The Apocalyptic and Expulsive Force of Dam Occupation: Seeing with
Carolina Caycedo’s A Gente Río, Be Dammed
Macarena Gómez-Barris| Pratt Institute
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Amongst other inhuman catastrophes, we face the planetary extinction of rivers. Yet, often lurking within the universal narratives of any extinction is an ongoing genocidal history that is occluded by the celebratory, teleological, and emancipatory narratives of human progress. Hydro-electric damming depends upon the expulsion of Indigenous populations from their territories in order to materially and representationally, as Patrick Wolfe first put it, eliminate the Native (Wolfe 2006). More specifically, the 1971 transnational construction of the Itaipu Dam on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay violently dispossessed, once again, the Guaraní peoples of their ancestral territories. As multimedia artist Carolina Caycedo documents in A Gente Rio (2017), these processes were carried out by a police state that continued evictions long after the 1980s end of the Brazilian dictatorship. Such ongoing developmental coloniality extends the perpetual war against Indigenous peoples, a war that structurally expels while hiding the exacting force of its ongoing violence. In this case, perpetual war is hidden within the thick mud where the Paraná river once ran, and within the concrete walls built to contain the immense force of South America’s second longest river. To paraphrase Caycedo, “Damming, be damned.”
Caycedo’s camera becomes an important tool for discerning new, sudden, yet reiterating structural condition of environmental and racialized catastrophe. A quick search of “Itaipu” on Wikipedia, in contrast, makes it impossible to discern the degree, depth, or the differential path of genocidal violence in the wake of one of the largest damming projects in the world. The dam is eerily described in pastoral terms:
The Itaipu Dam is a huge hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay. It’s known for its nighttime light shows and views from the central lookout. The Production Building’s command room controls the dam’s turbines. Nearby on the Paraguayan side, the Museum of the Guarani Land has exhibits on indigenous culture. Just north, the Tatí Yupí Sanctuary is a wildlife reserve with trails and birdlife.
What is missing from this amnesiac passage is the scale of destruction wrought by the 4.8-mile-wide mega-development project that flooded more than 165,000 acres of Guaraní territories and displaced at least 38 Indigenous communities (Ferreira and Kurtural 2017). “The Production Building’s command center” and the “nighttime light shows from the central lookout” in the Wikipedia entry strangely invokes a Foucauldian panopticon. I focus on this seemingly banal description because it captures the dominant mode of representation of what I call the extractive view (Gómez-Barris 2017). Such phrasing ignores the more pernicious coloniality at work in the entry, which wreaks of this dominant form of visuality that absences the overlapping and historical violences of racial capitalism. In other words, the Museum of Guarani Land is not an innocuous project of collection and display for eager tourists — they never are– but instead a reproduction of Guarani genocide, carried out first by Spanish explorers, then by Jesuit missionaries, then by Spanish and Portuguese militia, then by the Brazilian state, and then by the massive damming project and technocratic imaginary called the Itaipu Dam. Indeed, what is hidden within the reference to exhibitions of Guaraní “indigenous culture” is what J. Kēhaulani Kauanui names as the enduring structure of Indigeneity (Kauanui 2016), or the ongoing structural erasure of genocidal coloniality on the one hand, and the multiple forms of Indigenous refusal and resistance, on the other. The Museum of the Guaraní Land that is glossed over in the definition of the dam is a life/death reminder of enduring Indigeneity. Indeed, the Museum of the Guaraní Land represents a colonial gesture on the part of the Itaipu corporation to eviscerate and contain all traces of struggle, suffering, and the massive dispossession of Guaraní communities, whose histories and daily living have long been organized by extractive capitalist expulsions.
Thinking more broadly about current forms of collective claim-making by survivors of Itaipu, we might say that buried within the extractive zone of the Itaipu Dam and within Guaraní territories are the anticolonial memories of Indigenous insurgence. During the 16th century, Jesuit missionaries organized the spatiality of Guaraní lands into reductions and later into missions with the specific aim to reorder Indigenous time-sense and Indigenous relation to the surround. The creation of a new sensorium facilitated capitalist expansion, as the widening network of Christian missions became centers of monocultural production. Under the watch of Guaraní communities, over the next 150 years the missions’ cattle husbandry produced some of the biggest domesticated animal herds in the hemisphere. Though the mission systems initially maintained some level of autonomy from colonial powers, these expanding economic activities and their potential profits drew the attention of Portuguese and Spanish colonists, whose militias arrived in droves. And with them, came the legal decree: the 1750 Madrid Treaty that produced and documented the rationale for the forcible removal of the Guaraní from mission economies. Yet for the more than 80,000 Indigenous peoples that had been settled within the mission system, and had for generations lived within this reorganization, resistance to new forms of expulsion was intense. Sepé Tiaraju, a Guaraní warrior, led a widespread insurrection against the encroaching colonial powers. The quashing of this rebellion turned into one of the largest Indigenous massacres in South American history.
I start with the embeddedness of the historical violence against Indigenous peoples in the region, and its effacement by dominant and popular representation, to contextualize Carolina Caycedo’s film A Gente Rio, Be Dammed. This powerful documentary uses environmental testimonials and the direct experience of Guaraní communities to visually and sonically narrate the apocalyptic expulsive force of dam occupation. The film opens with a reading of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Adeus a Sete Quedas” or “Goodbye to Seven Falls” whose words we hear through the voice of Veronica Villa:
Sete quedas por mim passaram,
E todas sete se esvaíram.
Cessa o estrondo das cachoeiras, e com ele
A memória dos índios, pulverizada,
Já não desperta o mínimo arrepio.
Aos mortos espanhóis, aos mortos bandeirantes,
Aos apagados fogos
De Ciudad Real de Guaira vão juntar-se
Os sete fantasmas das águas assassinadas
Por mão do homem, dono do planeta.
Aqui outrora retumbaram vozes
Da natureza imaginosa, fértil
Em teatrais encenações de sonhos
Aos homens ofertadas sem contrato.
Uma beleza-em-si, fantástico desenho
Corporizado em cachões e bulcões de aéreo contorno
Mostrava-se, despia-se, doava-se
Em livre coito à humana vista extasiada.
Toda a arquitetura, toda a engenharia
De remotos egípcios e assírios
Em vão ousaria criar tal monumento.
Por ingrata intervenção de tecnocratas.
Aqui sete visões, sete esculturas
De líquido perfil
Dissolvem-se entre cálculos computadorizados
De um país que vai deixando de ser humano
Para tornar-se empresa gélida, mais nada.
Faz-se do movimento uma represa,
Da agitação faz-se um silêncio
Empresarial, de hidrelétrico projeto.
Vamos oferecer todo o conforto
Que luz e força tarifadas geram
À custa de outro bem que não tem preço
Nem resgate, empobrecendo a vida
Na feroz ilusão de enriquecê-la.
Sete boiadas de água, sete touros brancos,
De bilhões de touros brancos integrados,
Afundam-se em lagoa, e no vazio
Que forma alguma ocupará, que resta
Senão da natureza a dor sem gesto,
A calada censura
E a maldição que o tempo irá trazendo?
Vinde povos estranhos, vinde irmãos
Brasileiros de todos os semblantes,
Vinde ver e guardar
Não mais a obra de arte natural
Hoje cartão-postal a cores, melancólico,
Mas seu espectro ainda rorejante
De irisadas pérolas de espuma e raiva,
Entre pontes pênseis destruídas
E o inútil pranto das coisas,
Sem acordar nenhum remorso,
Nenhuma culpa ardente e confessada.
(“assumimos a responsabilidade!
Estamos construindo o brasil grande!”)
E patati patati patatá…
Sete quedas por nós passaram,
E não soubemos, ah, não soubemos amá-las,
E todas sete foram mortas,
E todas sete somem no ar,
Sete fantasmas, sete crimes
Dos vivos golpeando a vida
Que nunca mais renascerá.
The poem narrates the nihilism of the nation state’s grandeur in the line “Estamos construindo o Brasil grande,” a nihilism that becomes the byproduct of state sovereignty. In referencing the lack of accountability, Andrade mourns the seven waterfalls of Guaríara that were, in reality, eighteen separate falls that flowed together to produce the world’s most voluminous natural water power. Indeed, the scale of the construction effort during the 1960s cannot be underestimated as it extracted the labor of 40,000 workers and 12.3 million cubic meters of concrete, and enough iron and steel to build 380 replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Yet even as the poem mourns these ironies of modern colonial engineering, using the language of disappearing rivers and the impunity it brings with it (“seven ghosts” and “seven crimes”), it also renders invisible the massive Indigenous dispossession at the heart of this new extractive zone.
In contrast, Caycedo’s eye shows us the muddied racial geographies of colonial extraction and uncovers the painful collective testimonies of displacement. In a carefully crafted sequence that foregrounds the experience of disorientation by local communities, a fisherman narrates how the Paraná river is now “completely out of control,” rising unnaturally eight or nine meters one day, then dipping below two feet of water the next. As the fisherman says, “the river moves too quickly and the fish loses his connection.” The fish’s disorientation destabilizes an anthropocentric viewpoint during an early moment in the film that indicates the coming disaster or the literal flooding without warning of the entire river basin that is home to hundreds of Indigenous and Mestizx communities. As one displaced female resident tells it, the impending catastrophe was not foretold. “It came at 4 am,” and the dam’s flood brought with it entire houses, cars, uprooted trees, mountain sides, animals, and people, with no warning by state officials of the immediate violence to come. After a series of such testimonials we return to the voice of the fisherman who reminds the viewer that “Before the dam, the river stayed stable.” Caycedo’s camera tracks between the disorienting movement of the river and the afterlives of the dam’s destruction, where water lines rise and fall. With her, we see how the damming logic becomes the technocratic manager of surrounding life. As the fisherman puts it, “Itaipu does whatever it wants with the river.” We can make a similar analogy about how coloniality buries the histories of Guaraní survival—it does whatever it wants with these territories. Damming, be damned.
Ferreira, Fernando, and Kurtural. “An Indigenous Community in Paraguay Faces on of the Biggest Electric Dams in the World.” Intercontinental Cry: Essential News on the world’s Indigenous Peoples. December 29, 2017. https://intercontinentalcry.org/indigenous-community-paraguay-faces-one-biggest-hydroelectric-dams-world/.
Gómez-Barris, Macarena. 2017. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies Decolonial Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. 2016. “A Structure, Not an Event”: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity. Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 5, no. 1 (Spring): http://csalateral.org/issue/5-1/forum-alt-humanities-settler-colonialism-enduring-indigeneity-kauanui/.