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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3


Brazil: River re-direction creates water market

The following interview by journalist Patricia Benvenuti with Roberto Malvezzi of the Brazilian Catholic Church’s Land Commission (CPT) focuses on the controversial project to transpose the São Francisco River. The interview was reprinted in News from Brazil, published by Brazil Justice Net, April 13, 2010.

What is the current situation of the São Francisco River’s transposition?

Roberto Malvezzi (RM): The construction of the work is moving ahead. The government accelerated the process of the construction of two canals and says that it will conclude one by the end of this year--the one called the “east channel,” that brings water directly to Paraíba. The other is to be concluded in 2012. …

At this moment, what are the impacts being felt in the region because of this construction?

RM: The channels have a direct environmental impact … in the “caatinga” region (arid region). These channels are long and wide, and require the removal of the communities around them. Some communities are relocated, and others have many difficulties, as in the case of the Pipipã indigenous group. The “west channel” cuts right through their territory, which is also known as the Biological Reserve of Serra Negra, in Pernambuco. It is one of the oldest biological reserves, created in the 1950s. Also, there are many problems in regions in Paraíba and other states due to poor compensation people are receiving in return for giving over their land to the project.

How many people have been removed?

RM: We don’t have an exact total. The government is saying 700 families, but we think it is much more than this. As the area is vast, we don’t have connections in every place where the project passes, so we don’t have a real estimation of the number of people being impacted. But counting only the Pipipãs of the Serra Negra Reserve, there are more than 5,000 people. And we know that, directly or indirectly, the impact will be much greater than what the government alleges.

What is the current state of the revitalization of the river, as was promised would happen?

RM: Revitalization is what we thought it would be. It was in the mind of the government a sort of coin exchange, a way to get the people who resisted the transposition to “shut up” in exchange for having the river cleaned up. But we knew that the government would not invest nearly as much in this as in the project itself. Even the mainstream press has noted that the investments greatly diverge in what is put into revitalization as opposed to what is put in the transposition. I think that at this moment while working on the transposition, they will abandon the revitalization. They are only doing something small as a way of compensating politically, and not so much out of concern of the environment. The focus is on the construction of the project.

You have referred to the Northeast as being a laboratory for the marketing of water in Brazil. What is the role of the transposition in this experiment?

RM: Truthfully, the transposition is the creation of a lucrative market for water. The mechanism of the working the transposition is like this: a certain kind of company will sell water from the São Francisco, and when the water goes into other state receptors, other companies will buy this water. Afterwards, these companies will sell the water to the so-called users, which are still other companies, and will finally arrive to the final consumer. So, the final process and the final cost of this water will be very expensive. Personally, I think what is most serious is that the companies are going to buy water from the São Francisco and are going to [claim the] free rainwater stocked in the big reservoirs. So, they are going to sell not only water from the Sâo Francisco, but also rainwater from the big dams. It is going to be a big business: You will buy water or receive water for free, and then resell it to the general population. In this way, it is simply following what the World Bank has always wanted: to create markets for water in Brazil. This is prohibited by law, but in practice, the transposition of the Sâo Francisco creates this market. It is the international philosophy of [marketing] water. This way of managing water resources came to Brazil from France; ... if you go to other countries in Latin America, you will see the same system. It is the system that these multinational organisms wanted to implant around the world because you control the use of water through mechanisms where businesses either buy the reservoirs or receive licenses from the State to exploit that reservoir. In Brazil, water may not be privatized, but the State can [yield] water for private use, which is what will happen in the Sâo Francisco Valley. Businesses will buy this water and be able to exploit it commercially.

And how are the people the semi-arid region mobilizing in relation to the transposition?

RM: Today resistance is greater in Paraíba and in Ceará. The number of mayors who have left the pro-transposition side is significant because they see that the water [flows] to Paraíba, but it is not being distributed. In Ceará, there is resistance from the populations that are being dislocated by the transposition. Above all, I think that the resistance will grow in the measure that the grand promises of the government are not kept. The government promises water to 12 million people in Paraíba, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte. So these people have the expectation that they will get water; and when the water finally arrives, they will see that it will not go to the general population. So, the government will have to face another level of conflict, which is caused by the finality of water. The water has an economic end, and the population is being used as a mere instrument. I know for sure, through conversations inside the government, that many people are worried about this. Many even say that they are distressed because the transposition is not going to distribute the water, but only transfer it to the basins of Ceará, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte which already have water.

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