How Brazil's Dam Boom Hurts Women

Soniamara Maranho

The building of hydroelectric dams in Brazil has been marked by a lack of respect for the environment and the affected communities, and especially of women. In Brazil, more than 2,000 dams have been built, resulting in the eviction of more than one million people from their lands. The federal government has proposed the construction of 1,400 more dams over the next 20 years. These major works come with false promises of jobs and development, respect for nature, "cheap" energy for the people, and guarantees of families' right to compensation.

Sheila Juruna, who would be affected by Belo Monte Dam, led a protest in Brasilia last month.
Sheila Juruna, who would be affected by Belo Monte Dam, led a protest in Brasilia last month.
Evaristo SA/AF Getty Images

We cannot place all the responsibility for unequal gender relationships on hydroelectric projects, but we do know that they tend to worsen them. The announcement that dams will be built triggers different reactions in men and women. In most cases, women show strong resistance to leaving their territory and find it hard to assimilate to such a major change of place. Some of the men are more easily convinced and see a possibility of financial compensation for relocating. One reason for this is that traditionally, men relate to money-generating activities more than women.

Most of the people affected by the dams in Brazil live in rural areas and have a close relationship with the land. Local natural resources supply them with food, firewood, medicines, and housebuilding materials, among other things. In this respect, women are the first victims of environmental degradation resulting from dams. The fact is that 70% of the families affected by dams in Brazil have not received proper compensation. Women often lose their market gardens and their autonomy. This change not only implies the loss of a woman's position of power and decision-making, but also an increase in her economic dependency.

The process of community relocation always leaves some families who remain behind, as they were not directly affected by the flooding of the reservoir. This has resulted in the loss of family ties, and with the emptying of community gathering places such as churches. As the communities are emptying, public transport becomes scarcer, rural schools and local health centers are closed down. Imagine the impact on the lives of women who have to look after the family, the children, older people, the handicapped, etc. With the shortage and often the suspension of public transport, women's mobility and their potential access to jobs, study and leisure activities become harder.

These populations were expropriated not only in the legal sense of the word. These people who lived off the rivers and their banks lost their material working conditions and were uprooted, transplanted geographically and culturally, losing places that are not only of great sentimental value but more importantly, ways of life that can never be rebuilt nor measured in terms of money.

Women as Merchandise

The arrival of huge numbers of male workers to build the dams has resulted in increases in sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS. Cases of teen-age pregnancy increase, and these young mothers are immediately abandoned because once the dam is built, the workers move on.

Shockingly, one of the strategies used by the companies to lure young men to jobs at remote dam sites is to install prostitution businesses, popularly known as "zones," near the workers' housing.

An article by Leandro Prazeres for Jornal A Crítica reveals how the prostitution zone operated at the two largest hydroelectric dams being built in Brazil, Jirau and Santo Antonio Dams, where 10,000 men were brought in. He writes: "Thousands of women from throughout Brazil migrated to the region looking for a living. In two years Jaci-Paraná in Rondonia became a huge open-air sex market, operating 24 hours a day, where women and adolescents are the main raw material."

The article states that a police investigation found that construction companies finance the brothels and deduct prostitution fees from workers' salaries. The article continues: "Dozens of wooden brothels quickly stood up on the side of the main road on Brazil's western Amazon, fighting for space with drug stores, and churches. ‘This town became a hell. Women sell their bodies in plain daylight. I have a daughter and try to protect her as much as I can,' said Maria Martins."

These are just some of the losses suffered by women as a result of dam building in Brazil (and elsewhere in the global South). The good news is that the movement of dam-affected women is growing in Brazil. Our goal is to place issues that directly affect women and gender issues on the table and address them. Our goal is to denounce this violation of human rights and ensure these issues are not invisible anymore.

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