Speeding down the river in an aluminum boat, we set out to learn about the Tocantins system, and how it changed since the damming. Around 50 people left Palmas at 8 in the morning, headed towards the Lajeado dam, then downstream to visit a family of impacted fishermen, and finally to lunch and swimming on a riverside beach. The Tocantins is an approximately 2500 km long river running from headwaters in the state of Goiás to the Atlantic Ocean. Along its course operate 6 dams, with several more in planning.
Getting to the Lajeado dam, it was obvious to see how much the landscape had changed. Downstream of the dam’s closed floodgates, the riverbed was bare, large rocks exposed where the river once flowed. A small beach surrounds the dry channel, useless for swimmers and fishermen alike. When the dam’s floodgates open, the empty riverbed fills, only to lower again quickly once the floodgates are closed.
From Lajeado, we continued to Miracema where we met several members of the fishers colony. They banded together to promote laws and regulations which help them preserve their livelihood – fishing the Tocantins River. Since the installation of the dam, fish stocks have declined dramatically, making it more difficult to survive off of fishing. At Miracema, the fishers took us on their motorized aluminum fishing boats which were large enough to fit around 8 people. We traversed south on the river, downstream of the dam. To the west, we could see the conserved lands of the Xerente people, a historical native tribe who live in the Tocantins (a blog on a visit to their city will follow in the comings weeks).
Stopping the boats on the banks of the Povoada do Chato, we spoke to a family who had lived on the land since before the dam was installed. The told us how different life is now. Before the dam was opened and the river was changed, they were able to have small plots of agriculture – onions, watermelons, mangoes near the banks of the river. The flooding pattern was predictable, the waters rising and engulfing their lands during the wet season, then falling, leaving behind nutritious silt deposits enabling their small-scale farming during the dry season. Now, with the dam, the flood are unpredictable, rising and falling within a day, causing them to lose crops to erratic inundation patterns. They can no longer keep their gardens alive, so now they must import food from other states.
It is striking to see how much a river can change after it is dammed. I research changes to the riparian vegetation and floodplains, but the impacts go much further: fisheries decline, people lose their livelihoods and traditional ways of living. Being on the river and meeting the impacted people contextualizes these changes, allowing us to better understand how the day-to-day lives of people who have lived on the river for decades change, often making them less independent.
Images © Caio Mota.