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Hundreds of Brazilian Indians and Slave Descendants Protest River Transposition

São Francisco river in the Brazilian Northeast

São Francisco river in the Brazilian Northeast The sentence "No to the transposition of the São Francisco river, the solution is living in peace in the semiarid region as it is" can be read in a banner held by demonstrators in the camp called "YES to life in the São Francisco river and in the northeast region, and NO to the transposition of the river."

These protestors have been marching from the location in which they are gathered -  just below of the "TV tower" in Brasí­lia -  to hearings, meetings and demonstrations that are usually held in public agencies at Esplanada dos Ministérios, where all ministries are located in the Brazilian capital.

The demonstrators gathered in the camp insist that the São Francisco river should be revitalized, based on their experience in the semiarid region.

About 600 people are taking part in the demonstrations. They are indigenous people -  members of the Truká, Tingui-Botó, Pankararu, Kiriri, Atikum and Tuxá peoples – and almost one hundred descendants of slaves (quilombolas) who escaped from their masters in the past and set up their own communities.

The protestors include also fishermen, representatives of riverine populations, workers, members of unions (such as workers in agro-industrial facilities), and students.

These are people who live in the São Francisco river area and who are saying that they are not being heard in relation to the river transposition project.

In response to a question asked by a journalist about the length of the river, Marcos Sabaru, from the Tingui-Botó people, replied: "The river is not to be measured by its length, but by its waters. The river is the fisherman, the indigenous person. The faces of the river are black, they are feathered, they are the faces of fishermen, of washerwomen."

On March 13, the Ministry of National Integration published a public notice of tender for the first stage of the São Francisco river transposition project in the Official Gazette, which includes engineering works in the states of Pernambuco, Ceará, Paraí­ba and Rio Grande do Norte.

"Building companies will be the winners. They don't have dams to build any longer and this transposition project is like a gold mine for them," said bishop emeritus of Goiás state, Tomás Balduí­no, as the demonstration began.

The publication of the notice of tender led the demonstrators to stage a protest in front of the building of the Ministry of National Integration. During the demonstration, a glass window was broken. The demonstrator who was accused of having committed the act was arrested by the police and then released.

The demonstrators also attended a public hearing at the Environment Committee of the Chamber of Representatives. Public attorney Luciana Khoury, who is the interstate coordinator of public attorney's offices in the São Francisco river area, highlighted legal gaps in the transposition process and once again pointed out the lack of a dialogue between the government and the riverine populations affected by the project: "The population is tired of having rights without being able to actually exercise them."

Cheaper Alternatives

The demonstrators gathered in the camp have been emphasizing alternatives to the transposition project and highlighting their experience in the semiarid region, as well as a recent study carried out by the National Water Agency (ANA).

The document shows that the water supply problem faced by populations of the northeast region can be solved through 530 projects decentralized in 1,112 municipalities located in the São Francisco river area at half the cost of the transposition project.

"The transposition project can only offer an expensive water supply and its high costs will be borne by the thirsty population itself. It is a terrible project, which runs counter to the national interests," said Rubem Siqueira, from the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT).

"Its purpose is to make water available to corporate sectors, for large irrigation projects. It will not solve the problem of lack of water faced in the northeast region. There is enough water to ensure the region's development.

"What is lacking is a sound water management and distribution program. The solution is to live with the water available there," said Alexandre Gonçalves, from CPT, during a hearing with an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Ricardo Lewandowski.

Representatives of the camp were received by Ricardo Lewandowski and César Peluso, associate justices of the Supreme Court (STF). Meetings were requested with the 11 associate justices of the Supreme Court, because they are the ones in charge of confirming or rejecting a decision of associate justice Sepúlveda Pertence, who in December of last year annulled preliminary orders which prevented the issue of an environmental license for the transposition project to be carried out.

Among other legal aspects which the demonstrators pointed out to the associate justices, they mentioned the lack of an authorization from the National Congress for water resources to be utilized in indigenous lands; the lack of a clear indication of the impacts that the project may cause on Brazilian historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural and architectural heritage, as well as on traditional populations in the São Francisco river watershed in the environmental impact report (EIA/RIMA) which was prepared; and the use of waters from the river for irrigation purposes, disregarding a decision made by the São Francisco River Watershed Committee, which approved the use of these water only for human and animal consumption.

There is no deadline for the Supreme Court to judge the matter. If the decision of the associate justices sustains the legal arguments against the project, the notice of tender for its engineering works published this week by the Ministry of National Integration can be suspended.

In a hearing at the Ministry of Environment, Minister Marina Silva said what the required environmental licenses are issued according to the technical opinion of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

"If the technical experts reach the conclusion that the project is feasible from the environmental point of view, we will grant the license," she said, stressing that she will not discuss the transposition project based on political considerations. "It is a technical decision," she emphasized.

As for the Environmental Impact Study (EIA/RIMA) carried out by Ibama, the demonstrators say that only the impacts which the project can cause on the receiving watershed (Ceará, Paraí­ba, Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Norte) were considered in it.

Nevertheless, "of the 36 impacts mentioned in the EIA/RIMA, 24 are negative impacts," highlighted Rubem Siqueira, from the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT) and coordinator of the camp. The minister did not reply.

Cimi – Indianist Missionary Council – www.cimi.org.br

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