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River Rerouting in Brazil: Reinventing a Broken Wheel

June 2007

1,200 indigenous people, fishermen and peasant farmers occupied the construction site of a major river rerouting project of the São Francisco river in protest. Members of different organizations and social movements in northeast Brazil are demanding that the federal government stop the implementation of this project and guarantee indigenous people’s land rights in the area.

“We are being evicted from our land for this by people who are not concerned with the river or with the livelihood of our families” said Neguinho Truká, leader of the Truká ethnic group.

The São Francisco project plans to divert the water from the São Francisco river to different areas of the semi-arid region – a large expanse in Brazil’s northeast that is the largest such inhabited area in the world. The project will cost approximately US$ 2 billion. Representatives of peasant and indigenous peoples believe that the water will be diverted to supply agribusinesses and not for the domestic supply of rural families, as the government initially promised. Plans are already afoot for major expansion in sugarcane cultivation for ethanol export. Besides, they question the environmental impacts of this project, which they argue haven’t been fully thought through.

As an alternative to this policy, grassroots organizations like the Land Pastoral Commission and Semi-Arid Network call for the implementation of more sustainable water policies, such as the pre-molded cisterns developed locally by rural families. According to them, there are 140 agroecological water and soil management methods that could efficiently support the food sovereignty and water security of families in the drought-prone semi-arid region. The rerouting project will be a waste of resources as it will consume energy to overcome topographic challenges, create new environmental problems and few families will actually benefit from the project.

The water rights of rural families in northeast Brazil have been neglected and exploited throughout the years. Governments have frequently promised to address the water needs of rural families with the construction of mega-projects that have failed. In the past, the federal government has supported the construction of large dams that ended up concentrating access to water in the hands of a few – corporations and large landowners –while flooding precious forest reserves and farm land. Brazilian peoples’ movements fear that the rerouting project is one more mega solution that will drown rural families’ dreams of fresh water.

In 2006, we reported on this project questioning the use of the precious water of the São Francisco river to grow an irrigation-intensive crop like sugarcane in the dry region of northeast Brazil to supply wealthy countries with ethanol. Grassroots International stands in solidarity with the people of Brazil’s semi-arid region and our friends encamped in Cabrobó, in Pernambuco state.

For agrarian reform and food sovereignty!

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