Flooded houses, plastic bottles and trash all around, dead animals, families without homes and flooded agricultural lands: it would seem that this is the scene of some natural tragedy, such as that which recently happened in Chile.
But it is not. It is the scene unfolding in Laranjal, a municipality in the Zona da Mata (Forest Zone) of Minas Gerais, as a result of the implantation of the Barra da Braúna dam project, now under the auspices of a Canadian company called Brookfield Renewable Energy.
The Barra da Braúna dam is just one more case of how dams are implanted in Brazil with no democratic processes nor respect for environmental laws.
Contrary to law, there were no public forums to inform and solicit opinions from those who live in the region. Environment organs conceded licensing without the knowledge of the majority of families.
For example, on September 6, 2009, Sheley Carneiro, vice-secretary for the Minas Gerais Secretary of Environment conceded a License of Operation “ad referendum,” a secret act with no publication of content.
After a lawsuit promoted by the families affected, under the guidance of entities such as the Church’s Land Commission, the Movement of those Affected by Dams (MAB), and Caritas, the license was suspended.
However, the company continued to fill the lake and generate electricity clandestinely by the end of December. In January of this year, through a direct intervention on the part of Aécio Neves, governor of Minas Gerais, the licensing was again granted.
The Barra da Braúna has wreaked environment havoc since its beginning. The dam’s lake is filled with trash, mainly plastic bottles and tree trunks of up to 15 meters. The fish are contaminated by the emission of methane gas coming from the inundation of the local forest. Those species which are able to resist the gas become unsuitable for human consumption.
But the negligence on the part of state and local government has direct, damaging consequences, principally for the populations of those living in affected cities. Sebastião Alex Dias Machado, one of those who has been affected by the dam, stated, “since the beginning of these negotiations, we have been psychologically tortured. We continue to suffer today.
“I don’t see the end to this story. My 82 year-old father suffers with each passing day, becoming more sick. The company simply came and didn’t do any of the basic groundwork of helping in the area of social assistance. We simply became desperate and lost sleep. As a result, we can’t even work properly.”
According to José Montes Duarte, a landowner in Cataguases, the implementation of the dam has been fraudulent. The construction began in 1997 with the Força e Luz Cataguases Leopoldina Company. The work later became paralyzed for 10 years, and then restarted in 2007 by Brookfield, which had bought the project.
Montes remembers that the company arrived saying that “progress is coming. They said that they had money and those who sold their land would have enough to buy other land.” Maria Julia, who also lives in the affected area, remarked,
“They said that we would be well compensated, that they would not dam the lake until the last owner was paid. But they didn’t keep their word. They threatened us, and the deals were forced upon us, for we were scared given all the threats that they would take us to court.”
And the calamity, besides causing psychological damage to the inhabitants of the region, also brought innumerous economic damages to the municipalities. Sand companies, sharecroppers, and contracted workers are just some who have suffered because of the dam.
According to Joaquim Monteiro, an owner of a sand extraction business, when the area was flooded, his business could no longer function. This has not only harmed him, but others as well.
“We have been operating here for more than 15 years. Our activities are extremely important for the development of the regions as we produce, generate jobs directly and indirectly, we regularly pay taxes, and we participate in the movement of the regional economy. I am the rightful owner of an area, part of which I sold to Brookfield, but remained with another part where, without my authorization the company entered and altered the lay of the land. And besides this, to my surprise, there is a document which says that the company paid for the damage. This is a lie.”
Reports from those affected by the Brookfield project point the existence of shameless affronts to fundamental human rights. There are documented cases of forced negotiations, verbal threats, and coercion to sell lands for prices much lower than they are worth.
The case of José Montes falls into the latter. He commented the attitude of Vert Ambiental, a company consulting for Brookfield: “For the past three months, an employee of Vert has been threatening owners and workers to not go to any meetings. He walks around all day with an assistant threatening workers. The rice planters were also threatened by Vert.
“This is the work of this company in the region. There are workers who have been threatened, have been tortured, and no one has received anything. There are people who four months ago sold their property to this business, but have not been paid. They signed a deal, but no one has received one cent. This is how this business conducts itself.”
Neusita Mendes Ferreira, and social assistant helping those affected by the dam, stated, “Where are the rice farmers? They are not here to complain because they were forced away. Even if they were to appear, they would not receive anything. I have seen a loss of identity for these people; and it is the elderly who suffer the worst impact.”