Brazil’s President Lula is attempting to make the history books by beginning a project to shift the course of the San Francisco River, the fourth largest in Brazil, to the poor and semi arid region of northeast Brazil. The project has been met with feverish debate and has become controversial over the past few years.
The project’s aim is to bring water to the north through the construction of two canals. As a result of the difference in altitude of the two regions, the water must be pumped to the north which adds to the project the construction of nine pumping stations, 27 aqueducts, eight tunnels, 35 water reservoirs and two hydroelectric plants. The water is said to be used for irrigation purposes, urban use and rural population but it will end up benefiting the agro-industrial sector the most putting control in the hands of an elite class.
Debate around the project is present from all kinds of interest groups organizing protests. In 2005 work on the project was stopped briefly when Roman Catholic Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio went on an 11 day hunger strike to stop the construction. His strike ended when he was given assurances that the government and the civil society would enter into a dialogue. Yet, the dialogue was limited to one seminar that took place in May of 2006. In early 2007 thousands of landless workers attempted to stop the project by invading government property in protest. The work on the River forced rural workers to leave their land and they face working unproductive lands as agribusiness companies will get the best land. Many social movements, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Pastoral Fishers Commission, have formed a unified alliance to stop the construction by radical means if necessary. Those who depend on the river for the livelihood, such as indigenous people, fisherman and small farmers, are constantly ignored.
Opponents of the project argue that the semiarid region’s problem is not the lack of water but the lack of distribution of water resources that already exist. The area needs an efficient management, not a new system some argue. In addition, experts have shown that the project ignores the climate change scenarios. One possible consequence would be a decrease in the runoff of the river by 20% from global warming. International donors have even shown opposition as the World Bank released a study that argued against funding the project since the effects on poverty reduction cannot be proven. Many argue that there are much cheaper and effective ways to meet the project’s aims. Even the Supreme Court of Brazil has questioned the legality of the project as they are currently analyzing the authorization from the National Congress for water resources to be used in the lands.
Since the beginning of 2007, construction has moved forward despite concerns or opposition. The $2 billion project was approved by Brazil’s environmental protection agency in March and in June military battalions prepared for construction work. The project is supposed to be funded through transferring costs to water users which is expected to raise the costs five fold. Hence, the Brazil’s citizens would be paying the cost of agricultural goods that are exported. Construction is set to begin at the end of June while more protests are being organized from social movements, indigenous and environmental groups to bring public attention to the disaster.
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