Tapajos river fishers may join the group of Brazilians who need public assistance to feed themselves. The federal government has started a series of infrastructure projects that will take the fish away from the fishermen.

The life of fisherman Rosinaldo Pereira dos Santos, generally known as Tatá, may take a very different direction from the one that the governments of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff have promoted through their social welfare programs. Living on the banks of the Tapajós River in the Brazilian Amazon, he has always had abundant food. Proof of this hangs on his living room wall: photographs of catfish bigger than him. But now Tatá may join the group of Brazilians who need public assistance to feed themselves. The federal government has started work on a series of infrastructure projects that, in the name of development, will take the fish away from the fishermen who know how to catch them.

These days Tatá follows a routine: he is forever casting his eyes on the river to work out in his head which kind of fish to catch that day, where he’ll find them, when, and with what bait. It is this knowledge that lets him find his way across currents, rapids, rocky patches on the riverbed, and whirlpools. With the money he has earned from his fish, he built two houses, where he cultivates manioc and banana, collects murici (a fruit from native tree), rears chickens, and has an orchard with ten kinds of Amazonian fruits. What his family can’t eat he sells. This is how he brought up his two children; today, at 52 years old, he looks after two grandchildren and was planning to adopt two other youngsters.

The fisherman Tatá in one of two houses he built with income from fishing. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

But his plans are on hold now that the news has arrived that the government is planning to build seven hydroelectric power stations in the Tapajós River valley. The biggest of them, São Luiz do Tapajós, is set to be built exactly where he lives and fishes: in the age-old hamlet of Pimental, a ribeirinho, or traditional riverbank dwelling, community surrounded by rapids and well-preserved Amazonian forest. Some of its inhabitants, like Tatá, live from small-scale fishing, while others sell ornamental fish: small, brightly colored fish are found in shallow, transparent stretches of the river. Another source of income is small-scale mining.

If the dam goes ahead, the hamlet’s 700 inhabitants will be removed from the riverbank and settled beside the Trans-Amazonian Highway, in a place located near the new lake that will be formed by the dam. Just like them, another 2,500 members of fishing communities in the Tapajós region will have their houses and communities flooded, according to a study of the combined impact of the seven dams known as the Integrated Environmental Evaluation. However, the study didn’t calculate how many thousands more fishermen could lose their livelihoods because of changes to the river caused by the dams.

The life of the inhabitants of Pimental is integrated with the Tapajós: washing dishes in the river helps to attract fish. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá


Fish will disappear

The first impact will be the “disappearance” of the fish — a euphemism used locally to describe the death of animals. It has already happened as the result of two big dams along the Madeira River in Rondônia that were built in the same way planned for the ones along the Tapajós: run-of-river plants. To reduce the environmental impact, this kind of hydroelectric plant has a smaller reservoir than does, for example, the giant Itaipu dam far to the south on the Paraná River. But even so, it dams the water. The difference is that, instead of concentrating the water in one big lake just above the dam, the run-of-river plants make the water rise slowly, distributing the damming along a long stretch of the river. As the flow of water is gradually stopped, the current loses strength, the banks of the river are flooded, and a stretch of the river turns into a lake. To create the required reservoir for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, 3,002 square kilometers (1,159 square miles) of land, twice the area of the city of São Paulo, will have to be flooded.

Philip Fearnside, a biologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research, followed closely what happened along the Madeira River. He discovered that when the flow of the current was interrupted sections of the river became depleted of oxygen, creating an inhospitable habitat for fish. In December 2008, the Rondônia office of the federal government’s environmental agency, IBAMA, estimated that 11 tons of fish had died during the construction of the Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira. The report stated that some fish could still be seen “on the surface of the water, dying for lack of oxygen.”

The second big impact will be the collapse of the fishes’ reproductive cycle. As they try to make their way upriver to spawn, fish are stopped by big walls of concrete. In the case of São Luiz do Tapajós, the wall will be seven kilometers (4.35 miles) long. “Stairways” — small passageways — will be built to let the fish get by. But few species are able to find these passageways on the Rondônia dams, according to Fearnside. “One of the problems is that the fish’s instinct leads it to seek out the main current,” he explained. Below the dam, the strongest current comes from the water coming out of the turbines.

After seeing the drastic decline in life in the Madeira River, Fearnside doesn’t expect things to be different in the Tapajós. “There are many obstacles. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that that an attempt to improve the passageways will succeed in allowing catfish to migrate,” he said, referring to the species that is the main source of local income, the same fish shown in the pictures hanging in Tatá’s living room.

The third big impact of the dams will be the end of the river’s natural flooding cycle, since the flow of water will be controlled. At present, there is a rainy season, when the river rises greatly, and a dry season, when it falls, uncovering the beautiful white-sand beaches typical of the Tapajós, including the popular tourist destination of Alter do Chão. This annual phenomenon is necessary for the survival of several plant and animal species, including giant otters and certain turtles and caymans. The wall will also be a barrier to the reproduction of the pink river dolphin and the manatee, species both threatened with extinction.

The voice of the ribeirinhos

Those born on the bank of the river know how important the rainy and dry seasons are for all life, including human beings. For this reason Luiz Matos de Lima, owner of a store in Pimental, took on the representative of Eletrobras at a meeting in Triarão, the capital of the municipal district to which Pimental belongs. Eletrobras is the federally owned electricity company that led the dam’s impact studies and also leads the consortium of companies made up of Camargo Corrêa, EDF, Copel, Cemig, GDF Suez, Endesa, and Neoenergia that is most likely to build the dam. The ribeirinhos hadn’t been invited to the meeting but de Lima and other Pimental residents went anyway. They were told that the plant will be obliged to compensate the ribeirinhos or pay for the construction of new houses for them.

But de Lima knows that neither money nor a house will be enough to make up for the destruction of his livelihood. He asked to speak and told the company that this was not enough, as the new crops they would plant would take time to produce. “They replied that the government is going to give us food parcels while we’re not producing. Can you imagine it? Such a sad thing for people who are used to working. And I, who sell goods, what am I going to live from?” said de Lima.

“The environmental impact studies failed — and failed in a big way — to measure the impact of the project on the life of these people,” said Maurício Torres, a social scientist at Western Pará Federal University who studies the ribeirinhos’ way of life. Although their habits vary, they are intimately connected to the interaction between the river and the forest. Most of them rarely go to a town or see a doctor.

That’s the case with Teresa Lobo Pereira, who has a house and a plot of land in Pimental and another in Montanha-Mangabal. “I am a veteran,” she said, patting herself on her chest. “As we say here, I come from an old trunk.” For Pereira, the forest is her pharmacy, her supermarket, and her life memories. She was born in Pimental, her mother coming from the region and her father a migrant from the northeastern state of Ceará.

Many ribeirinhos are descendants of northeasterners who migrated to Amazonia to tap rubber at the end of the 19th century. The migration gained renewed momentum during the Second World War, when the government recruited “rubber soldiers.” With the abrupt end to rubber production after the war, these people were abandoned in the region. In order to survive, they adapted to the ecosystem. Torres has shown that some families have been living there for eight generations.

“This is a story of co-evolution between man and forest. They shaped their lives so as not to exhaust the natural resources and they developed their own technology for managing the river and the forest,” explained Torres. “When you change the river into a lake, you profoundly change this habitat and you threaten to invalidate this knowledge. You invalidate knowledge upon which the group’s survival depends. The consequences are tragic.”

Threatened survival
With little or no help from the state, this is not the first time that the Tapajós ribeirinhos have faced a threat to their land and their way of life from projects coming from Brasília. It happened in 1974 when part of the local population was evicted from their land to make way for Amazonia National Park. Some went to live upriver, others went to Pimental, and a few moved to the town of Itaituba. Some found it impossible to adapt.

Torres told the story of a man who never got used to the change. “His life was terrible. He couldn’t do anything once he left his home by the river. He didn’t even know how to fish in a new place. He used to row for two days to get back to his old fishing haunt. But he couldn’t keep it up. He soon died. He stopped existing.” Torres included this and other tales an article entitled The Scribe and the Narrator. Forty years later, part of the area from which the ribeirinhos were expelled to make way for the park will now be flooded for the dams.

The tale of the ribeirinho who stopped existing after he was forced to leave his home captures the mood that prevails in parts of Pimental. The residents’ welcoming smiles quickly disappeared when we started asking about the dam. The voice of teacher Suzete de Oliveria Nogueira broke when she recalled a question asked by a third-grade student: “Miss, couldn’t each family build a floating house? Then we could stay.”

Just like her, other inhabitants become emotional when they think of what will happen to the place where they were born and grew up. “This is going to become a cemetery, a place of ghosts,” said Regina Nonato dos Santos, standing in her neighbor’s orchard amidst trees laden with fruit. “All this is a nightmare. If I could, I’d wake up and make sure I never dreamed again.”

The place is tranquil and full of natural beauty. It is exactly here that the federal government intends to build the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric plant. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

In addition to being unhappy at the idea of losing their close links with nature, the ribeirinhos are afraid the project will remove them from the quiet life they lead in their hamlet. They are afraid of the large number of outsiders who will arrive. According to company studies, the dam will employ about 13,000 with at least as many people also arriving to provide services. Today everyone leaves their doors open at night. There are no robberies. The only violent scene that our reporting team witnessed was a mother slapping her son with her flip-flop as he started to climb a tree against her wishes. The boy was helped by a parrot who let out a series of cries so piercing, as if it were being hit itself, that the mother put down her shoe in disgust.

The place where the new hamlet will be built to house the inhabitants of Pimental hasn’t been determined yet but it is possible that it will be near the dam construction site. If this happens, the new Pimental may suffer the same fate as Jaci Paraná, a fishing village 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) from the Jirau hydroelectric power station in Rondônia, where the population quadrupled when construction began. The problem of violence has become so serious there that the tradesmen banded together to pay a private security firm to protect them. In 2012 a group killed the local commander of the Military Police and held up seven policemen to rob the bank in the village.

Tatá and his family are making decisions in the dark: they have never heard of Jaci Paraná and they have no idea how important it is to make sure the new Pimental is located in the right place. He and the rest of the community have many doubts about what will happen in the region and how to prepare for the coming changes. But no one is giving them information and there is no one to help them in their dealings with the company.

Bernardino, 85, a resident of Pimental

The oldest inhabitant of Pimental is Maria Bibiana da Silva, known as Gabriela. She is 105 years old. In 2012, when a Pública reporting team visited the fishing hamlet for the first time, she was one of the people who expressed concern about the arrival of the dam. “I don’t want this dam to go ahead, but one swallow doesn’t mean it is summer,” she said.

Two years later we tried to talk to her again but her family prevented it. It’s bad for her health, they said — someone only has to mention the dam and her blood pressure shoots up. But she is as quick-witted as ever and she guessed why we came to talk to her son, 85-year-old Bernardino Silva Azevedo. From inside her room, she asked why we had come. Her granddaughter tried to change the subject but it was too late: “It’s that temptation,” the old woman called, already worked up. She only calmed down when a grandson said we had come to report about “good things” in the community.

Azevedo tells us his family’s history, which amounts to a lesson about life in Amazonia. His mother left Ceará in northeastern Brazil with her father in 1917 to go to Acre in the extreme west of the Amazon, but they got stuck without transport halfway there. Azevedo never went to school because he began working with his mother when he was 12 years old. He lived through the various cycles of economic exploitation in Amazonia: the rubber boom during the Second World War, the sale of animal skins after the rubber boom collapsed, and gold panning. He only stopped because his health deteriorated. “Heavy work is what I do. I’ve done it all. Except killing people,” he added with a laugh, referring to the other lucrative activity in the region — working as a hired gun. Now he is still alive to see another phase of economic exploitation — the arrival of the dams. In the future, he said he sees himself living in a town with his mother. Then he said their only source of income will be “government hand-outs.”

Bernandino Silva Azevedo, 85 years old, lived through all the economic cycles of the Amazon over the last century. He will be forced to leave the hamlet where he lives to move to a town. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The government refuses to listen to the ribeirinhos
In September 2012 the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) went to court to force the federal environment agency, IBAMA, to suspend the licensing of the dam until the consortium of companies led by Eletrobras finished the Integrated Environmental Evaluation and consulted the affected communities through a process known officially as a “consultation.” The consultation must take information to the ribeirinhos and indigenous groups and listen to their demands and concerns. In brief, IBAMA must take their views into account when it decides whether to grant the license, insisting on changes to the project to reduce any negative impacts or even suspending the project outright. This consultation is obligatory under Brazilian law because Brazil has signed the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.

The MPF initially won, but the federal government appealed and the case ended up in the Superior Tribunal of Justice (STJ), the highest court in the land. There, the government used a tactic known as the Security Suspension mechanism, which it had used to continue construction of another dam. This mechanism bypassed the normal legal routes and appealed directly to the STJ with the argument that stopping work on licensing the plant would lead to “serious harm to public order, health, security and the economy.”

Felix Fischer, who heads the STJ, gave the go-ahead for the licensing process for the dam but insisted that the local population should be consulted. “The Federal Government must promote the participation of all the communities, whether they are indigenous or tribal, that will be affected by the implementation of the project and the environmental license cannot be granted without their say,” he wrote. Beside the ribeirinho communities, there are indigenous lands belonging to the Munduruku that will be affected or even flooded (read more here and here).

Despite the STJ ruling, the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic, the body responsible for conducting the consultation, is not consulting the ribeirinhos. At a meeting recorded by the Munduruku in September 2014 and broadcast on the blog Língua Ferina, representatives of the General Secretariat told a community leader from Montanha-Mangabal, one of the affected ribeirinho hamlets, that only the Indians were to be consulted. “This procedure that we are adopting in the region applies to Indians. What we are talking about doing is setting up a process for giving information to Montanha-Mangabal, but it will not be a consultation,” said Nilton Tubino, the coordinator of the General Secretariat’s division of Rural Movements at the time. “The government believes that during this phase those who are heard according to [Convention] 169 are Indians and quilombos [communities founded by runaway slaves]. This is our reference. There is no agreement yet within the government on how and when traditional communities [including ribeirinhos] will be consulted,” Tubino said.

“There is absolutely no technical or legal justification for telling the ribeirinhos that they don’t have the right to be consulted at this stage,” Fernando Prioste, coordinator of the human rights NGO Terra de Direitos, told Pública. “Only political convenience lies behind this understanding by the government of the procedure.”

The fisherman’s Tatá’s grandson learns the wisdom he needs to earn a living early. But his grandfather’s knowledge will have little value after the arrival of the dam. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

The MPF also challenged the government’s understanding of Convention 169. “Ribeirinhos and those who collect forest products have as many rights under Convention 169 as the Indians and they should be consulted in the appropriate way. To claim the contrary is to indulge once again in hegemonic discourse in which some ways of living within the forest and relating to it are considered inferior to others,” Luís de Camões Lima Boaventura, a federal prosecutor at the MPF, told Pública.

When asked by the Pública reporting team to explain why the inhabitants of Pimental and other ribeirinhos were not being consulted, the General Secretariat sent the following reply: “The Federal Government is discussing with the indigenous and riverbank communities in the region of the Tapajós River valley a proposal for the methodology to be used. On 30 January [2015] the General Secretariat met representatives of the Munduruku people and the Montanha-Mangabal community, when they handed over to the government a proposal for the consultation. The documents are being analyzed by the Federal Government.”

Despite the lack of support from the government, the Montanha-Mangabal community met and prepared a protocol for the consultation and they took advantage of the meeting between the General Secretariat and the Munduruku to hand over the document. However, the other communities that will be affected have been excluded from this process. This is the case of Pimental, which has the largest number of families that will be evicted by the project and has not been included in any consultation process.

Lack of information creates conflicts
The only communication between the ribeirinho families and the dam-building consortium led by Eletrobras is made through a São Paulo-based company called Tapajós Dialogue, hired by the consortium. In theory, Tapajós Dialogue is responsible for telling the families the impacts they will suffer, preparing them for the change and negotiating with the consortium. But it doesn’t have the autonomy it needs to do this and so it doesn’t fulfill this function.

“I don’t know why they were given the name ‘dialogue’ because when you ask a question they don’t reply,” said Eudeir Azevedo, a Pimental resident. “Where are we going to move to? How much compensation will we be paid? They never give us any answers, so we end up asking them who is the person we should really be talking to? But they can’t even answer that.”

In Pimental Tapajós Dialogue ended up carrying out a strange role. It mediated between different groups of inhabitants who, without proper information, had disagreed about the attitude they should adopt towards the project. Tapajós Dialogue set up a council at which both sides could meet, with the company itself in the chair. And now Tapajós Dialogue representatives speak as if the town’s main problem is that it is divided, as if the inhabitants themselves will be responsible if the dam-building consortium doesn’t fulfill its promises.

Givanildo Rodrigues de Paula, a field coordinator for Tapajós Dialogue, gave the example of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu river. The plant is almost ready to come online, but it is far from fulfilling all the social commitments, such as the rehousing of affected families, that are supposed to be the condition for the project getting its license. De Paula said that Pimental families often complain about what they see when they visit Belo Monte, in particular that the houses are not being built as promised, that instead of brick they are pre-fabricated out of concrete, which gets very hot. “We tell them that Tapajós Dialogue can’t guarantee that this won’t happen here but that it’s dreadful and civil society has to get itself organized so that this doesn’t happen here,” said de Paula.

The conflict between the inhabitants of Pimental and Eletrobras had gotten worse in 2010 when, without asking for permission, a surveying company contracted by the company sent a man to dig a hole in the middle of the hamlet for the first topographic markings for the project’s geological studies.

“When an inhabitant politely asked him what he was doing, the employee replied that he didn’t have to explain to anybody because he’d been sent there by the president,” recalled Azevedo. As federal government representatives had never visited the town, people automatically thought that he was referring to the president of the hamlet’s neighborhood association José Odair Pereira Matos, who is called C.A.K, and they went to ask him what was going on. When they understood that the employee had been talking about the president of Brazil, da Silva at the time, they got angry and destroyed the post.

Since then, the neighborhood association forbade people like him from coming into Pimental. “Just as they say they have the right to say that the dam must be built, so we have the right to defend what is ours,” C.A.K. told Pública “We are not asking for welfare or somewhere to live. We are defending what is ours.”

C.A.K. is the former leader of Pimental’s neighborhood association. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Threats and bribes
After he began adopting a more combative stance, C.A.K said he was threatened and attempts were made to bribe him. “I received calls from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, that lasted half an hour, 40 minutes on the phone,” he said. They’ve talked about a house, a car, money in a bank account. The intent was for us to take what they were offering and to mind our own business. We would not have to speak up, to argue in favor, only to keep our mouth shut.” C.A.K. is adamant that he cut the conversations off short, never letting the people mention concrete figures and never accepting invitations to attend meetings in other states.

After turning down the offers, C.A.K. said he started to get threatened by phone. A member of his group got hit during a meeting by another inhabitant who was opposed to the group’s combative stance. That was when C.A.K. decided to leave the neighborhood association. “It’s not easy to be a leader in this region. The family suffers,” he said. Although he has left his leadership position, he is still a member of the group that is more critical of the dam. The new neighborhood association president lets outsiders in. We couldn’t interview him because he was away, working in a gold mine.

Inside the town, some people are fearful of resisting. Without any experience in negotiating, they are afraid that they will be left in an even weaker position and say that people should accept whatever compensation they are offered. “The company takes advantage of the lack of information, with people believing that they will only get what they are due if they accept the dams,” said Arthur Massuda, a member of the NGO Artigo 19, which works to provide people with information and to protect freedom of expression, and is active in the region.

After talking to more than 30 families in order to understand the position of the “pro-dam” group, our reporting team found that it wasn’t so easy to define people, with some, like Tatá, saying that he was “against-but-in-favor.” When we asked him to explain, he laughed nervously: “I am in the yes group, but if you question me, you’ll find out that I’m really against.” Like many others, Tatá is frightened of what will happen if he opposes a project backed by the federal government.

What really divides the community is fear. Tatá gave the example of the Munduruku, the most organized of the groups in the Amazon opposed to the dam, which has suffered retaliations for the position it has taken. After the Munduruku evicted researchers sent in by the company in March 2013, the National Security Force was sent in to some villages by boat and by helicopter. The Tapajós Expedition, as the mission was called by the government, had the objective of “guaranteeing [the researchers] logistic support and security” and it stayed for a month. “It was as if we were prisoners in our own village,” remembered Juarez Saw Munduruku, the head of the village of Sawré Muybu, which takes a few hours by road to reach from Pimental. His village has become a symbol of resistance to the dams because part of its land will be flooded if the project goes ahead (read The Battle for the Munduruku Frontier).

But Tatá doesn’t want to be involved in their struggle. “I’m not going to get involved. I’m too old to be beaten, to be killed. And it won’t do any good. You can’t fight the federal government. If it wants something, it gets it.”

Same companies bidding for contracts are carrying out viability studies

The lack of trust between the companies carrying out the impact studies and the population goes back to a basic flaw in the licensing process. The companies wanting to win contracts for the construction work are the ones responsible for the social and environmental impact studies.

“There is, at the very least, a strong chance that there will be a conflict of interest,” said Brent Milikan, Amazon program director with the NGO International Rivers, which is monitoring how the Brazilian government is licensing the dams. “We are talking about impacts to a public national heritage, and the legislation establishes that there have to be measures to mitigate the damage and to pay compensation. But, for the companies, this all means costs.”

Milikan pointed to the “contradictory” role of Eletrobras in this. This company, which is controlled by the federal government, heads the consortium of companies that is interested in building the dam, which also includes Camargo Corrêa, EDF, Copel, Cemig, GDF Suez, Endesa, and Neoenergia. Milikan said that instead of guaranteeing that public interests are protected in this process, Eletrobras heads the consortium “as if it were a private company geared to maximizing profits.” Worse still, Milikan said it acts within the government, putting pressure on and “intimidating” the licensing body, IBAMA, to issue the license.

Moreover, the consortium members have deep ties to one another. For the São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá dam projects, it contracted the services of CNEC WorleyParsons, a company born when the Australian firm WorleyParsons purchased the technical consultancy CNEC from the Brazilian engineering company Camargo Corrêa, a consortium member. CNEC WorleyParsons is responsible for the social compensations paid to the communities because of the Belo Monte dam. The company also conducted the environmental impact studies for the Tapajós River dams.

The MPF pointed out a serious omission in these studies when it prosecuted IBAMA and almost brought the entire licensing process to a standstill: the impact studies had been carried out in a piecemeal fashion, without examining the impact of all seven dams together. In addition to this, the licensing process was almost complete, without the local population having been consulted. The Ministry of Mines and Energy had even announced the date of bidding for the contracts (which days later it had to cancel).

After the federal courts demanded it, the Integrated Environmental Evaluation of the seven dams was prepared in less than three months. Environmental advocates criticized it for being done hastily and being based on secondary sources. “The simple fact that that the study was carried out by companies with vested interests means that the information was warped and limited,” Arthur Massuda from the NGO Artigo 19 told Pública.

The population of Pimental has not been consulted, even though the project will be built on the ground where the town has stood for at least 120 years.

– This report was originally published in Mongabay and is republished by an agreement to share content.

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