Saudade and the Rain: Nature, Culture, and Identity

Author: Gabriel Wilson Tavares Calderaro (UNU-IAS)

 


I love the rain. The sound it makes when it hits the roof of my house; how the lightning illuminates a whole new world for a split second; even how the thunder seems to shake me to my very core. I always thought rain would be the same; make me feel similar emotions, regardless of where I lived. Yet, as it rains in Tokyo, it doesn’t seem to incite the same easy joy it did in the Amazon. Why? What starts with a single drop of water landing on the pavement, then leads to a deep feeling… that perhaps doesn’t really exist in, or translate fully into English.

Saudade. This Portuguese word reminds me of home. It is a feeling of being incomplete or longing for something which one once had but has now lost. It is the sadness of missing, and the happiness of having the privilege of experiencing it. I feel saudade of the rain, the rivers, and the forest that surrounded me for years. Saudade of what made home, home.

I realized that the Amazon, in its beautiful mix of rain, river and forest, is part of who I am when I moved to Texas for college. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” was not just a sappy promise of a long-distance relationship. For me, it was the first time I was isolated from my culture and from people who understood how I felt. Six years since, and the saudade that settled in is yet to leave my side. Being able to visit home throughout the years has not remedied this feeling, but instead, has made it grow stronger.

It wasn’t until recently that I understood why I was so strongly attached to those elements of nature. It is because I lived and breathed them even when not physically surrounded by them. I also learned that I wasn’t alone. Paes Loureiro, a poet and writer, described the Amazonian culture as the culmination of the interaction between humans and nature. The fact that we, the people, are living with nature, depending on it, and being impacted by it, is reflected in the collective manifestations deeply rooted in customs, religious
displays and myths.

Many of the traditions and beliefs I am proud to carry come from the many native peoples in the Amazon. Their care and knowledge of nature was able to survive the invasion and colonization of the Americas, mixing itself with the other groups that became present in the region. This isn’t to say that all is well just because they have been resilient and strong, and their culture has become part of the local mainstream culture. Their fight is still as much a struggle for survival as it was five centuries ago.

When Europeans first arrived at the Amazon, the native population had to fight for their land and way of life against missionaries and colonizers. Currently, many indigenous groups are building up resistance against public-private partnership initiatives that, in one way or another, would hurt their home, their culture, and their way of life.

The Munduruku people, located in the Tapajós basin in Brazil, have fought for their land for many years, against colonizers, but also modern Brazil. They were even able to dissuade the military dictatorship (1964-1985) from building hydroelectric dams that would flood many of their villages. It is almost ironic how it was recent democratic governments that have pushed and started the construction on those dams.

One of the proposed dams, São Luiz do Tapajós, would flood 380 sq. kilometers of forest, equivalent to 3.6 times the size of Paris, France. A study by Grupo de Estudos Tapajós – a study group funded by national and international companies interested in realizing the project on the environmental impacts of this dam by the interested parties – has identified 7 endemic bird species, as well as 18 fish species, exclusive to the basin. This study also discovered 16 new reptile species.

The impact of the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós dam to the local ecosystems would be catastrophic, especially for species living in the flooded areas. As the flow of the rivers slow because of the dam, migratory fish species would not be able to travel to reproduction sites, affecting their populations, as well as other organisms dependent on them. With less flow of water, the oxygen levels in it would be expected to decrease, slowly but surely suffocating aquatic species.

 

Regarding the social impact of this project, the number of impacted people seem to differ greatly. While the report by Grupo de Estudos Tapajós on impacts of the dam present a figure of 1,400 people living in the impacted area, it is a much smaller figure than the one presented by Greenpeace. In the report produced by the environmental NGO, an estimated 12 thousand Munduruku, as well as 2,500 people in traditional riverine communities, live in the affected area.

These different groups depend on the river and forest for their subsistence – – food, water, health, and transportation. However, not only their livelihoods would be heavily impacted by the construction of new dams; their culture would also suffer. The history of the Munduruku people is recorded along the banks of the Tapajós river. The origin of their people and their world, their beliefs, and who they are is alive through that flowing water and surrounding forest. To submerge those sacred sites is to also erase such references to their memory.

In a major victory for the Munduruku people, the Brazilian environmental agency, IBAMA, decided to cancel the process for environmental licensing and construction of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam in 2016 because of such impacts to indigenous and traditional communities’ land and cities in the region. This is not to say that the storm has blown over. The Ministry for Mines and Energy defends the position that Brazil needs more hydropower to develop, with the current President, Jair Bolsonaro, indicating his position on the issue affirming that not one more inch of land will be given to any and all indigenous peoples.

The Munduruku have continued fighting to save their people and their culture, but their story is not without losses. In 2013, the consortium responsible for the construction of the Teles Pires dam, located in a major tributary of the Tapajós, dynamited the Sete Quedas, an important sacred site for all the Munduruku. These rapids are the equivalent of “Heaven” to them. The home to spirits after their death. Where should the Munduruku go now that their resting place is gone? Will their spirits ever rest, or are they fated to wander this earth forever as more victims of development?

As I witness the Munduruku people lose their history and culture, I also feel as if I am losing part of myself alongside them. I wonder what will happen if the nature that defines much of who they are, of who I am, is gone. Will our identities adapt to the new environment surrounding us? Or perhaps saudade will become the central piece of who we are. Always longing for what we had and lost… aching to return home but unable to. Perhaps we will forget who we are and simply carry on with our lives, unwilling to learn from our past.

Every day away from the Amazon feels like a continuous process of forgetting who I am. Perhaps distance doesn’t really make the heart grow fonder; perhaps it makes the heart forget what makes us whole.

But not all hope is lost. The Munduruku have been warriors for centuries, and they don’t plan to change that. In a letter released in 2017, Munduruku Shamans said that they are made of and living of the sacred, and with the blessing and protection of their ancestors and of spirits, they will keep fighting for their rights.

And fight they have. Indigenous people have rallied in Brasilia, the national capital, to protest against deforestation, their decreasing rights, and the violence that has plagued many tribes after Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. In Alter-do-Chão, a small village in the state of Pará, a collective of women descended from the Borari people have denounced and are protesting construction on the banks of the Tapajós River, which invades protected areas. Their fight is not simply against a government or an institution, it is a fight for their lives and that of the nature they depend on.

The fierce determination with which these groups fight for what they love and believe in is inspiring. It is a reminder that nature is important for many groups across the whole planet; people who are laying down their lives to protect Earth. The saudade I feel seems to lessen for a moment, with the soothing feeling that I am not alone, that other people also feel like I feel, and that we are working towards a common goal.

 

I am now able to remember, with a renewed sense of self and of purpose, that I am part of the Amazon even if I’m away from it. It is as much a part of me as I am a part of it. This thought gives me the inspiration to use my research to give back to the place that has already given me so much.

Much of the research on the impacts of public policies does not focus on the human perception and impact of their implementation. This means consequences of policies on many groups that are seen as undesirable by those in power are not researched or publicized. One example is how the government has attempted to stop free and public consultation of indigenous peoples in areas to be affected by mega projects. They need a platform, a way to make their voices heard far and wide.

By looking into the human perception of projects, I hope I can help in giving a voice to people that are fighting, broadly speaking, for justice, but rather more simply, for home. Now I can say without hesitation that I love the rain; and someday, the rain will lead me back to the river, the forest, home; and this time, I will know why.