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Brazil Tycoon Wages Two-Decade War on Riverine Population

Votorantim's CEO Antônio Ermírio de Moraes Public hearings, earlier this month, in the cities of Cerro Azul, Adrianópolis, Ribeira and Eldorado, in the states of Paraná and São Paulo, Brazil, brought to attention the highly polemical Hydroelectric Plant of Tijuco Alto (UHE) project. In reality, these hearings were only the most recent in a series of episodes from a battle which has dragged on for two decades.

On one side is Antônio Ermírio de Moraes, investor and current president of CBA (Brazilian Aluminum Company). On the other side are “quilombo” communities (groups of descendants of runaway slaves), indigenous populations, river-dwellers, environmentalists, and social movements like Moab (Movement of those Threatened by Dams).


Businessman Ermírio de Moraes is known for his drive against environmental licensing, which he sees as an obstacle to development. Certainly, his track record shows that he acts in accord with his discourse: he has often been denounced for violating the environment.


In 2005, for example, MAB (Movement of those Affected by Dams) and Terra de Direitos (a Brazilian land rights NGO) denounced both CBA and Alcoa Aluminum to the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development.


The groups accused these two companies of violating human, cultural, economic and environmental rights in their construction of the hydroelectric plant of Barra Grande in the south of the country.


Over the last two decades, Moraes’s attempts at gaining preliminary licensing for the construction of the UHE project have been frustrated several times. The last such effort was in 2003, when Ibama (the Brazilian environmental protection agency) rejected the company’s environmental impact study, considering it to be incomplete. Persistent, the entrepreneur ordered his company to do a new environmental impact study, which he submitted to Ibama in October of 2005.


For Moraes, the delay in granting the license for the construction of the plant is a lack of “courage and competency” on the part of the government. The tenacity with which he has pursued the project is, however, not explained by his regard for “progress” or “development.”


CBA plans to expand its São Paulo production by 30%. A the same time, it plans to maintain its same level of energy self-sufficiency, which currently is at 60%. The plant, if it is to be constructed, would have the sole purpose of providing abundant, cheap energy to the company.


This is one of the main points that the social movements attack. It is one more case of the country’s current energy model: concentrating privileges to companies while neglecting the needs of the general population.


The impacts of the UHE project would be immense. It would be enough just considering that the Ribeira de Iguape River is the last river in São Paulo free of dams. Further, in 1999, the Ribeira Valley was named “Natural Patrimony of Humanity,” as it is home to 21% of the remaining Atlantic Rainforest.


The dam would flood 11,0000 hectares and cause enormous damage to vegetation and fauna in the valley. But there is yet another factor to consider. In the past, one of the principal economic activities of the Ribeira Valley was the mining and extraction of lead. The residuals of this activity still remain, and if the dam were to be constructed and flood the area, the river could be contaminated, putting at risk the health of river-dwellers, animals and fish.


Besides this, the project would cause damage to the Iguape-Cananéia-Paranaguá estuary. The cities of this region receive a large quantity of sediment and nutrients from the rivers of the region, in particular from the Ribeira de Iguape River. Finally, CBA’s plans do not restrict themselves to just one plant – three more are in the workings.


The Ribeira Valley is one of the poorest regions in the state of Sao Paulo. Its population is made up of descendents of runaway slaves, indigenous peoples, fishermen, and river-dwellers, all who have a subsistent lifestyle. The construction of the plant will not bring one benefit to the people of this region. Not one watt of energy will be available for their use.


On the other had, thousands will be expelled from their lands. They will be forced to move to the shantytowns of nearby cities where not only will they live in precarious conditions, but will have no way of sustaining themselves through traditional practices. There are already cases where this is reality, as mentioned in the public hearings.


Angela Biagioni, a coordinator for Moab, explained that in one of the hearings, residents from Juquiá (Sao Paulo) testified that after a dam was built in their region, poverty and misery only increased.


“This shows that when CBA says that the dam will bring progress to the region, they are lying. In other hearings in Paraná, various testimonies were given in which inhabitants said the company forced them to sell their lands. Many of these people ended up in the shantytowns,” said Biagioni.


Further, the plants generate very few new jobs, contrary to the claims of the company. The environmental impact study furnished by the company itself admits that only 60 permanent jobs will be created.


Because of their technical character, most of these jobs will not be filled by local residents. The company advertises that 1,700 jobs will be created, but does not mention that these are temporary jobs, which besides being dangerous, are poorly remunerated.


Brasil de Fato

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