The story of the tropics has always been the story of fragility. And the rainforests are the lungs of the Earth. The way they breathe affects the climate, the weather, and every human alive.
So what happens when development comes to the Amazon? When trees are cut and roads are paved and dams are built? Photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim has spent a career telling the stories of indigenous people and ancient places threatened by development. In 2014, he made his first trip to the northern Brazilian state of Pará to witness how the Belo Monte dam being built on the Xingu River would affect the more than 25,000 indigenous people whose lives depend on the land.
The Brazilian government has plans for as many as 40 more dams in the area to speed development and accelerate the country’s economy. But Elkaim sees the barriers to the Xingu river as disruptions to the people who have spent centuries living off the land and protecting it for future generations. “We’ve made a lot of headway in terms of reducing deforestation in the area,” says Elkaim. “But for me, building this dam is a symbol not of protecting the future, but of destroying it.”
Since the Belo Monte dam was proposed in 1975, sixteen indigenous Amazon tribes have protested it, claiming that it would flood the land they live on. Only after the project was amended to leave undisturbed some living areas and only affect hunting grounds did the project proceed in 2011. When opened in 2019, the dam is expected to produce 11,233 megawatts, making it the fourth largest hydroelectric dam in the world. The energy, in turn, will likely fuel more development in the region.
How the dam will compensate indigenous communities has been the subject of several lawsuits, one of which last year fined the dam’s owner, Norte Energia, and the government $275,000 for providing inadequate safety measures for people who live nearby. Other lawsuits have led to further concessions, including a promise to not run the dam’s hydroelectric power planet at full capacity so the area wouldn’t need to be flooded as much.
The people who live nearby have already seen more water on land that once was dry. During Elkaim’s several trips to the dam site and the wider river basin, he met members of the Munduruku indigenous tribe who laid rocks to spell messages of protest. He saw how people are already adapting to changes in the watershed. He watched as men washed their car on flooded land, and he watched a group of boys climb a dead tree that once stood on dry ground.
The government plans to move forward on the series of dams, offering regular concessions to the protesters so long as the plans for the dam aren’t entirely derailed. Some land has been designated culturally significant, which has required developers to alter their plans. The dam company Norte Energia has paid to relocate some members of the various indigenous tribes to new housing developments in the nearby city of Altamira. But the facilities offer little in the way of employment and community, and Elkaim was told that crime and alcoholism are often fixtures in relocation centers.
In this struggle over the past vs. the future, of culture vs. growth, government officials have argued both are possible. But water has a way of washing things away. Elkaim keeps returning to the region to photograph what’s at stake and the people at risk. And he hopes his images invoke a worldwide nostalgia for the Amazon and the people who have lived in it for centuries. “The idea is to show myth and imagination that exists within it,” he says. The best hope for people who live there is that, through a lens, they are seen.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim is a member of the Boreal Collective, a Canadian-founded collective of 12 international photographers who use photojournalism to raise social consciousness of cultural narratives, injustice, inequality and environmental issues around the world. You can follow him on Instagram.