New Dams Threaten Amazonian Tribe

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 of the tribe’s land. The dams threaten the tribe’s forest home, the fish they eat and the sacred Yãkwa ritual.

Survival has now received preliminary reports from Brazil indicating that this year’s fish stocks may be as low as those of 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.



The UN body UNESCO recently called for the urgent safeguarding of the Yãkwa ritual, referring to it as an ‘intangible cultural heritage.’

For the last few years however, the tribe has struggled to carry out Yãkwa, due to the decline in fish stocks from deforestation and hydro-electric dam construction.

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.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, said, ‘It is a bitter irony that while Yãkwa is now recognized as part of Brazil’s cultural heritage, the ritual could very soon cease to exist.’



‘We didn’t know the white people were going to take our land. We didn’t know anything about deforestationWe didn’t know about the laws of the white men’, say the Enawene Nawe.

The tribe is now lobbying for the Rio Preto area to be recognized as theirs  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.’


Human Journey

Meet the Author
Joanna Eede was an editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including Portrait of England (Think Publishing, 2006) and We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (Quadrille, 2009). Joanna writes for newspapers and magazines on subjects such as the repatriation of wild Przewalski horses to Mongolia, the whales of the Alboran sea, the chimpanzees of the Mahale rainforest, uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza hunter gatherer people of Tanzania. Future ideas include a book about Tibet’s nomads.