From the capital city of Paraíba, João Pessoa, in the Brazilian Northeast, I traveled three hours west to Vila Nova de Pedro Velho (New Village of Old Peter) in the municipality of Aroeiras. The green, urban coastal landscape gradually gave way to the dry interior dotted with cactus.
This community is the only place where the MAB (Movimento dos Atingidos pelas Barragens – Movement of the People Displaced by Dam Constructions) is organized in Paraíba. The MAB can be found in 14 Brazilian States with more than 1 million people.
On a cloudless day, I met with three of the twelve MAB leaders, Osvaldo Bernardo, Fátima Araújo and Abel Francisco in Pedro Velho. Osvaldo and Abel studied math at the State University of Paraíba in the evening and were elementary school teachers during the day.
They had to abandon their university studies when they lost their jobs. "We disagreed with how things were done by the mayor and we were fired", Osvaldo told me. The third leader, Fátima, has a degree in pedagogy and sells clothes to make a living.
I had a conversation with Osvaldo asking him basic questions about the settlement. How many people live here in Pedro Velho? For how long? He seemed very happy to answer my questions.
"There are nine hundred families that were displaced by the construction of the Acauã dam between 1999 and 2004. There are now five communities with about five hundred families living in the community of Vila Nova de Pedro Velho. Some people got a better financial compensation and they could build their own home, like me," says Osvaldo. "Others only got a two-bedroom house after living with relatives or in public buildings in plastics tents for months. We did not know our rights at that time."
"How did you start to get organized?" I asked him. "There was a guy from the Federal University in Campina Grande who came to visit us and was mortified by our situation. (Campina Grande is the second city of Paraíba. It is about 70 km out of Vila Nova de Pedro Velho.)
"He got in touch with the people from the MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra – Landless Movement) and they connected him with the national direction of the MAB. We received a MAB leader who explained our rights and from that moment, we started organizing. We had no idea about the MAB or any other social movement."
Fátima joined us in our conversation as two young boys came to talk with them about the bus that would be going to Curitiba, state of Paraná, in the Brazilian South. That would be a two-day bus ride, to the MAB National Meeting in March, during the "National Week in Defense of the Waters".
Oswaldo told me that the majority of the people in the MAB local group were youngster. When Abel arrived, we took off to drive around the village.
Two of the first buildings they showed me were the completed Catholic Church and the unfinished health clinic.
"This has been only one of the things that we have lost. We have no cemetery, no market, no police station".
Do you get any support from the local Church? "No, not so far", Abel says. Later, a friend of mine who lives in Aroeiras told me that the local priest only seemed interested in rebuilding the church.
Next stop was the dam. They shared with pride that now they are organized in the Via Campesina together with the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Landless Movement), the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (The Pastoral Land Commission), the Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores (Small Land Owners Movement) and the Movimento das Mulheres Camponesas (Rural Women’s Movement).
"Without our friends from the other social movements, we would not get very far. We had no idea on how to defend our own rights. Only after visiting a settlement of folks connected to the Pastoral Land Commission who were displaced by another dam did we realize how badly we were mistreated by the state government. The big difference is that they knew how to put pressure on the governor," Osvaldo says.
The three of them strongly agreed on one thing. They need to have leadership training to confront the powers that be. They are only in this situation because they did not know anything about the Brazilian constitution on environment.
Osvaldo commented that this kind of construction needs an environmental impact study. They found out later that the study was only made after the state government started to build the dam.
While driving throughout the village, Abel confirmed one of my suspicions: "Violence has increased in this area. People lost jobs and recreational activities. The emotional stress of seeing everything that they owned being submerged by water still lingers. We had nine killings in the last three years. Consumption of alcohol has increased and other drugs are slowly appearing among the young people".
But why was this dam built given all the destruction and displacement? Oswaldo was the one to answer. "Officially, there are four reasons Acauã Dam was built. The first was to avoid floods in the cities on the edge of the Paraíba river, the second was to provide irrigation for fruit crops, the third was to create fisheries and the fourth was to provide water for human consumption."
I asked if the goals have been met. "No", continued Osvaldo, "this water is inappropriate for human consumption because it is too salty. There is no financial support from the government so the irrigation and fishery proposals are only on paper. The first goal was met, but there were other flood prevention alternatives."
Fátima then shared her family history. "My family was living on the edge of the Paraíba River for generations. We had 40 cows. We grew fruits, beans and corn year around. Now it’s hard to even raise chickens in our small backyard."
River shores are public lands in Brazil. Many poor families have settled in these areas for generations and they are supposed to be protected by federal law. In case of displacement by the government, the families must be compensated in a way that they will not have any disadvantage with the moving. This definitely did not happen with the folks in the Acauã Dam.
Abel continued, "My grandfather grew up in this area. He is now 92 years old. The day that his house was flooded, he did not want to leave his house. He wanted to die that day."
I asked them if they have any kind of environmental education in the MAB. "Yes", says Osvaldo, "we learned that because there is a lack of oxygen in the river, the fish can hardly reproduce any more. The river is dying."
Political formation is also very important for the MAB, Abel told me. "We learned that the dams are built in the South of Brazil to produce electric energy. But who is going to benefit from the Brazilian energy production? A large percentage of the energy goes to the iron mills that export products to Europe, Japan and the United States. We knew nothing about that before we got involved with the Movement".
We had to stop our conversation because the truck with food arrived and they had to prepare more than 1,000 bags with 23 kilos of food each. This is food provided by the federal government through the program Zero Hunger.
"This is one of the achievements from the protest march that the Via Campesina did last year when we closed a federal highway in João Pessoa for an entire morning. Only when we go to the streets do things start happening", says Fátima. Osvaldo adds, "I do not believe in the electoral way any more, only in the peoples organization."
Flávio Rocha is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in João Pessoa in the Brazilian Northeast.