Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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River divides nation
José Pedro Martins
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Project to transpose the waters of the São Francisco River faces strong resistance.

One major conflict in water-rich Brazil is a controversial plan to transpose the waters of the important São Francisco River.

In October 2007, Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice began hearing the legality of the project, a process that was stalled under an earlier decision by a lower court.

“The federal government’s determination to make this project a reality comes from the certainty that the project will generate wealth for the northeast [region of the country], decrease regional inequalities and help Brazil to be a better, most just and more productive country,” National Integration Minister Geddel Vieira Lima told the local press.

The main argument is the historic lack of water that affects the northeast — home to 28 percent of the Brazilian population and 3 percent of the water.

The project is valued at US$2.9 billion, which will be invested by the Growth Acceleration Program, which was launched in January by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The project proposes transposing water from the São Francisco River Basin and transferring it to the Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco y Paraíba states — all of them northeastern states.

The São Francisco River is called the “river of national unity” because its basin crosses seven Brazilian states: Minas Gerais, Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco and part of Goiás and the Federal District.

But growing discord over project threatens to give the 2,700-kilometer (1,690-mile) river the nickname “river of disunity.”

In October 2005, Mons. Luiz Flávio Cappio, bishop of Barra, Bahia went on an 11-day hunger strike against the project.

In February of this year, he sent a letter to the president asking him to reopen a dialogue on the project as the government appeared poised to break ground on the project immediately. He also launched a campaign in defense of the São Francisco River and northeastern region.

Sectors of the Catholic Church and some religious organizations believe that the project will worsen the social situation of groups living along the banks of the São Francisco, such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Brazilian communities in the rural areas.

These sectors worry that the waters will be transported through the proposed network of 700 kilometers (440 miles) of canals, only to irrigate large agro-export plantations, which will benefit only a minority of the population, while putting people at risk in the areas where the waters will be transferred from.

Between Oct. 4-7 of last year, more than 500 representatives of river bank communities, indigenous groups, environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations camped out in protest in Cabrobo in Pernambuco.

Participants decided to go to the capital, Brasilia, to march against the river’s diversion in March of this year, and planned more marches in the coming months in the capital and other parts of Brazil.

The river water transfer project has also raised eyebrows in the scientific community. Respected Brazilian geographer Aziz Ab’Saber is highly critical of the plan, warning that the waters could evaporate while in transit, before ever reaching their final destinations.

It would also require large amounts of electricity, as the São Francisco powers numerous hydroelectric plants.

“The federal government should pay a lot of attention on the São Francisco river populations, a river that before anything need to be revitalized,” he said.

Ab’Saber says that the São Francisco must be revitalized through the decontamination of its waters — whose quality has been endangered by industrial and urban waste — irrigation projects for the benefit of local communities, the total protection of indigenous peoples’ rights living along the banks.

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