Brazilian Bishop’s Hunger Strike in Defense of River Moves World to Action

Dom Luiz Cappio talk to supporters during hunger strike After two years of frustrated attempts to establish a dialogue between social movements and the Brazilian government to discuss the São Francisco river diversion project in Brazil's Northeast, Brazilian Catholic bishop Luiz Cappio has resumed on November 27 his hunger strike in defense of the river.

In an open letter to president Lula, the prelate declares his opposition to the mega-project and talks about his worries regarding the river's degradation.

And he vows to only stop his fasting if two conditions are met: the Brazilian army's withdrawal from the project's construction site (the army is in charge of the construction works for both sites at the north and east canal) and the final suspension of the São Francisco River diversion project.

President Lula and the Minister of National Integration responded grimly: the construction works would continue regardless of the bishop. All former protest activities of social movements (only this year two large protest camps took place) have always been ignored by the government.

Lula's Folly

The construction of one of the most controversial mega-projects of the Lula government is about to begin: the São Francisco River diversion project, known as the Transposição do rio São Francisco.

With this megalomaniac enterprise, which will predominantly benefit export-oriented agro-business, President Lula says he wants to make history in the poor semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil. But this controversial project reveals severe political, economic and regional conflicts of interests. And, it is criticized by experts as well as legal authorities.

However, since the beginning of the year the government is forcing the start-up of construction by all possible means, disregarding the project's ecological and social consequences. The euphoria about bio-fuels, especially sugarcane alcohol has brought additional pressure to irrigate land for sugar cane plantations.

The ambition to encourage export-orientated agro-business in the Northeast is used by the Lula government to justify the building the project by any means necessary.

Since the beginning of June, military battalions are in charge for the construction works for the canals. This government procedure, ignoring ongoing legal complaints brought by opponents of the project evokes memories of Brazil's military dictatorship. In many aspects the plan leads us to remember the megalomaniac projects of the 1970's, such as the infamous Trans-Amazon highway construction.

The Landless Workers' Movement (MST), Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB), Movement of Small Farmers (MPA), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Pastoral Fishers Commission (CPP) and many other social movements have formed a unique alliance with fishing communities and indigenous people to halt the beginning of construction through radical non-violent actions.

The Mega-Project

The São Francisco river diversion project includes the construction of two canals 400 km (249 miles) and 220 km long (137 miles), which are supposed to transport 26.3 m³/s (7,000 gallons) of water from the São Francisco River to other smaller rivers in the Northeast.

The considerable difference in altitude has to be overcome by pumping the water up 165 m (541 feet) for the northern canal and 364 m (1194 feet) for the eastern canal. In total the project includes nine pumping stations, 27 aqueducts, eight tunnels and 35 water reservoirs as well as two hydroelectric plants.

According to the current version of the project, 70% of the water will be destined for irrigation purposes, 26% for urban use (mainly by the city of Fortaleza) and the remaining 4% for the rural population.

The principal winners of the project will be the agro-industrial sector (e.g. fruit and sugarcane plantations and shrimp farms).

But the official propaganda cleverly utilizes the problems of rural water distribution and the resulting misery to make the billions of dollars in investment acceptable in the public's mind.

In fact, the poor riverine communities including artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous people and small farmers, whose livelihood entirely depends on the river will be the big losers. Instead of democratizing water resources, this mega-project will further concentrate control in the hands of the ruling elite.

Even international donors could not be convinced of the benefits of this plan. A World Bank study argues against granting a loan for the project, since the positive effects on poverty reduction could not be proven. The principal financing strategy will be the transferring of project costs to water users.

With the São Francisco River diversion, water costs are expected to rise five-fold. This means that once again Brazilian taxpayers are supposed to pay the costs of promoting the export of agricultural goods.

The São Francisco River diversion is an extremely costly enterprise with very doubtful social benefits. The project will consume half of all public investment in water infra-structure, as defined in the Program for Acceleration of Economic growth (PAC).

Over the next four years investments of 6.6 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 3.4 billion) are earmarked for the project. Its yearly operational expenses are estimated into 93.8 million reais (US$ 48.6 million).

There are much cheaper and more effective alternatives to the diversion project. A recent study carried out by the National Water Agency (ANA) shows that the water supply problem faced by populations of the northeast region can be solved through 530 decentralized projects in 1,112 municipalities, at half the cost of the diversion project.

Critics of the project point out that the problem of the semi-arid region is not the lack of availability of water but rather the unfair distribution of existing water resources, such as the 37 million m³ of water retained in the more than 70.000 small, medium and large reservoirs and dams in the region.

The drought problem in the Northeastern semi-arid region requires effective management of available water, and cannot be solved through one single Pharaonic project.

The Supreme Court is still analyzing the legality of the construction permits. Several legal aspects are questioned: the lack of authorization from the National Congress for use of water resources on indigenous lands; lack of a clear consideration of the impacts that the project may cause on the region's historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural and architectural heritage; and impacts on traditional populations in the São Francisco River watershed.

Furthermore, the destination of the transferred water for irrigation purposes disregards the decision made by the São Francisco River Basin Committee, which approved the use of this water only for human and animal consumption.

Many experts also point to the fact that this government project completely ignores climate change scenarios. According to independent studies, the impacts of global warming in Northeastern Brazil will mean a decrease in 20% in the flow of the São Francisco River.

One of the construction consortiums in the running to build one of the costliest section of the canals is involved in a huge corruption scandal, and is under investigation by the Federal Police. These scandals confirm the suspicion that the diversion project is yet another mega-project conceived to divert public resources to the powerful building industry, to corrupt companies that provide illegal financing of election campaigns.

The Missing Dialogue

The most startling protest action against the São Francisco diversion project was the eleven-day hunger strike by Bishop Dom Luiz Cappio in October 2005, which drew worldwide attention to the issue. The condition for ending the hunger strike was a dialogue process between the government and civil society representatives. But the government's promise of a longer-term public debate with affected people was not kept.

The objections of people who live in the São Francisco River area and whose livelihoods depend on the river are not being heard. Indigenous people of the Truká, Tingui-Botó, Pankararu, Kiriri, Atikum and Tuxá peoples, quilombola communities (descendants of escaped African slaves who set up autonomous communities), fishermen and small farmers are systematically ignored in official project studies.

During this year, many protest actions were organized by the traditional riverine communities. The highlight was a one week protest camp in Brasí­lia in March as well as the e occupation of the construction site in end of June and beginning of July.

A diverse group of social movements, indigenous groups and environmental organizations gathered near the military bases in the middle of the semi-arid region in the region of Cabrobó, Pernambuco.

However, the Integration Ministry, responsible for the project, did not change its position in any way. The refusal to dialogue with the public is leading to the radicalization of the protest against the authoritarian top-down policy of the government.

After two years frustrated trials to establish a dialogue between social movements and the government to democratically discuss the polemic Sao Francisco River diversion project, Bishop Luiz Cappio resumed his hunger strike on November 2007, in a desperate attempt to draw public attention to this imminent disaster.

Letter Campaign

An email and letter campaign is being promoted to make the Brazilian government aware that the imposition of the São Francisco river diversion project casts a damning light on Brazilian democracy.

Below is the information being sent to the international community:

Please don't worry about returning mails due to full mail boxes.

It is important to send a blind copy (Bcc) to

In this mailbox we will store all the email copies sent to the authorities in Brasí­lia, print them out and deliver them directly in Brasí­lia.

Please forward this solidarity campaign to your contact lists.

Juazeiro (Bahia), 30th November 2007

Peoples' Coalition for the Restoration of the São Francisco River

Below the mailing list for the protest-letter:





Fax: (0055) 61 3411 1865




Fax: (0055) 61 3321 3122




Fax: (0055) 61 3317-1755




Fax: (0055) 61 32174249



Fax: (0055) 61 32174189



Fax: (0055) 61 32174099



Fax: (0055) 61 32174309



Fax: (0055) 61 32174219



Fax: (0055) 61 32174339



Fax: (0055) 61 32174159



Fax: (0055) 61 32174399



Fax: (0055) 61 32174279



Fax: (0055) 61 32174355 / 32174369



Fax: (0055) 61 32174129

Protest Letter:

President of Federal Republic of Brazil – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Minister for National Integration – Geddel Vieira Filho

Dear Sirs,

We follow with interest Brazilian Government plans for the São Francisco River regarding the diversion/inter-basin water transference ( Transposição) and Revitalization (Revitalization) Projects.

Respectfully, your Excellencies, we wish to share our concerns regarding the possible social and environmental impacts resulting from the Transposição.

We understand the National Integration River's ("Rio da Integração Nacional") historic, cultural, social, economic and environmental importance. We are also aware of the problems of this river which include deforestation, silting, water pollution from sewage and agro-toxins, issues resulting from the construction and operation of dams, and the uncontrollable growth of agribusiness at the expense of local ecosystems ( cerrado and caatinga). The current low water level at the Sobradinho dam, which now holds 14% of its volume capabilities, attests to the river's deterioration.  

The current degradation of the São Francisco River makes troubling any proposed new use to the existing multiple ones, which are already conflicting in several dimensions. 

Since November 27, 2007, Dom Luiz Cappio, Bishop from the diocese of Barra in Bahia State, resumed his fast and prayers in opposition to the authoritarian way by which the Federal Government imposed the São Francisco River's Transposição without a democratic debate over the real viability of this project. 

In a letter sent to the Brazilian President, Dom Luiz reminds that Mr. Lula did not meet his side of the original accord sealed in October 2005. Then, Dom Luiz halted his eleven-days fast after the president's promise to stop the Transposição work and to start a broad dialogue about the project with society.

The Transposição works will not deliver water to 12 million northeasterners. Advertisement campaigns have shown the wrong message. Quite the other way around, the project will benefit the production of upscale fruits, ethanol, steel, and shrimp culture to supply mainly the international market, making richer a few large companies.  

The semi-arid region has a diversity of possibilities and potential hydro resources fit to promote human consumption and sustainable development. Better and cheaper solutions exist to meet the needs of the semi-arid inhabitants.

Alternatives include the 530 projects suggested by National Water Agency – ANA (Agência Nacional de íguas) – which would supply 1,3 thousand municipalities of the region at a price of R$ 3,6 billions (almost half of the R$ 6,6 billions that will be used for he Transposição). Alternative ways to deal with the climate in rural zones are proposed by Articulação do Semi-írido – ASA, a non- governmental organization. 

Given this situation, the Transposição Project raises serious questions. Some have to do with several illegalities which have been legally challenged and still await a decision by the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF).  

Therefore, people, entities, and organizations listed below demand the suspension of the Transposição work which has been started by the Brazilian army. We demand that the desperate voices of the people in the São Francisco River basin, represented by Dom Luiz Cappio's fasting, be finally heard.

Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) -Salvador, Bahia state, 27 November, 2007


  • Show Comments (3)

  • Auriberta A. N. Campos Silva

    Dear Ms, Alessandra Bastos,
    As denounced below (The Slow Process of Reintegrating Brazil’s Quilombolas – Written by Alessandra Bastos
    Wednesday, 23 March 2005 – “Quilombos,” communities formed by descendants of ex-slaves, were once the symbol of resistance in the struggle to abolish slavery in Brazil. Today, the remnants of these groups are fighting for the regularization of their lands and the preservation of their culture.) , I have a SERIOUS DENOUNCE ABOUT QUILOMBOLA AREA conform follow below :
    e-mail sent :
    As you may to check I have sent this important denounce since 27th april, 2006 (Thursday -hour : 3:25 PM) about -“RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS” found in GOIAS region, CAVALCANTE city-Brazil conform e-mail sent that follow below. This one sent diretly to severals official organizations worldwide requesting some support or tecnical support / help. So, I received a contact from CNEN À¢€“ Mr. CRUZ, PAULO À¢€“ e-mail : (Official Nuclear Energy Department from Governament of Brazil) after our denounces to abroad Organization (please, check all contacts/eletronic address e-mailed) but unfortunately I received only a call by phone and nothing more. The CNEN is the organization from Brazil Governament responsable to control all RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS WORKS here on BRAZIL (the own CNEN do herself its inspector, IS THIS FACT/ACTION CORRECT??).
    Then, as explaned on my last e-mail like you can see below, the problems are increasing here on Brazil about this -“RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS” (of course that without nothing of control) found in GOIAS region, CAVALCANTE city-Brazil and in other places here on Brazil and also without soluction for this serious problem at the moment. You can to check other reports/statements where have been denounced again all the problems involving “RADIOATIVE MATERIALS” but with other “TERRIBLES NEWS”. Beyond the fact of “LARGE CONTAMINATION of water” for RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS and the “KALUNGAS COMMUNITIES” than are in direct “contact with this radioactive material” found (as you already know , the “Kalungas Communities” are slave descendents or indigenous black people) some terrorists are purchasing URANIUN and TORIUN from BRAZIL on AMAPÀƒÂ region (please, check on site À¢€“ date : 07/11/2006). Yet in this matter, other denounce reported is also about the trade of radioative ore (TORIUN and URANIUN) on AMAPÀƒÂ À¢€“ BRAZIL (please, check on sites – date : 06/01/2006 and À¢€“ date : 06/08/2006) . Other case recently happned is the leak of RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS in a small region on CAETITE- BAHIA À¢€“ BRAZIL (please, check on site À¢€“ date : 07/11/2006). Our question, request to support is because in CAVALCANTE CITY À¢€“ GOIAS À¢€“ BRAZIL, a official Department from Governament of BRAZIL did a serious denounce where they are advising that some RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS are being explored without nothing of control, withdraw, this exploration is happening without no accompaniment or to inspect (The FEDERAL POLICE is investigating if this material is being negociated directly with the smuggler/terrorists with support of hight Departments of Governament of Brazil – for instance – DNPM – Mineral Department of Production of Governament of Brazil).
    Obs.: If necessary, I can translate all report/news as informed (attached and conform site specified on e-mail).
    However, as explaned, I really are need some tecnical person to support me because I have a mineral area for gold exploration with all documentation and duties / taxes paid, conform all mineral laws, there in CAVALCANTE À¢€“ GOIAS À¢€“ BRAZIL but all region around me have certainly RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS with nothing the control on exploration, IÀ¢€™m very much worry with the poor communities (Kalungas indigenous black people), my family and our own security, beyond the fact of the “Water Contamination”.
    Please, let me know if is possible to get your help/support in this very important question or not. Is it possible?? Do you have any suggestion or contact for help us ?? Do you know any “important contact” or authority to check all this irregulars situations ??
    Thank you again for your attention and I wait to have/get your support for this important question!!!
    I wait your reply as soon as possible.
    Auriberta A. N. Campos Silva (owner of area)
    Partnership – Wagner Brugger (lawer and partnership)
    Contact number : 55-31-9195-8643 or 91591406 (only Portuguese or Spanish contact) – To contact in English linguage, Spanish, our secretary “Luiz carlos Aguiar” for phone 55-31-9194-4694).
    e-mail :

  • João da Silva

    Brazilian Bishop’s Hunger Strike in Defense of River Moves World to Action
    The latest news is that our friendly blogger from Geneve is also going on hunger strike to display his solidarity with our Bishop 😉

  • ch.c.

    “The euphoria about bio-fuels, especially sugarcane” ?????????????????
    When there is an euphoria prices skyrocket but doesnt collapse as it does for ethanol !

    Especially more so when oil price went up by over 50 % and sugar and ethanol prices went down by 50 % from their
    2005 peak !

    But keep your euphoria and triple or quadruple your production. That would be great for prices……lower.

    May be one should read the latest quaterly report of Cosan. The company clearly states there is an
    OVERSUPPLY and that it the reason the sugar and ethanol industry is….STRUGGLING !

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