The Faces of Itaipu: Community, Memory, and Struggle in Rural Brazil
In October of 2014 I headed out into the countryside of Paraná, a state in southern Brazil tucked along the borders with neighboring Paraguay and Argentina. I had just spent two months in the archive of the Itaipu Dam, the second largest hydroelectric project on the planet and the thematic core of my dissertation. When it was constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, Itaipu was the crown jewel of Brazil’s development program. Living in the shadow of Itaipu, however, were 42,000 Brazilians who knew that once the floodgates were opened, their lands would be lost forever, lying swollen and untilled at the bottom of a lake. The looming threat of displacement galvanized an unprecedented struggle of small-scale farmers, landless peasants, and indigenous communities that fought for nearly a decade under the banner of “land and justice.”
For seven weeks I crisscrossed the interior of southwestern Brazil, looking for any people or families that had participated in the fight against Itaipu nearly forty years ago. More than just wanting to highlight the local voices that have been ignored in Itaipu’s official history, I wanted to learn about the differences and tensions that existed amongst the groups that had participated at different stages in the rural struggle.
A duality ran through most of the stories that I heard: the hardships and suffering caused by losing their lands was met in equal measure by the courage of families that took a stand against Itaipu. But a deeper reality also existed, and people remembered having been marginalized and silenced not just by Brazil’s military regime, but by the leaders of their own movement. Farmers who held the legal title to their lands looked down on their landless (and poorer and darker-skinned) neighbors; women were essentially blocked from leadership roles; and almost no effort was made by the farmers to link their struggles to those of the indigenous groups whose homes were also swept away by the same waters of Itaipu.
The following photographs are of people I met whose memories provide a glimpse into the realities of life and struggle in rural Brazil. Click each photo to enlarge.
“Order and Progress”
An Avá-Guarani woman peers out from her house in the Tekoa Itamarã indigenous village. A member of the Ocoi-Jacutinga community, her tribe was evicted from their lands in the early 1980s prior to the flooding of the Itaipu reservoir. Whereas most of the other farmers in the region—of predominantly European origin—received financial compensation for their lost lands, the Avá-Guarani were given nothing but a forced relocation. Location: Aldei indígena Tekona Itamarã. Diamante do Oeste, Brazil.
“The Company Man”
In the 1960s Udo Lopes worked for Mata Laranjeiras, the first logging company in western Paraná. As a young man Udo helped clear the forests along the Paraná River, a process that ushered in the region’s first major wave of migrant farmers. Within a span of two decades, however, all those farmers would lose their lands to the Itaipu dam. Location: Porto Mendes, Brazil.
Dona Appio beginning her morning routine. The Appio family moved to the interior of Paraná state after the Itaipu flood, and eventually received their current plot of land through a decade of struggle with the Landless Workers Movement (MST). Initially, milk from these cows was consumed exclusively by the family, but dramatic increases in the price of seeds and equipment forced the Appios to sell items like homemade cheese in order to underwrite their primary agricultural production of wheat and soybeans. Location: Landless settlement of Irene Alves. Rio Bonito do Iguaçu, Brazil.
Nildemar takes a break from tending to his dairy cows to share his memories of rural mobilizations in the 1970s and 1980s. A member of the group MASTRO, Nildemar and his family were active in the struggles in southwestern Brail that emerged in the fight against the Itaipu hydroelectric dam. Location: Antônio Tavares Landless Settlement. São Miguel do Iguaçu, Brazil.
Although the youngest generation of rural Brazilians in western Paraná did not personally experience the original struggles against Itaipu, they confront many of the issues that have endured. These include escalating land prices, unstable agricultural production, and a growing dependence on government welfare programs. Location: Municipality of Ceu Azul, Brazil.
This photo essay is the first of two exploring water politics in Brazil. Next week, Nate Millington will offer a different perspective on the relationship between water management and people’s daily lives.
Featured image: “Delfino.” Jake Blanc.
Photographs are all the work of Jake Blanc. They may be reproduced with permission from the author.
Jake Blanc is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at UW-Madison. His dissertation focuses on the intersection of land tenure and political opposition during Brazil’s dictatorship, looking at the history of the Itaipu dam and the mobilizations of rural workers. His research has been funded by Fulbright-Hays, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Historical Association. His work appears in the Journal of Peasant Studies and the Luso-Brazilian Review. Contact.