The São Francisco River is so important in Brazil that is called the river of the national integration. It is critical for the Brazilians of the Northeast because it goes through five states that are located in the most populated semi-arid area of the planet (more than 20 million people live there), the so called Sertão.
The sertaneaw6kx, as we call the people who live in this region, are so connected with this river that hundreds of myths, songs and poems honor the Velho Chico (Old Chico), as the river is tenderly called.
The Sertão of Brazil suffers from periodical droughts that force many people to migrate to big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This is only part of the history, as statistics show that the Northeast in the region in Brazil with the biggest negative numbers in all the areas such as land concentration, literacy, infant mortality, early pregnancy, unemployment, etc.
Additionally, some families have been in power for decades, worsening the situation. The mainstream media convinced the people that the problem was only the lack of rain, although the Sertão has more than seventy thousand dams, ponds and reservoirs. However, some of the hydric infra-structure is not accessible to the poor because they are located on the farms of the large landowners.
Control of water was used many times as the way to get votes in the local elections. This entire situation is called by some the Drought Industry. It never ends because there are political interests for its perpetuation.
In 2004, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the diversion of the Sao Francisco River (The Transposição do Rio São Francisco Project). Immediately, leaders from social pastorals and movements expressed their concerns. Firstly, the government was affirming that the almost 400 miles of canals would take water to more than 12 million people, but the official project showed that it is not the truth.
Only 30% of the water will be direct to humans and animals, the other 70% will serve for irrigation and shrimp farms. That will have tremendous environmental impact in the region. Secondly, the government has a better project for the region called the Northeast Atlas.
It consists of a rigorous study made by researchers from different Brazilian universities to provide clean water to more than forty million people for almost half of the cost of the São Francisco River’s Project. While the first project is budgeted in more than 3 billion dollars, the second one is budgeted in less than 2 billion.
The president did not expect the opposition from social and pastoral leaders and from part of the catholic hierarchy to the diversion project. The bishop of Barra-BA, Dom Luiz Flávio Cappio, has done two hunger strikes to protest the government plan.
The first one happened in 2005 and lasted 11 days and the second one was in 2007 and lasted 24 days. He drew attention from the whole country to the model of development that is planned to the Northeast based on the agro and hydro business.
I first started working against the São Francisco River Diversion Project in July of 2007. At that time, a group of university professors, indigenous leaders and representatives from the pastoral and social movements decided to do a ride through some of the capitals in Brazil to raise awareness against the project.
I helped to organize the event in João Pessoa and since then I have been part of a coalition that is trying to stop the project. I have been writing articles, lecturing in universities and groups, organizing public protests and traveling through the Northeast to learn how this project is affecting the people were the canal is going to be built.
I also helped to organize a book with Sister Ana Celia Meneses (FSCJ) about the history of the resistance against the project in the state of Paraíba. Last June, we organized the first meeting for the people affected by the project in the city of Campina Grande, in the state of Paraíba.
During one of my travels I went to the Diocese of Floresta and there I met one of the victims of this project. His name Nilton Altino and he is an indigenous who belongs to the Pipipã Tribe, which is located in the Serra Negra Reservation, in Floresta, state of Pernambuco.
Nilton, his wife and their two kids will lose their house because the canal is going to be built over it. The government has offered 3,000 reais (less than US$ 2,000). Nilton works as a health agent in his community and earns one minimum wage (US$ 270).
I asked the government agent what he will be able to do with the 3,000 reais payment. He knows that it is going to be impossible to build another house with it, even a simple one like his current place. What he does not know is that he will not have access to the canal water, as it is going to be charged and destined to big farms.
Nilton is lucky that he and his companions receive the support from the Diocese of Floresta. The Pastoral agents are organizing the people to claim their rights. The sad thing is that only a small portion of the people impacted by the canal construction are being organized.
Many already lost their homes and many more will. All this is happening to bring the “development” to the Northeast, that in the end will mostly benefit the elite and agribusiness interests and Nilton is only one of the victims of the model of development that is killing Mother Earth.
Flávio Rocha is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in João Pessoa in the Brazilian Northeast.