribes, with their 24 different languages, as different as Chinese and Arabic, and about the dozens of different notions about creation. But Giliard, the Cacique of the Juruna tribe, speaks Portuguese. He doesn't like the new road to his village, and yet he takes it because it's usually faster than traveling upriver by boat.
His father is a fisherman, but the village children want to become teachers or soldiers. A tree is a tree for Giliard. He hopes his village will one day have a doctor and a secondary school, and will provide people with the opportunity to make enough money to get by. That is wealth to him. Why should he live the way director Cameron thinks Amazon Indians should live?
The old people say that there used to be a beach on the Rio Xingu. But today there is nothing but waste floating by where there once was sand. Norte Energia had in fact planned to build a sewage treatment plant, but the waste is still released directly into the river.
When Bishop Kräutler first came to Altamira as a young man from the Austrian town of Koblach, it felt full of promise. Today, he says, it feels more like a war. Four policemen protect him at all hours of the day, and he doesn't take a step or deliver a homily without them. The bishop fought for the indigenous people's right, as enshrined in the constitution, to determine what happens to their land. During the dispute, a truck slammed into his car, killing the person in the passenger seat.
He opposed a $500 million (€369 million) loan from the World Bank. He is a thorn in the side of the businesses that hope to strike it rich with the dam, businesses that are often among the biggest donors to political parties. He points out a hole in a rock behind nine security cameras. It was where an employee was shot to death in 1995, and where a nun was killed 10 years later. She, too, had fought against the dam.
Kräutler would love to go jogging again, outside in front of his house and along the river he loves. But the police forbid it. It is one of the precautionary measures they take to keep him from getting killed. Instead, he now gets his exercise by walking in the cloistered courtyard before sunrise every morning, 65 steps up and 65 steps back, walking for as long as it takes to say three rosaries. He has been deprived of his outer freedom, he says, but they can't take away his inner freedom.
Trappings of Modern Luxury
Today, Altamira is the kind of city where it's possible to have your dog picked up, blow-dried and massaged for the equivalent of €30. Employees wash the sidewalks with detergent in front of some hotels. The dam brings money into the city. Even the prostitutes in the brothel for workers say: "Protecting nature is all very well and good, but life has to go on."
Tens of thousands, including workers and suppliers, are flooding into the bloated city. Every few days the power goes out for several hours and when that happens workers continue unloading new refrigerators from donkey carts by candlelight. Advertising slogans blare from loudspeakers on mopeds, slogans like: "Now you can fulfill your dreams."
With the trappings of modern life -- plucked eyebrows, installment loans for cars, tuxedos for children and so much waste that it attracts the urubus -- Altamira is a city that needs electricity, just as James Cameron, Erwin Kräutler, Pedro Blanco and Giliard Juruna need electricity. Belo Monte will give them that electricity. That's the promise. The project will only be economically viable if additional dams are built.
To build the dam, they have locked the admonishing Dom Erwin, as the bishop is known locally, in his own house. He says that many of the Indians have been kept quiet with the money from compensation payments for their land, which the dam will destroy. The indigenous people are expected to receive €570 million from the government. Although prominent tribesmen have repeatedly protested against the dam, most have given up.
The developer pays for Giliard's TV set, his Honda, his diesel fuel, his chainsaw and his new boat. In early January, he and a group of like-minded citizens blocked the access road to the dam, shutting down the work for days. They demanded more money, about €100,000, to make up for the silted river water, but in the end they agreed to accept only a third of that amount from the developer.
Bishop Kräutler has a term for this: "modern glass beads." It isn't genocide, he says, but "auricide," or genocide through gold. The Indians now come into the city and use the money they were given to buy things they never needed before. On the other hand, the indigenous people view the river as the "house of the gods."
Observing the Vultures
For many, however, more important than the house of the gods today is the Caso do Índio, or the House of the Indian. It's a bleak building, a sort of boarding house for those who once owned the land. Many arrive there, big-eyed and timid, pulling suitcases and holding turtles.
This is where the indigenous people sleep when they have something to do in the city, or are waiting for money. There are pieces of paper attached to the doors with the names of the tribes, looking like unsolved puzzles: Xingu, Arara, Araweté, Xikrin, Kayapó, Juruna, Parakanã, Asurini, Xipaya.
A woman who lives there has forgotten how to say her name in her native language. She dreams of fat children. She calls it a good dream. She likes the city because there are no wild animals there. She doesn't like it that the white people think indigenous people are lazy. She is afraid of frogs. She likes MSN better than Facebook, which she uses through her sister's account. She prefers Samsung to Apple. She likes the eye shadow she is wearing.
The Indian woman says that language is the most important thing, that it preserves her identity. But her husband is from a neighboring tribe, and she doesn't understand him when he speaks his language. Instead, they speak Portuguese with each other and their children.
Money is the Indians' weakness, says Kräutler, and the managers of the dam company are like black vultures. When the vulture is searching for a meal, it flies high above the ground, all of its senses focused on the carrion, and glides down to feed on the dead body. But if the bird cannot find carrion, it hunts the weak. A flock of vultures can even kill a calf, as the birds peck away at the most sensitive areas: the eyes, the tongue and the nose. The calf goes into shock, and the vultures move in for the kill.