THERE was once a tiny island in the Parana River, barely big enough to give a fisherman a seat or save a drowning swimmer. That river was and is one of the most turbulent on Earth, crashing down through Paraguay and making a musical sound where it rushed around that particular rock. For centuries, native Tupi and Guarani people had called it “Itaipu”, meaning “singing boulder”.
Some 40 years ago, that little landmark became a symbolic foundation stone for the monumental engineering project to which it gave its name. The Itaipu Dam is more or less the biggest single thing that humans have ever built – a concrete ziggurat rising 65 stories out of the jungle, stretching eight kilometres along the border between Brazil and Paraguay, and generating enough hydroelectric power to keep every lightbulb in the world burning for a couple of days. We’re standing right on the top of its main containment wall at the Right Margin Substation, on the Paraguayan side, overlooking the vast man-made lake held back by its mass.
There’s no fishing or sailing allowed on the water, and no sound except the subaquatic hum of turbines spinning far below our feet. My guide is an engineer named Marcelo Sarubi, who gives me a hardhat to wear and quotes all the most impressive stats in easily digestible measures – how the construction of the dam moved enough earth to circle the planet three times, and used enough steel to raise 380 Eiffel Towers. What Sarubi can’t do, he tells me, is talk “prices or politics”. As an employee of Itaipu Binational, he’s only authorised to say the dam was designed to address rapid population growth and chronic energy shortages in the region – which is true.
But whispers persist that it also helped prevent a war, by flooding and drowning territory that had been subject to volatile border disputes for more than 100 years. It has since become an entity unto itself, scrupulously shared and divided so that Brazil and Paraguay each own exactly 10 turbines apiece, even though the latter only needs two of those to power the whole country. The surplus is sold to the former, and Sarubi takes me down to the control room where we watch the transaction in real time.
Multi-coloured digital graphs and hyper-sensitive telemetry readouts show the energy flowing out of the dam, as an engineer keeps the water levels consistent with supply and demand, and a broker fulfils purchase orders for however many megawatts are needed in Brazil at any given second. The whole scene is pretty James Bondy, and I’m assuming that any attack on this facility would be treated as an act of war. “We do have military support,” says Sarubi, sounding a little uncomfortable. “It’s a very restricted area.” He ushers me into a lift that has no buttons to mark floors or levels, and we drop almost 200 metres through the dark.
At the bottom, underneath the lake, is a section of the original riverbed, left dry when the Parana was diverted sideways to make room for the dam, though it feels like the water wants to return. The air down here is cold and damp. Moisture drips down the insides of colossal, pyramidal retaining walls. Pressure builds in your ears and the place feels like a cave or a tomb, with a distant rectangle of daylight just visible far overhead. I ask Sarubi if the original Itaipu rock is around here somewhere, but apparently it’s on the underwater side. “That little island doesn’t sing any more,” he says sadly. “It’s completely submerged.” So too are the towns and villages that were once home to 10,000 families on both banks of the Parana, and a vast expanse of forest that had always supported a teeming population of animal species, from jaguars to harpy eagles.
Having brought the flood, Itaipu Binational were obliged to provide an ark. Once the dam was in place, they planted new forests around its perimeter and marked out nature reserves, eco-sanctuaries, and bio-diversity corridors. I spend the next couple of nights in a cabin on the edge of the Itaipu reservoir, within the bounds of the Tati Yupi “environmental protection unit”. It’s open to the public, with onsite lodges and campgrounds, and it’s only a half-hour drive upstream from the dam, which receives about a million visitors per year. But it’s out of season, and apart from a few park staff I seem to be the only human at large inside these 2245 hectares. Walking the “interpretive trails” through sun-dappled woodlands, stopping at small springs and waterfalls, I encounter all sorts of birds, reptiles and mammals that I don’t recognise and can’t identify.
None of them seem overtly threatening, and the atmosphere is generally Edenic. A jeep rolls slowly down the track and the driver hands me a business card to introduce himself as Nelson Perez, an official “investigator of flora and fauna” for Itaipu Binational. My Spanish is too basic and urban to describe to him the wildlife I’ve seen, so I try to mime their movements and facial expressions, and we both have a pretty good time. Like most Paraguayans, Perez also speaks some Tupi and fluent Guarani , which are grouped together as the official national language but actually form a whole indigenous family of languages. He drives me to the nearby Buena Vista animal refuge and research centre, where we’re joined by a couple of young and slightly giddy attendants named Liz and Ingrid for a tour of the menagerie. It’s not a zoo but feels like one, and the enclosures are labelled with both the Spanish and Guarani names of the beasts inside.
As Liz and Ingrid translate, it seems obvious that the native words sound better. The capuchin monkey is “ka’i”, the gibbon is “caraya”, the puma is “concolvor”. The word “jaguar” is originally Tupi-Guarani, and the specimen here at Buena Vista is a jet black one with glowing green eyes. He looks so lethal and beautiful that my guides have trouble moving me along, and when they tell me he has a serious, terminal “bone problem”, I feel my heart go out to creature who would gladly eat it.
I once read somewhere that the definition of art is anything that makes you proud to be human. And I felt a bit of that pride at the Itaipu Dam, a true wonder of the modern world. But staring at this sick and homeless hunter, who lives and breathes a different order of wonder, I am stricken with the opposite emotion. What’s the Guarani word for “shame”?