Serpent River Book, 2017
Artist Book, 72 page accordion fold, offset, printed canvas hardcover, elastic band
Numbered edition of 250
22 x 31 x 3.5 cm (closed)
Serpent River Book is a 72 page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.
The book is part of the ongoing body of work ‘Be Dammed’, that investigates the effects of
extractivism on natural and social landscapes, exploring the power dynamics associated with the corporatization and decimation of water resources.
HUNGER AS A TEACHER
I began to investigate the El Quimbo hydroelectric power project on the Magdalena River after reading the following headline in March 2012: “The River Refuses to Shift its Course”. El Quimbo is a dam built on the Yuma River —the indigenous name for the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main waterway— by the Endesa- Emgesa multinational conglomerate. The environmental license for the project was granted in 2008 and the dam began to generate electricity in 2015. El Quimbo is the second of the seventeen hydropower plants laid down in the “Master Plan for Exploiting the Magdalena River,” which aims to transform the river into a fluvial highway focused on the export of coal, petroleum and other minerals, as well as the generation of energy. It proposes all this without taking into account that it is a vital transport waterway for more than 70% of Colombia’s population.
That investigative article explained that, after its course was shifted, the Yuma River had grown: it had returned to its natural bed, eroded the deviation tunnel and halted the construction work. In May 2012 I visited the area affected by the dam for the first time. In the town of La Jagua I spoke to Mrs. Zoila Ninco, who explained to me that the Yuma had grown in that way because it knew that it would halt the building of the dam. In all the environmental conflicts I have a close knowledge of, the rivers, mountains, animals, jungles and minerals are creatures which take an active role in the efforts of territorial resistance. With Zoila I went to the Cuacua River —Suaza River being
its indigenous name— to fish with a net for the first time in my life. Zoila cast the net at least 30 times, but only caught three fish that were 5 centimeters long.
In the European summer of 2013, I was on an artist’s residency in Berlin, where I had the
good fortune to interview mamo Pedro Juan, the supreme spiritual leader of the Kogui ethnic group of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta —a mountain range which runs alongside the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Koguis and other indigenous groups who live there call it the “Heart of the World,” and it was seriously wounded by the building of the El Cercado multi-purpose dam on the Ranchería River, which began construction in 2006 and is still not finished. Pedro Juan does not speak Spanish and his interpreter, Santos, helped me with the interview. The place we chose to conduct the interview was
in the shade of a tree in Görlitzer Park. I got out my video camera, adjusted the focus, the aperture of the lens, the shutter speed and the microphone, and when everything was ready, I began to record. My first question was “What does the El Cercado dam represent for the people of the Sierra Nevada?”. The mamo answered: “The dam is like
a knot in the veins. No! It’s even worse: the dam is like a knot in the anus.” When the mamo began to speak, a yellow circle appeared on his face, and as he continued to speak, the circle throbbed intensely. A halo of light had slipped through the diaphragm of the lens to light up the head and words of this indigenous elder. I realized that it was not only the mamo who spoke to me, but also the “Heart of the World”.
In April 2014, I visited the Sonoran desert in Mexico, as I had been invited by the Yaqui tribe to attend their Easter celebrations. At that time the Yaqui people were blocking Federal Highway 15 in Mexico, demanding that the Independencia aqueduct be dismantled. This aqueduct carries water from the Yaqui River to the Sonora River
basin to supply water to the city of Hermosillo, leaving the eight traditional Yaqui villages without water and drying the bed and the mouth of the river. In the village of Vícam, I met Anahí, a young Yaqui woman, activist and a traditional healer who uses their frog medicine. The medicine is made of a substance which is extracted from the glands of the Bufo frog —endemic to the Sonoran desert— and dried. I asked Anahí to heal me and
she generously agreed. Since it is a desert medicine, you must take the sapito (‘little frog’, as the remedy is called) by day and in sunlight. We chose a place on the dry bed of the Yaqui River near the village of Pótam. There, we lit a bonfire and I prayed to the spirit
of the little frog. During the ritual, I wept. It was very sad to feel the dried river bed
on my skin. When I did however, the little frog spoke to me, saying that the tears of
women are needed to restore water to the dried beds, and explained that those dried
beds are not only found in rivers but also in situations and people. The little frog reconciled me with my sadness.
In Los Angeles, months later, I attended a talk by Olivia Chumacero, an elder from the
Rarámuri indigenous people, where she read a chapter of her book. The Yaquis and the
Rarámuris share the same desert region in the north of Mexico. During her lecture, Olivia told us an anecdote about her grandmother: before she reached the age of twenty, Olivia left her family to fight for the cause of the migrant farm workers in the western region of the United States and joined the United Farm Workers union led by César Chávez and Dolores Huertas. When she said goodbye to her family, she pretended to be strong and tried to hold back her tears. Her grandmother embraced her and said: “Weep,
little bird: for us, the Rarámuri, tears are part of the cycle of waters and are needed to generate life”. The little frog was speaking to me again!
In April 2016, I visited the Quilombos (Afro- Brazilian communities) of Ivaporunduva and
Sapatú in the basin of the Ribeira de Iguape River, in the south of the state of São Paulo,
Brazil. The Ribeira River is the only mediumsized river which has not been dammed in that state, although it is threatened by a project to build four hydropower dams that are meant to supply the aluminum industry. The basin of the Ribeira River has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and these Quilombos are some of the oldest settlements of Afro-Brazilians.
In Sapatú I interviewed doña Esperanza, a Quilombo grandmother who told me that her ancestors escaped from slave traders in the 16th century, fleeing upstream along the Ribeira to form the communities which exist today. For the Quilombos, the Ribeira River is their freedom path and that is why they continue to organize and resist such projects, keeping themselves free and unharmed by dam. In doing so, they honor their ancestors and work for the well-being of their daughters and granddaughters. In the Ribeira Valley, they live alongside communities of indigenous and caiçara (mixed blood) people,
all of whom live off artisanal fishing, small-scale agriculture and crafts. In the Ribeira Valley, you find all of the real solutions to the crises of climate change and environmental deterioration.
July 21, 2016 was my thirty-eighth birthday, but instead of celebrating, I felt depressed because it was the day they found the body of Nilce de Souza Magalhães, best known as ‘Nicinha’, tied down with stones in the Jirau hydropower dam’s lake, Porto Velho. Nicinha, a fisherwoman and leader of the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of People Affected by Dams), was displaced by the Jirau hydropower project on the Madeira River, in the state of Rondonia, Brazil, and was well-known in the region for denouncing human and environmental rights violations by the consortium building the
dam, Energia Sustentável do Brasil. In the past two years, more than 350 environmentalist have been killed worldwide and Brazil is the country with the most victims (55 in 2015), followed by the Philippines (33 in 2015) and Colombia (26 in 2015). Environmentalists have become the number one enemy of the extractive economy. The defenders of water, jungles and the Earth, along climate change refugees, are the human shields for all of us. They are on the frontline in the battle against injustice and environmental racism.
On June 22, 2016, I traveled to Altamira, in the state of Pará, Brazil, a city affected by the Belo Monte hydropower dam on the Xingu River. I was able to exchange ideas with the people who were displaced by the dam, built by the Norte Energia company, who are now resisting these abuses. Raymunda, a fisherwoman, left an especially strong mark on my memory because despite what she had suffered, she was happy and optimistic. She clarified that she had not been displaced but rather expelled from the Xingu by the Belo Monte project. When I asked her who had taught her to fish, she said: “Hunger taught me to fish.”
During the São Paulo research days, of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, I spoke at a panel in the company of Ailton Krenak, an environmentalist and one of the leaders of the Brazilian indigenous movement. When it was over, we went to eat with others who had participated in the event and I told Ailton of my wish to do fieldwork in the basin of the Doce River. The Krenaki indigenous people are the only survivors of the original inhabitants of the banks of the Doce River, in the state of Minas Gerais. On November 5, 2015, the Fundão dam burst. This dam was built to contain the mining wastes of Samarco, a joint venture
between Vale and BHP Billiton, causing an avalanche of toxic slime which contaminated parts of the rivers Gualaxo do Norte and Do Carmo, and the whole of the basin of the Doce River, reaching the Atlantic Ocean. This is the worst environmental crime in the history of Brazil. It affected four million people who live in the basin of that river, annihilated its biodiversity and harmed marine life at its mouth.
The collapse of the Fundão dam profoundly disturbed the Krenaki people, since their lives are closely linked with the life of that river. Ailton told me that the Krenakis call the Doce River ‘Watu’, which means ‘grandfather’ in their language. For centuries, the Krenaki people have been the victims of a slow, systematic, drop-bydrop violence on the part of the mining industry in that region, one which goes back centuries. This violence is spread through the contaminated soils, streams and pipelines which contain particles of iron, manganese, sulfur and other heavy metals that they are literally forced to drink and breathe and which gradually penetrate their bodies.
The contamination of the Watu is the most visible sign of the environmental racism caused by ‘development’ and it is threatening the traditional peoples of Brazil and the whole of the Americas. Ailton told me that the elders of the Krenaki people say that Watu is not dead, contrary to what scientists and experts believe. The elders say that Watu is more intelligent than the toxic slime and when it felt it coming, it hid under the ground. Thus, Watu is underneath the riverbed, like a dormant volcano, like a latent lightning ray, and
dreams of the day when it can emerge again and embrace its granddaughters and grandsons.
When I had my intrauterine device removed in 2013, I felt that any internal or external dam, regardless of its size, can be removed or dismantled. I had it inserted in 2005 to prevent having any more children. During eight years I had an internal dam inside of me which interfered with my periods; an object designed and produced by a patriarchal system which insists on possessing and abusing women’s bodies, just as it does with
bodies of water.
When I held the device in my hand, its T-shape evoked certain blueprints for the building of dams. The ‘T’ and its copper sheath reminded me of electricity transmission towers and of the materials and substances which transmit electricity, energy and power in my body. I thought of my body as a field of learning. My body, my territory. My right to life, my right to territory. And I thought, when a voice is returned to the lands and waters that have been used as resources, when we take a collective stance for the earth, for the water itself, we stop being a threat and we become a promise.