Not far from where the great Amazon River drains into the Atlantic, it splits off into a wide tributary, at first a fat vertical lake that, when viewed from satellite, eventually slims down to a wild scrawl through the dark green of the Amazon. In all, this tributary races almost completely southward through the Brazilian Amazon for 1,230 miles (1,979 kilometers)—nearly as long as the Colorado River—until it peters out in the savannah of Mato Grosso. Called home by diverse indigenous tribes and unique species, this is the Xingu River.
“The Xingu River is a symbol of Brazil’s cultural diversity and biological heritage. The river and its forests sustain the livelihoods of over 25,000 indigenous people from 18 ethnic groups, riverbank populations and innumerable species of plants and animals,” Christian Poirier, the Brazil Program Coordinator with Amazon Watch, told mongabay.com.
A section of the Xingu River as viewed by Google Earth.
The Xingu is famous for the clarity of its waters. Dubbed a ‘clearwater river’, the Xingu River is a true rarity in the lowland Amazon where many rivers are the color of coffee due to sedimentation. A popular river for adventurous foreign anglers, one travel writerhas described the Xingu as “golden beaches, verdant hills meeting turquoise waters.”
The Xingu River, however, will soon be lost. No, the river will not be filled in or disappear entirely; but its very character (the ecosystem and people which it provides for) will be forever changed by the construction of a monster dam, the Belo Monte, just approved by the Brazilian government. Once built the dam will be the world’s third largest.
“The ecosystem of the lower Xingu River basin will be devastated by the Belo Monte Dam,” contends Poirier. “In order to feed the dam’s powerhouse, up to 80 percent of the Xingu River will be diverted from its original course, causing a permanent drought on the river’s 100 kilometer long ‘Big Bend,’ and directly affecting the Paquiçamba and Arara territories of the Juruna and Arara indigenous peoples.”
Poirier says the Belo Monte will require more land to be unearthed than during the construction of the Panama Canal. In addition, the dam will flood around 66,800 hectares—over half of which is rainforest—and force the removal of somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 people. The Xingu River’s unique species and important fishing grounds will also be impacted.
Experts fear for a number of species that only live in the Xingu River or its floodplains (see photos below), including the slender dwarf pike cichlid (Teleocichla centisquama), a unique species of plant-eating piranha (Ossubtus xinguense), the Xingu dart-poison frog (Allobates crombiei), and two pleco fish, also known as ‘suckerfish’, who thrive in the Xingu’s clear waters: the aptly-named zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra) and the sunshine pleco (Scobinancistrus aureatus).
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The zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra). Photo courtesy of International Rivers.
The white-blotched river stingray ( Potamotrygon leopoldi ). Photo courtesy of International Rivers.
A unique species of plant-eating piranha (Ossubtus xinguense). Photo courtesy of International Rivers