Brazil River Dispute Highlights Larger Issue President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva says hydro-electric energy is must-have for the development of South America's biggest economy. But environmental and indigenous groups increasingly oppose massive engineering projects.
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Brazil River Dispute Highlights Larger Issue

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Brazil River Dispute Highlights Larger Issue

Brazil River Dispute Highlights Larger Issue

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Even a country that is home to the Amazon faces conflict over water. That's a conflict that repeats itself the world over. As populations grow, people struggle over who controls water supplies and how they're used.

In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva favors generating electricity from hydroelectric dams. Environmentalists and local groups often do not. And then there's the plan to divert a portion of one of Brazil's biggest rivers to the country's driest region. Brazil's Roman Catholic bishops are among those who have joined the battle.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the Sao Francisco River basin to see the public works project that generates such passion.

(Soundbite of river)

JULIE McCARTHY: Although it's impoverished, life along the Sao Francisco River is culturally rich. Affectionately called Old Chico, the waterway, which flows 1600 miles before spilling into the Atlantic, has been immortalized in folklore and celebrated at carnival.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: The river was the theme of Rio's popular Mangueira Samba School last year. Now the legendary river is at the center of one of Brazil's most ambitious infrastructure schemes - diverting some of its water to the vast drought-prone northeast. The rural areas there are Brazil's poorest, according to the World Bank. President Lula, a son of the northeast, says millions of inhabitants in seven states would benefit from the channeling of the river. But critics variously assail the $2.3 billion venture as a boondoggle, an environmental nightmare, and a vanity project.

(Soundbite of chanting)

McCARTHY: Two thousand opponents encamp along the river in the distressed northeast state of Pernambuco, where the army has already begun work on the diversion project. Brazil's Truka tribe claims that the land is part of their territory, but the government won a court order to remove them and they dispersed singing and dancing. Their ranks include fishermen, rural workers, environmentalists, and laity from the Catholic Church who want the Sao Francisco project stopped.

They say only four percent of the diverted water will go to benefit the rural population in the receiving states. A lifelong river resident, Marina da Rocha Braga, represents the Pastoral Land Commission, a church-based human rights group.

Ms. MARINA DA ROCHA BRAGA (Pastoral Land Commission): (Through translator) We are slowing exposing the plan for what it really is - a benefit for big business - agro-industries, cement and construction companies, and sooner or later sugar cane for ethanol. All we want is basic sanitation for the general population. It's a fight between David and Goliath.

McCARTHY: Coordinator of the water project, Romolo Macedo, could not say how much of the water agro-business would get by diverting the Sao Francisco, but he does say...

Mr. ROMOLO MACEDO (Coordinator, Sao Francisco River Diversion Project): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: What's the problem with agricultural industries benefiting, especially since it's going to provide jobs and wealth? It's the people who are going to benefit. The people will have water. They will have jobs, he says. Macedo says the project will benefit 12 million people, irrigate 750,000 acres, and will help create one million jobs.

But Brazil's watchdog on federal spending, known by its Portuguese initials, TCU, concluded that the government's plan to divert part of the Sao Francisco River overestimates the benefits and underestimates the costs.

Attorney Juliana Barros Neves says the planned construction - including two canals hundreds of miles long, pumping stations, aqueducts, reservoirs and dams - will be especially burdensome for the indigenous groups throughout the region.

Ms. JULIANA BARROS NEVES (Attorney): (Through translator) The Constitution states that Brazil's environment and cultural patrimony must be protected, but many indigenous territories are going to be adversely affected by this diversion. International conventions protecting indigenous rights, which Brazil has signed, also say projects that affect tribal regions must have the prior consent of that population. And that did not happen here.

Mr. NEGUINHO TRUKA (Chief, Truka Tribe): (Through translator) Our existence is directly connected to the river, the flora and the fauna.

McCARTHY: Chief Neguinho Truka says the tribe's 500-year-old way of life is in jeopardy.

(Soundbite of river)

McCARTHY: As tribesmen struggle to erect makeshift tents in the wind, the chief tells me that diverting the river would harm the cultivation of meadows and the growth of natural forests along the river that his people depend upon.

Mr. TRUKA: (Through translator) We fish, we hunt, and it's passed down to generations. It's our culture. It's our religion. The white man - he looks for God in images, images of saints, of Jesus. Not us. We believe that God is in everything you see here - water, earth, sky, sun, and moon. And if one of these elements disappears, for us God is also gone.

(Soundbite of machine)

McCARTHY: On their island that lies in the middle of the strikingly blue Sao Francisco River, some 4,000 Truka cultivate subsistent crops like this harvested onions rattling across the cleaning board. It took the tribe decades to win the right to have this 14,000-acre isle designated Truka territory. Now inhabitants fear that any deviation of the river will damage their island home.

Across the flowing waters lies the town of Cobrobo, site of one of two planned canals that would channel some other river northward. The government says the island is a half a mile away, and any impact would be miniscule.

Project coordinator Romolo Macedo points out that the government's plan would divert only 1.4 percent of the Sao Francisco River. But it's scant comfort for 26-year-old farmer and father Eraldo Truka(ph).

Mr. ERALDO TRUKA (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: Mango and papaya. Maracuja.

Mr. TRUKA: It's a maracuja.

McCARTHY: Maracuja, or passion fruit, spreads across a quarter acre. Eraldo lives off his 20 acres and has already seen the once plentiful river change.

How is the river to fish? Is it getting more difficult to fish there?

Mr. TRUKA: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: We used to have a large variety of fish that today you no longer find here. There's hardly enough fish to eat, he says, blaming pollution and large dams upstream that interrupt spawning cycles. Yet Eraldo walks his fields and speaks of the sweet simplicity of life on the island and of his desire to hold fast to what's left.

Mr. TRUKA: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: I earn very little but I'm living. Others earn a lot, he says, but they are dying. So for me, for us, it is good.

Environmentalists say that municipalities like the one across from Eraldo routinely dump raw sewage into the river. The government says it does have projects under way to clean up the Sao Francisco, though specific funding levels are hard to determine.

Ms. ANDREA ZELLHUBER (Environmental Planner): You can ask yourself what good this highly polluted water will do to the northeastern states, which will receive this kind of water?

McCARTHY: Consultant and environmental planner Andrea Zellhuber says Brazil should provide basic sanitation for millions of residents along the river basin before even thinking about diverting part of the river.

Ms. ZELLHUBER: So there's kind of an inversion of priorities here.

McCARTHY: And she says the government should complete the many abandoned public works projects that Brazil launched in the past before tackling this new one.

(Soundbite of protest)

McCARTHY: The proposed new project has turned former allies of President Lula into foes, the protesters calling him the traitor.

Mr. EDE-MELSON LUIZ SANTOS (Resident, San Francisco River Basin): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: Ede-Melson Luiz Santos says bitterly, Lula is from the Northeast just like we are. But unfortunately he tore up the flag of the Northeast and he tore up the flag, he says, of his workers party as well. The government's proposed diversion of part of the Sao Francisco River is scheduled to be finished in 2025.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News in the Sao Francisco River Basin.

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