GALLERY: Fishermen of Amazonia

By 14 April, 2012

Between the dry grasslands of the cerrado savanna and the tropical forest of western Brazil lies the valley of the Juruena river, the homeland of the Enawene Nawe. The Mato Grosso state government is building a series of hydroelectric dams upriver from the tribe’s land. The dams threaten the Enawene Nawe’s forest home, the fish they eat and their sacred Yãkwa ritual. Preliminary April 2012 reports from the Enawene Nawe suggest that this year’s fish stocks may be as depleted as those in 2009.

In the first light of dawn, Enawene Nawe men gather outside haiti: the house of sacred flutes. They have recently returned from camps in the rainforest, in order to celebrate the most important fishing ceremony of the year: the Yãkwa banquet.

The Enawene Nawe are one of very few tribes in the world who do not eat red meat. They are expert fishermen. In the dry season, they catch fish with a poison called timbó, made from the juice of a woody vine. Bundles of vines are pounded in the water, so releasing the poison and asphyxiating the fish, which then rise to the surface.

In the wet season, when the hills of the Serra de Norte are shrouded in cloud, the longest indigenous ritual in Amazonia begins. Yãkwa maintains the harmony of the world and is a four month exchange of food between the Enawene Nawe and the subterranean yakairiti spirits, who are the owners of fish and salt.

At the beginning of Yãkwa, the Enawene Nawe build waitiwina (dams) across Adowina (the Rio Preto). The dams are created from criss-crossing trunks. These form a latticework of interwoven timber, into which are inserted dozens of cone-shaped traps. Bark and vine are used as joints. The Adowina is a river for waitiwina, said an Enawene Nawe man. The trees are tall and the land is good.

Water is then sucked through the cones, so trapping fish as they swim downstream, having spawned in the river’s headwaters. Yãkwa has been recognized by Brazil’s Ministry of Culture as part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Fish are stored in small baskets woven from palm, and smoked in special smoke houses. They are then transported back to the village by canoe. At the end of Yãkwa the dams are destroyed to ensure that fish can once more swim upriver to spawn.

Salt, manioc and honey are exchanged with the yakairiti spirits during a lavish banquet. The men’s waists are wrapped in palm fibres, their necklaces strung with red macaw, curassow and hawk feathers. They move around a circle in slow steps, their chanting accompanied by the deep piping of bamboo flutes.

The situation became so serious in 2009 that a dam construction company was forced to buy three thousand kilos of farmed fish to ensure the tribe’s survival. When I was a small boy, I always came to the dams with my father, said Kawari, an Enawene Nawe elder. We let the fish go up the river to lay their eggs. But if hydro-electric dams are built all the eggs will disappear and the fish will die.

The tribe has not given their consent for hydro-electric dam construction – such as the Telegrafica dam pictured above – or for the deforestation of their land by cattle ranchers.

“We didn’t know the white people were going to take our land. We didn’t know anything about deforestation. We didn’t know about the laws of the white men.”

The Enawene Nawe are lobbying for the Rio Preto area to be recognized as belonging to the tribe, and for the removal of the ranchers. “The Rio Preto is vital for our survival. Why do the ranchers claim it is theirs? Do they know the first names of the Rio Preto? No. These are the river’s real names: Adowina, Hokosewina and Kayawinalo. And we, the Enawene Nawe, are the real owners.”

“My knowledge is ancient. I have known about these things for a long time. It was not recently that I knew the Adowina, it is from a very long time ago. It was not recently that I was born.” Kawari, Enawene Nawe elder.

Article originally published by Survival International

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