For 20 Years the Ribeira Valley in Brazil Has Resisted. But the Odds Are Bad

Tijuco Alto protestIn 1969, Brazilian guerilla leader Carlos Lamarca, member of the VPR (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard) chose the Vale do Ribeira, a region along the border of the states of São Paulo and Paraná, to build a training center for rural guerilla warfare. The following year in an interview with a European magazine, Lamarca commented that the rural worker was receptive and capable of understanding the ways of the guerilla movement.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s military, who had established a dictatorship in the country in 1964, did not accept such receptivity: “The military began to realize that we had gained popular support. They arrested and assassinated a young rural couple. They evacuated the population in the region and then bombed it. They continued the terror by machine-gunning the forest, and sending low-flying aircraft over huts still inhabited,” said Lamarca.

Twenty years later, after Brazil had already established rights for election and began to write its new constitution, the various populations of the Vale do Ribeira were threatened again. This time, not by the military, but by a company. In 1989 the Brazilian Aluminum Company (CBA) began its first feasibility studies of constructing the Tijuco Alto dam to be built on the Ribeira de Iguape river. This would be the main dam among three other dams on the river, Batatal, Funil and Itaoca.

Another 20 years have passed, and not one of the proposed dams have been built. Once again, the people of the Vale de Ribeira have shown that they know what it is to resist. In 2009, the Movement of Those Affected by Dams (MOAB) celebrated these two decades of resistance against the dams and other types of this construction.

“When I arrived here in 1986, I found various rural communities, and many, many trees – this impressed me a lot – and a population forgotten by those in power, very rich in their culture and in their relationship to the earth,” commented Sister Sueli Berlanga, one of the founders of MOAB.

Berlanga went on to comment that some of this richness no longer exists. There are now large extensions of land dedicated to eucalyptus and pine productions, and other areas which have been deforested.

Even so, according to statistics from the Social-Environment Institute (ISA), this region has 21% of what remains of the Atlantic Rainforest. Part of this cultural and environmental diversity are 273 natural caverns that attract tourists and increase economic activity in the region.

The Environmental Impact Study of the Tijuco Alto Dam estimates that 51 square kilometers – the equivalent of 11,000 soccer fields – of this richly diverse area would be flooded, an area ripe for agriculture and animal husbandry. The study affirms that 689 families would be affected by the construction of the dam.

“The Vale has always been a forgotten land, a valley of misery, but now businesses have come here because they have discovered the richness that we have, and want to exploit it for the benefit of very few,” asserted José Galindo, professor of History and member of MOAB.

“In reality, everything is part of the plan for the construction of the dam, the eucalyptus plantation, the pine plantation, the construction of paper factories, the construction of the port in Cananéia to export these products. It seems like they are isolated factors, by they are part of a big puzzle now being put together.”

Together with the struggle against the dams, MOAB has also fought for land titles for those living in quilombos (communities of descendents of runaway slaves). The Vale de Ribeira has within its region 51 such quilombos, whose ancestors worked as slaves in mining operations of the 18th century.

“We know what it is to struggle for the rights of the quilombo communities and to struggle against the dams. If the dams were constructed, we would lose the land for which we have struggled all these years, and for which our ancestors struggled. The two struggles are connected,” commented Benedito Alves of the Ivaporunduva quilombo, considered to be the oldest in the region.

Between 1989 and 1997, CBA began land acquisitions and began to evict rural workers in the municipalities of Ribeira and Cerro Azul, where the company’s quarry is located for the construction of the dam. The company acquired 379 properties, paying very little or nothing at all for these.

In the case of Joceli Andrade, the company paid nothing. One day, a judicial eviction notice was presented to her and her family, along with a moving truck. The family never even had heard of the dam. “They wanted to take us to the mayor’s office, but we asked them to leave us here at my father’s house,” said Andrade who now lives in the periphery of Cerro Azul with her husband and five children, where they often have to beg for food.

Without even being constructed, the dam has already generated unemployment and misery. Sister Sueli along with Sister Angela Bigioni assert that the owner of CBA, Antonio Ermirio de Moraes has an enormous debt with the people of the valley:

“If we were to count all the energy, time and money spent during these 20 years of resistance, the hours of protesting, under the hot sun, without food or water, the time families have wasted on this issue instead of working on the farms, Antonio Ermirio’s debt is great.”

Of all the protests that have happened over these twenty years, there have been many unforgettable moments, like the one that happened in 1994 after a meeting of the Environment Council of São Paulo, where the Tijuco Alto dam project was being debated.

When Antonio Ermirio de Moraes left the meeting, a young reporter from Paulista State University approached him and asked him about the project. Irritated, he grabbed the young woman and twisted her arm. At that moment the Globo and Bandeirantes television crews turned off their cameras so as to not capture the scene.

Another woman, Araci Pedroso, who lives on one of the quilombos of the region, grabbed de Moraes’ arm and reprimanded him for assaulting the reporter. He turned to Pedroso and asked sarcastically, “How much do you want for your land?” Pedroso responded, “It is not only I who live on the land. You would have to buy up everyone’s land, and this I doubt you will ever do. We don’t want your dam, and we don’t want to sell.”

The Tijuco Alto dam would not be the first dam to be built by CBA in the region. They have already built two along the Juquiá River. “When CBA came here in 1968, it made the same promise it does today: it would bring development and jobs, and everything would change. If you compare Juquiá at that time to how it is today, you will see that nothing has changed practically. It continues to have one of the lowest human development index factors in the region,” said one of the inhabitants of Juquiá.

Brasil de Fato


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