Resistance and defence of water and territories in Brazil
Nearly 7,000 people from more than 30 countries, and from almost every Brazilian state, gathered at the Alternative World Water Forum (FAMA) from 17 to 22 March 2018. The purpose of this mobilisation was to challenge the legitimacy of the World Water Forum, which is organised every three years by the private think-tank World Water Council together with its corporate partners.
FAMA ended with a successful demonstration on 22 March, World Water Day. Approximately 5,000 people marched in Brasilia, carrying flags and banners bearing messages such as “The water belongs to the people”, “Stand up against the privatization of water”, “The problem is not the drought, it's the fence”, “Water is a right, not a commodity” and “Water for life, not for death”. Proclaiming water to be a human right and a common good, they shared their conviction that an economic or market value for water was impossible to determine, and that it could not be treated as a commodity.
FAMA was organised by a broad coalition of social movements, 450 national and international organisations and connected movements, including researchers, environmentalists, trade unions, students, indigenous natives, quilombolas, and fishermen, people of the forests, the savannah (the Brazilian cerrado), the seas and the rivers. Countless communities across Brazil have been affected by the many different conflicts related to multiple hydrographic basins and contamination, either by agribusiness, large oil, gas and hydroelectic enterprises or by the mining industry. Those who had gathered for FAMA 2018 had suffered the consequences of these conflicts, but they were determined to stand in solidarity, people from the cities and the countryside united in their belief in the human right to water.
In Brazil, the privatisation of aquifers and the creation of water markets that transform water resources into commodities are part of the political agenda. This process further undermines the already fragile democratic structures and practices that are in place in the historically colonial and patriarchal society under the Temer government. The expansion, encroachment and aggregation by transnational corporations and capitalist states is accompanied by complex and dramatic conflicts and violations of human rights, especially regarding access to water. The people and communities affected by these events spoke about their struggles at FAMA with anger but also with hope.
Norwegian mining company contaminates the Para river in Barcarena
Barcarena municipality is located in the northeast of the state of Pará. The riverside and farming communities here are suffering due to the leakage of the bauxite tailings dam* owned by the Norwegian mining company Norsk Hydro Alunorte. This has resulted in high amounts of lead and other metals contaminating the Pará River in the Brazilian Amazon. The Evandro Chagas Institute (IEC) has confirmed the contamination in several areas of Barcarena to have been caused by the leakage of tailings dams. An IEC expert discovered a duct carrying polluting waste into the region's creek. Contaminating the environment and reaching the communities in Bom Futuro village, sodium, nitrate and aluminium amounts were all above permitted levels, and the water had a pH level of 10: extremely abrasive and harmful to living beings. According to the experts, the company has no capacity to treat its effluents and, with heavy rains aggravating the imminent risk of further leaks, they warn that it should reduce or suspend production. In 2017, the company's gross revenue was R$45 billion, but it nevertheless enjoyed guaranteed tax exemptions granted by the government of the State of Pará.
Agrobusiness dries up the river in Correntina
Correntina, in the western state of Bahia, provides an example of the historical inequalities in access to water. Here, many transnational agribusiness companies are using irregular and obscure licences to extract the waters of the Corrente River, one of the rivers that feed the great São Francisco River and its basin. There have been denunciations and resistance for some decades, but the conflict gained greater visibility in 2017, with a mass mobilisation in response to the authorities’ silence in the face of the river’s death and subsequent water shortages for the population. More than 10,000 people in a city of 31,259 inhabitants held demonstrations and occupied the Igarashi and Curitiba farms in order to prevent one company from extracting water. This particular company exploits, on average, 106 million cubic metres of the river’s water, a volume equivalent to the monthly consumption of the whole of Correntina.
Belo Monte Dam in Amazon rainforest
The Belo Monte Dam in Rio Xingú, in the municipality of Altamira in the state of Pará, is the third largest in the world, and it has already devastated an extensive area of Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The project will ultimately displace more than 20,000 people, threatening the survival of the Kayapó indigenous tribes who depend on the river. Belo Monte is a manifestation of internal colonialism, a geographic expansion that will have significant impacts upon the region. The project brings with it a larger plan of occupation, and a greater demand for the generation of energy, mainly for the mining sector. Belo Monte will not have any large economic benefits compared to the high social and environmental costs it brings, such as the diversion of the tributaries of the Xingu that will impede navigation and local fishing.
Belo Monte Dam also causes environmental and social impacts across the whole of Altamira municipality. Despite controversy and much tension, Belo Monte was completed and has been in operation since 2016. Residents of the region complain about the consequences of the dam’s construction. Fishermen in particular have felt the impacts, but there is no compensation offered or expected for those living below the dam. Another problem attributed to the Belo Monte project is the growth in violence in the area. The latest data puts Altamira as the city with the fifth highest number of homicides in Brazil, and a new penitentiary was built six years after the arrival of the dam. Norte Energia, the company responsible for the plant, invested R$ 100 million in security following an agreement with the State of Pará.
Atrocities committed by mining companies in Mariana
On 5 November 2015 the Fundão dam collapsed, giving rise to the biggest environmental crime in the history of Brazil and the world. After more than two years of impunity for the rupture of the mineral tailings dam in Mariana (MG), lawsuits against the miners have now been suspended, and initiatives to compensate the people and families affected remain as empty promises. In total, 19 were killed, one woman had a miscarriage as a direct consequence of the mud slide, and 55 million cubic metres of mineral waste spread along the Gualaxo do Norte, Carmo and Doce rivers to the mouth of the Rio Doce in Regência, in Espirito Santo state. The complexity of the impacts on the lives of those affected remains incalculable. The contamination of water, health problems both physical and mental, the destruction of homes and loss of labour and income, and the dispersion of the community are just some of the many problems encountered. Some of these traumas were caused not only by the BHP Billiton, Samarco and Vale mining companies, but have also been aggravated by the denial of victims’ rights under the judicial system. In Cachoeira Escura, Belo Oriente district, Governador Valadares, Colatina, Linhares and other cities that rely upon the water of the Rio Doce, there are still many doubts about the safety of its use. Many health problems have been recorded, including stomach complaints and skin reactions caused by contaminated water. According to several university studies, the fish eaten by the population of these cities is potentially contaminated by heavy metals.
During FAMA, clear messages were sent to those corporations violently appropriating water and common goods in various regions of Brazil. On the morning of 20 March, World Water Day, 600 women of the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST) occupied the Nestlé headquarters in São Lourenço, denouncing the company for its attempts to control the Guarani aquifer.
2,000 landless women occupied the headquarter of São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (Chesf) in the Brazilian state of Bahia. This action occurred because of the anti-people measures by the Temer government and its intention to privatise the state-own enterprise such as Chesf, the National Mail Company (Correios) and The electricity public company (Eletrobras). Elsewhere, in the State of Sergipe, more than 300 women occupied the ordinance of the Xingó Power Plant in the municipality of Canindé de São Francisco. Social movements occupied the Coca-Cola industrial park in Taguatinga, in the Federal District of Brasília. The occupation was against the commercial exploitation of water, and served to denounce the corporate-led World Water Forum, sponsored by Coca-Cola and other big corporations including Nestlé. These companies are part of the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030WRG), a consortium whose intentions would effectively see water privatised across the entire planet. In the State of Santa Catarina, the Movement of Dam Affected people (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens – MAB, in Portuguese) occupied Eletrosul's headquarters in Forianópolis. 400 people demonstrated their opposition to the privatisation of water and the privatisation of the state-owned public companies of the Brazilian electricity system, including Eletrosul.
And, on the very same day, FAMA demonstrators in Brasilia walked to the headquarters of TV Globo, the largest private mass communication company in the country. In protest against the mainstream media discourse, they highlighted the alliance between the media monopoly and the interests of the water privateers. Despite the intimidating presence of the police forces, there to protect the interests of the World Water Forum’s attendees, the demonstrators marching for their survival acted with dignity and peace. Their memories, their colours, their smiles, their tears and their voices may not have been seen or heard by the companies and national states gathered at the World Water Forum, but their unified protest encourages and invigorates all of us, in our communities and our places of work, to continue to defend life today and in the future.
*Tailings dams which are used to store byproducts of mining operations after separating the ore from the gangue, often store toxic chemicals from the mining process, they have an impervious liner to prevent seepage. Water/slurry levels in the tailings pond must be managed for stability and environmental purposes as well. As of 2000 these structures experience known "major" failures of about 2 to 5 annually, along with 35 "minor" failures.
Related documents and reading
FAMA final declaration
FAMA website http://fama2018.org/