The Church has many martyrs. Some died in the first centuries for refusing to deny their faith in Christ when an emperor was seen as a god. Others died as missioners in faraway lands. In many Latin American countries, Christians have been killed because of their struggle for justice in recent decades. But in Brazil we have a bishop who almost died trying to save a river and the people who lived on its shore.
Dom Luiz Flávio Cappio, Bishop of the Diocese of Barra, in the state of Bahia, is a Franciscan who happens to have the same birthday as Saint Francis, the Fourth of October. Any guesses of the name of the river that he is trying to save? Yes, it is called the Saint Francis River (Rio São Francisco).
Originally from the state of São Paulo but living in the Northeast of Brazil for more than 30 years, Dom Luiz Flávio Cappio, a short and soft-spoken man, knows very well the spiritual, economic, cultural and social importance of the Saint Francis River for millions of people who live on its shore.
He and three pastoral agents walked the river course from 4th of October of 1992 to 4th of October of 1993. During this journey, they gave lectures in public schools, unions and groups. Dom Cappio and his companions led a campaign to reforest the river’s shores planting more than one million trees and celebrated mass in each city to mark their passage.
In his sermons he told the people that “the river is a gift of God to everyone’s life and that before bringing the people to that place, God had brought the São Francisco River”. One fruit of the one journey was the publication of a book that denounced the river’s decline and the consequences for the people who live in that area.
Dom Cappio became an expert on all problems that both the river and the people are facing, knowing that the lives of those millions depend on the health of that river. Dom Cappio likes to say that the São Francisco river imitates its namesake, “it is borne in the rich Brazilian South and gives its wealth to the poor in the Northeast.”
In 2004, the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the Saint Francis River Diversion Project. Immediately, leaders from social movements and the Church pastoral groups expressed their concerns. Firstly, the government was stating that the almost 400-mile canals would take water to more than 12 million people who live in the semi-arid Northeast, but that was not what was written in the project.
In fact, critics say, only 30% of the water will be directed to humans and animals in the region and the other 70% will be used for irrigation of staple crops such as sugar cane, cotton and shrimp farms. The canal is also being built over indigenous land without their permission, which is forbidden by the Brazilian constitution, and will relocate many families, some of them already relocated more than twenty years ago by the construction of the Itaparica Dam (one of the seven dams built on the São Francisco river course).
Specialists in the area also point out that the government has a better project for the region called The Northeast Atlas Project. It consists of a rigorous study made by researchers from Brazilian universities on different ways to provide clean water for more than forty million people through the public use of the more than seventy thousand reservoirs that were built in the last century and that in many cases have been illegally appropriated by the large landowners of the Northeast.
It is important to note that the Northeast Atlas Project implementation will cost 2 billion dollars instead of the three and a half billion dollars budgeted for the Saint Francis River Diversion Project and that scientific evidence is showing that the river is dying as a consequence of dams that were built in the last fifty years.
In protest against the project and concerned about the river, Dom Cappio made a hunger strike in 2005 and it lasted for eleven days. His intention was to call national attention to the project and its negative impacts At that time, not many people outside of the Northeast were aware of the consequences of this project.
In shock with the dramatic act of Dom Cappio, some Brazilian bishops did not support his gesture and the Vatican sent him a letter asking him to stop his hunger strike. His response was, “When reason disappears, drastic acts is the only way.”
Dom Cappio stated that he does not like the expression hunger strike, but if he would say that he was fasting and praying, it would not cause the same impact.
In a speech for the Brazilian bishops in the 46th Bishops Conference he said, “Jesus teaches us that when the enemy is very strong and powerful, just prayer and fast are able to confront it”.
His nonviolent action made such an impact that the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva asked him to stop his hunger strike to meet with him at the Presidential Palace. During that meeting, the President promised him that the project would be better discussed with the Brazilian society.
Unfortunately, that did not happen. The canal construction was intensified in the following months and the media portrayed it as the solution for all the historical social problems in the Northeast.
Worse than that, the government promised thousands of jobs in an area known for sending people to work in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo because of the high unemployment, undermining the resistance to the project.
Tired of waiting for the government to fulfill its promises, Dom Cappio started a new hunger strike in November of 2007. At that time, the president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stated that he would let the bishop die. Dom Cappio prayed and fasted for twenty four days.
During those days, he received the visit of many leaders from the Christian and non-Christian Churches, artists who are interested in environmental issues and politicians who opposed the project from all over Brazil, but he was especially moved by the thousands of people who came to pray with him every day and support his prophetic action.
On December 21st, 2007, on his twenty third day of fasting, the Brazilian Supreme Court judged that the project could continue. Dom Cappio’s family, friends and aides convinced him to stop his hunger strike and he agreed with that.
As it happens in many of those cases, his defeat was his victory. Many groups throughout the country started organizing people to discuss the project and its impact inviting experts to explain the Project. The people who are being relocated are organizing themselves to demand their rights.
As for Dom Cappio, he is still very committed to save the Saint Francis River and to improve the lives of those who depend on it. He won the Pax Christ Prize in 2008 and several other honors in Brazil and Europe.
Dom Cappio continues to travel all over Brazil to defend his point of view, even though almost half of the canal is already done. A prophet never give up, even when the cause seems lost.
Drought and Mismanagement
The Saint Francis River is so important for the Brazilians who live in the Northeast region that is called the River of the National Integration. That happens because it goes through five states that are located in the most populated semi-arid area of the whole planet (more than twenty million people live in the northeastern semi-arid), the so called Sertão of Brazil.
The Sertaneaw6kx, as the people who live there are called, are so connected to the Saint Francis River that they have created hundreds of myths, songs and poems to honor the Velho Chico (the Old Chico), as the river is tenderly called by them.
The Sertão of Brazil suffers from periodical droughts that force many people to migrate to big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. But this is only part of the story. Some families have been running the political power in the region for decades.
As a result the Northeast region has the worst statistics in areas such as land distribution, literacy, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, etc.
The mainstream media convinced the people that the problem was only the lack of water in the area, although the Northeast had more than 70.000 thousands dams, ponds and reservoirs built in the last century to fix that problem.
Nilton Altino, an indigenous from the Pipipã tribe, is one the people who will be impacted by the Saint Francis Diversion Project. Altino, his wife and their two kids live in the Serra Negra Reservation in the state of Pernambuco.
They will have to leave their house because the canal is going to be built over it. The government has offered 3000 reais (less than US$ 2000) as compensation for destroying their house.
Altino works as a health agent in his community and earns minimum wage (US$ 300 a month). He asked the government representative what he and his family will be able to do with the money offered to them to get a new house, as it will be impossible to get a new one even as simple as their current one.
He has many questions about the project that have not been answered by the government agents, like if he will have access to the water going through the canal or how much it will cost. With the assistance of the Diocese of Floresta, Nilton and his neighbors are organizing to demand their rights.
Flávio Rocha is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in João Pessoa, in the Brazilian Northeast.