Mato Grosso: Owners Of The Water - Conflict And Collaboration Over Rivers

Directed by Laura R. Graham, David Hernández Palmar and Caimi Waiassè


Documentary Educational Resources

Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration Over Rivers External link documents the protest of soy production by the Wayuu and Xavante of South America blocking the Highway BR-158 bridge over the Rios das Mortes, Nova Xavantina, Brazil on May 25, 2006. Brazil accounts for the majority of global soy production exacting consequences on the fragile ecosystem of the Amazon basin. Disparate groups of indigenous peoples have been united by an element possessing both cultural and practical significance – water. The Wayuu number approximately 300,000 inhabiting an arid region of Colombia and Venezuela where the transport and organization of water resources is critical for their survival. The Xavante, conversely, have ample water supplies but various contamination problems due to pesticides and deforestation. These people, separated by hundreds of miles have been thrust together through the issue of water. According to filmmaker David Hernández Palmar, water is a potent political tool – “who controls it … who contaminates it … who takes care of it … who respects it” (Owners of the Water).

This documentary is a collaborative piece weaving together diverse personalities and objectives. Laura R. Graham, associate professor of anthropology at the University at Iowa, serves as co-director, executive producer and editor. She has worked with the Xavante and other indigenous groups across South America for over 20 years. David Hernández Palmar, Wayuu of the Lipuana clan in Venezuela, co-directs and frequently serves as interviewer and interviewee. As the film progresses, David’s journey becomes one of self-discovery as he paints his body in solidarity with the protestors. His mission is at once educational and to expand opportunities for indigenous peoples to join in areas of common interest. Caimi Waiassè, Xavante of the Pimentel Barbosa indigenous area of central Brazil, also serves as co-director and seeks to bridge the gap between indigenous peoples and city folk offering avenues of understanding.

This piece is substantially more than a documentary of the May 2006 protest offering intimate vignettes of the land and people of central Brazil. Graham, Palmar and Waiassè originally aimed to explore the Xavante way of life and role of the river in indigenous culture. Their arrival in Nova Xavantina happen to coincide with a protest meeting of the ‘Save the Savannah’ campaign. The leader of the campaign, Hiparidi Top’tior, explains that there exists a symbiotic connection between the Rios das Mortes and the Xavante. His fight is based on a defense of the river and people of Nova Xavantina. He argues quite forcefully that “…if the Rio das Mortes dies, we all die” (Owners of the Water). The admission is both deeply personal and spiritual. Through the use of images of children playing in the water, wildlife at water’s edge and the sound of Xavante celebrating the point is well made. Armed with banners that read “NO SOY FARMING NEXT TO INDIGENOUS LANDS” in both Xavante and Portuguese the protestors shut down the flow of commerce across the Rios das Mortes (Owners of the Water). A spectrum of ideas and emotions are brought forth from indigenous complaints over the bitter fruits of modernity to townspeople being inconvenienced by the whole affair.

Taken together this piece is at once a journalistic account, clarion call about the dangers of social and environmental degradation, recruiting tool for indigenous peoples across the Amazon, tool of pan-Indian awareness and a medium of exchange between the “modern” world and traditional culture. With such lofty and expansive aims, it challenges the ability of filmmakers to compose a coherent half hour documentary. And while the documentary does gel, there are problems when incorporating political messaging into an objective account. First is the problem of evidence. The film makes broad claims about social and ecological degradation as a result of soy production. We hear stories from indigenous peoples, all anecdotal, and are left to assume what needs to be proven. Likewise, just as bold claims are made about the effects on the water supply, the viewer is indulged in pictures of indigenous peoples playing, bathing and enjoying the local rivers. Contrasting opinions are offered up by townspeople questioning the motives and correctness of indigenous protest, but these views are not given the balance afforded pro-indigenous opinions. Nor were we given a summary of Brazilian laws and official comments to contrast the day’s events. A more balanced and complete presentation of the issues surrounding soy production, traditional society and modern life could have aided the viewer in a fuller understanding of the issues explored.

The film builds upon an expansive oeuvre of documentaries examining the intersection between indigenous culture, modern life ways and the environment. When viewing Owners of the Water, this reviewer was reminded of the fight by Native Americans in the U.S. to protect sacred religious sites from development and encroachment in Christopher McLeod’s In the Light of Reverence: Protecting America’s Sacred Lands External link (2001). Efforts of organization and protest of offshore drilling practices by Alaskan Inuits in Bo Boudart’s The Sea is Our Life (1979) is reminiscent of efforts by the Wayuu and Xavante on the Rios das Mortes. And, Dennis Burns’ Hopis: Guardians of the Land (1971) traces the collision between Hopi culture and modern energy and mining practices. But as noted earlier, the scope of Owners of the Water External link goes well beyond the somewhat narrow focus of past documentaries, exposing the viewer to a diversity of facts, images and viewpoints.

Owners of the Water External link deserves credit for tracing cutting edge indigenous issues in the Amazon. Brazil is part of the aptly named BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – experiencing breakneck economic growth. Brazil’s decision to be energy independent led to the development of domestic non-renewable and renewable energy sources. Soy not only serves as an energy dense foodstuff but as the primary ingredient of biodiesel production in Brazil. With green energy solutions being touted as safe, sustainable and low impact, perhaps this piece will shed light on the downstream effects of soy production. Indeed, if the claims in Owners of the Water External link are to be believed the prospects seem less than rosy. Does this change the calculus of leaders phasing out fossil fuels and the large scale adoption of green energy? Can modern agri-business coexist with indigenous peoples protecting the environment and delivering cost-effective and low impact energy solutions? Will indigenous peoples be able to successfully organize disparate peoples into an effective and persistent campaign? This piece forces the viewer to confront these issues and the clash between the modern and the traditional.

Reviewed by Jonathan C. Bergman; Texas A&M University – Commerce

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Tags: Mato Grosso  Wayuu  Xavante  agriculture  video  Brazil  

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